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Innovation in government: Roles in the innovation ecosystem

Insights to action

When government leaders try to create solutions to societal problems, they often face obstacles that their private sector peers may not. For instance, constituents often balk when public agencies spend scarce resources on untried solutions; and when two government agencies or nonprofits conduct similar research, it may not be viewed as healthy competition as much as redundant and wasteful.

An ecosystem-based view of innovation in government

With current fiscal constraints, aging technology, and the demand for performance, innovation in government may be more important now than ever before. As the new administration pursues a smaller, more efficient government, agency leaders should take innovative approaches to achieve their mission with fewer resources.

One creative approach is an ecosystem-based view of innovation in government. Successful government innovation rarely occurs in a vacuum. Rather, the most effective innovations involve an ecosystem of innovative participants working together to fill distinct but equally important roles.

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Five key roles an organization might play in the public sector innovation ecosystem

The Problem Solver develops innovative solutions to public sector challenges. For example, NASA invented the water filters now used by many municipal water plants. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), to target ballistic warheads, originally developed the global positioning system (GPS).

The Enabler provides resources that help others innovate. For example, in December 2016, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), in partnership with the General Services Administration (GSA), launched a Challenges and Prizes Toolkit for federal agencies and employees wanting to spur innovation through prize challenges. The Toolkit contains a step-by-step guide for executing each stage of the prize design process, plus case studies, lists of mentors, templates, and strategies for common hurdles.

The Motivator provides incentives that encourage problem solvers to innovate. Prizes and competitions are perhaps the most visible examples of Motivator tactics. Sacramento’s 2016 RAILS (Rapid Acceleration, Innovation, and Leadership in Sacramento) program, for instance, awarded up to $1 million in grants to local organizations and companies that produced the most innovative and highest-impact new products and services.

The Convener assembles members in the innovation ecosystem to share knowledge and resources and/or to form partnerships. For example, in June 2016, the White House Cancer Moonshot Summit brought together more than 350 researchers, scientists, advocates, and data and technology experts to facilitate and encourage additional investment and improved policymaking for the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer. The highly publicized event resulted in dozens of new research, data-sharing, and investment commitments.

The Integrator serves at the center of its innovation ecosystem, aligning members in the other four roles to help enable the ecosystem to be more effective. Integrators identify different members who can partner with each other and select tools to create value among the innovation ecosystem’s various members. The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) served as an integrator when it established its IDEA (Innovation, Design, Entrepreneurship, Action) Lab in 2013 to promote innovation across their 90,000-person enterprise. The lab attracts actors from both inside and outside the organization to act as enablers, conveners, motivators, and other problem solvers. In one case, a logistics expert from a package delivery company developed an electronic tracking system for the nation’s organ procurement and transplantation process.

For an organization that wants to enable government innovation, understanding which of these five roles to assume in an initiative it launches can be extremely important. Identifying and assuming a specific role may help the organization deploy resources more effectively, partner productively with other organizations, and reduce redundancies.

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