How do we build capacity for innovation in state and local government?
Public-sector agencies can be key sites of creativity and problem solving, but they often lack access to the resources and infrastructure necessary to design, implement, and evaluate new ideas. Sustained partnerships between government, private foundations, and academic institutions can help catalyze and support innovation across all levels of government.
Building infrastructure for a more agile, adaptable government is key to ensuring that states can respond to complex challenges. Agile government incorporates key elements such as user-centered design, rapid iteration, and continuous feedback loops. More than ever, the public sector needs the ability to adapt quickly and test out-of-the-box solutions in responsible and rigorous ways.
In 2021, we partnered with California 100 on a state-wide Call for Proposals, to source innovative ideas that have the potential to significantly improve the lives of California residents. Any state or local government agency, department or organization was eligible to apply. Chosen through a competitive selection process, proposed projects were evaluated on multiple criteria including boldness, equity, cost-effectiveness, replicability, scalability, and feasibility. The selected projects were diverse in scope and focus, employing a combination of new technologies, data transparency, system-wide equity, and the integration of community experience into public policy.
Each selected project was provided with funding for both implementation and evaluation, and projects were then co-designed and carried out as a partnership between a local or state agency, and a California-based research team. Once completed, this set of demonstration projects will produce rigorous evidence about a range of new programs and policies that can be scaled up and replicated if they prove successful.
Building an innovation infrastructure
In addition to these specific demonstration projects, our broader goal is to pilot a durable infrastructure that can support data-driven and agile government well into the future. Therefore, as we carry out this specific set of projects, we are also developing a more general model for how to build a state-wide “innovation architecture” with four core pillars: streamlining collaboration, strengthening data systems, training a new generation of researchers, and recruiting and retaining innovators in government.
We aim to demonstrate the value of collaboration to drive data-driven decision making in government. Researcher-practitioner partnerships allow us to bring together academic and applied expertise, increasing capacity to carry out high-quality implementation and evaluation of innovative ideas. We are working to streamline the way these collaborations are established and maintained, such as by developing a set of ethical guidelines to structure working relationships and creating a centralized system for matching government agencies with potential research partners.
Strengthening data systems
Government data systems are frequently fragmented across state and local agencies, making it difficult to evaluate policy outcomes and optimize programs. In many domains, crucial data on process and outcomes are not even being collected. Where data exist, it is generally not made available for analysis or shared for the purpose of transparency. As we carry out our work, we are developing protocols for collecting and merging data across public agencies, policy areas, and levels of government, and developing new data-sharing models that can broaden data use to improve government performance.
Training a new generation of researchers
Public agencies are increasingly looking for data-driven research to support their programmatic needs, but often struggle to find partners in academia who “speak government” and share their goals. At the same time, a growing cadre of scholars want their research to have “real-world” impacts, but most do not have the necessary training to effectively support government operations in real time. Through our work, we are developing curricula and programs that will support the next generation of scholars who are trained to sit at the crossroads of academia and practice, through research apprenticeships, intensive mentoring, and by embedding graduate students directly into government teams to carry out rigorous collaborative research.
Supporting innovators in government
A substantial proportion of the public-sector workforce is set to retire in the next few years, and almost half of front-line workers quit within their first few years of service due to burnout, PTSD, and compassion fatigue. These workforce challenges reflect a major operational crisis for the public sector, but also a unique opportunity for us to rethink how to bring new talent into the government workforce, as well as how to support existing public servants so they are retained, engaged, and successful. We are exploring new ways of recruiting diverse and innovative thinkers into government, and providing new opportunities for lifelong learning and on-going support to those who build careers in the public service.