Governmental Entrepreneurial Leadership Accelerator Year-End Report
36 Pages Posted: 11 Nov 2016
Date Written: November 7, 2016
All governments today - at the federal, state, and local level - feel the pressure to accomplish more with fewer resources because citizens expect it and are watching to ensure that their taxpayer funds are spent wisely. One answer to the two-prong challenge of spurring more innovation and doing more-for-less is to encourage entrepreneurial leadership and problem solving in government. To that end, this report describes a first-of-its-kind accelerator that teaches governmental employees and law students entrepreneurial problem-solving skillsets and how to apply them to real-world government problems. The program, called the Governmental Entrepreneurial Leadership Accelerator (GELA), explores a new model of governmental problem solving and leadership development.
GELA, a partnership between the City and County of Denver and the Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado Boulder, aims to accelerate governmental entrepreneurial leadership. We believe it is the first program of its kind. There are other accelerators for technology entrepreneurship (Techstars), for social entrepreneurship (Unreasonable Institute), and for startup companies with at least one woman on the leadership team (MergeLane). There are also programs that target innovation in how government uses technology (Code for America). To our knowledge, GELA is the only program that combines the startup accelerator approach of a Techstars or MergeLane, which develops entrepreneurial leadership and problem-solving skills, and the problems faced by governments.
Governmental decision making and problem solving often rely on institutional inertia and a top-down managerial approach, making the entire organization less responsive to constituent demands and less innovative. By contrast, startup businesses and entrepreneurs generally embrace innovative solutions that leverage unique insights into action, regardless of where those insights come from. In short, governments tend to operate as a hierarchy; entrepreneurs and startups tend to operate as a network.
The network/hierarchy distinction is a very important one. For starters, it captures the notion that the best idea does not always come from the top, and anyone in the network can challenge status quo thinking as long as they back it up with data, strong reasoning, and a plan for implementation. It also captures what is now called “Joy’s Law,” named after Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy, and recognizes that “no matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.” In practice, this means that the best networks do not end within an organization but extend outside of it, allowing others to help solve important problems. One element of training entrepreneurial leaders in government is to develop this network mindset.
A second key aspect of entrepreneurial problem solving involves a willingness to experiment. For governmental entities, there is a real barrier to this mindset because of the risk of negative publicity if and when an experiment fails. This status quo bias mirrors the old adage “no one ever got fired for buying IBM.” The challenge for governmental leaders is to empower people at all levels to challenge assumptions, innovate, or advocate for change as well as to design experiments to evaluate appropriate changes.
In the entrepreneurial world, problem-solving techniques such as “lean startup” and design-centered thinking provide a framework for developing and testing experimental ideas. For governments, the question of how to think more entrepreneurially when solving problems and build more innovative solutions to pressing policy issues is only starting to be asked by elected officials and agency leaders. For many, the term “entrepreneurial thinking” or “entrepreneurial problem solving” connotes startup companies or at least private sector efforts. In practice, however, the substantive methodology, as well as the mindset, can readily be used in government. The challenge is how to apply an entrepreneurial mindset and skillset to the public sector.
An irony related to governmental resistance to entrepreneurial leadership in is that it can be readily seen in political campaigns, which are themselves a start-up. In political campaigns, entrepreneurial methods and mindsets - notably, a bias towards experimenting with data-driven strategies - are often the norm. Consider, for example, how the 2008 Obama campaign used A/B testing (quick testing of small changes in a website) to increase fundraising numbers in emails. Yet it was the Obama Administration that used the traditional procurement playbook - to terrible ends - when rolling out Healthcare.gov. The challenge, in short, is for governments to embrace the techniques now used to innovate in startup companies, established companies, social enterprises, and political campaigns. This report explains how GELA developed a model to facilitate this very transition.
This report proceeds in five parts. After this Introduction, Part II describes the nuts and bolts of GELA, how it was implemented, and how the program fared. Part III evaluates how GELA can be improved in its next iteration. Part IV explains how other governments can replicate GELA with a civic innovation accelerator model. Part V offers a short conclusion.
Keywords: Silicon Flatiron, Silicon Flatirons
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