Idea to retire: IT-led service innovation

With the rising importance of technology in our daily lives and in the transformation of governmental operations and service delivery, the idea of “IT-led service innovation” must be abandoned. 

The proposition here seems counter-intuitive. Today, public managers at all levels of the government often turn to technology as a solution to cut costs, improve operational efficiency, and meet the quality and performance expectations of the public. For example, web-based services are gradually replacing many face-to-face interactions between public employees and citizens, as well as media engagement and transactions through the mail. Text messaging, e-newsletters, and social media tools have replaced mail newsletters and bulletin notices as a widely used mode of public communication and information delivery. Within governmental offices, documentary archiving and other types of paperwork are also done electronically to save space and cost. More governmental agencies automate data capture, analysis, and dissemination from different operations so that policymakers, managers, and the general public can have more accurate, user-friendly, and immediate access to information and data.

Given the prominent role of technology in these transformations of public service management and delivery, it is natural to think that the Information Technology (IT) Department or the Chief Information Officer (CIO) should lead a public organization’s groundbreaking initiatives. However, this idea is actually counterproductive and can stifle the effectiveness of innovative change in public organizations. Technologies are only delivery tools, not the ultimate goal. Innovation has to serve the mission and program goals of an organization and innovative ideas have to be grounded in the needs and interests of the target clients and service providers. Any adoption of a new technology should be considered within the core values and strategies of an organization.

The danger of letting the IT Department lead a public organization’s innovation is that technological concerns can be put ahead of strategic organizational needs and purposes, and the interactive, community-driven knowledge-exploration process may be under-emphasized. Even if the latest technologies are cheaper, more efficient, and more versatile, they should only be adopted if they will serve the specific needs of a program and existing employees are ready and equipped to adopt the tools. Also, the adoption and execution of the technologies will have to be planned well to fit with other organizational processes and the goals and results of using the tools should be consistent with the fundamental values and ethical principles of the organization.

Public managers should also consider if the tools are deemed useful and appropriate by the target clients in the existing social, cultural, and political environment. These complex considerations are political, managerial, and value-driven, which often require significant contextual understanding of the policy environment, organizational processes and constraints, and user perspectives. This is why the innovation programs of a public organization should be led by the top management team with significant input from the budget office, the managerial staff and frontline workers of various service departments, and potential beneficiaries of the technologies.

For example, the City & County of Denver about a decade ago established the Information Technology Investment Council (ITIC) and created a multi-departmental decision-making body to oversee IT projects and investment. In 2012, Mayor Michael B. Hancock rebranded this body as the Innovation Fund. The Innovation Fund subsequently funded a non-IT initiative called Denver Peak Academy (which author David Edinger helped launch) to embed and support continuous improvement via employee-led innovation. The approach relies heavily on lean methodology, adapted from Toyota Production Systems to fit the public service sector. Ultimately, it diverged far enough from lean methodology to include elements of Six Sigma and curriculum from the UK’s Behavioral Insights Team, becoming the language of innovation that every employee could access.

The idea was to sever the perception, in the minds of employees, that innovation is technology, and that only the technologists should be concerned with innovation. With the subject matter experts leading innovation at all levels, technology becomes a tool to enable, augment, and accelerate innovation, but not innovation itself. Employees are encouraged to lead continuous improvement or even breakthrough innovation, and not merely be concerned with their daily work. In a sector dominated by a compliance mentality, this bottom-up approach succeeded in introducing performance thinking into the workforce.

Other cities have developed alternative governance structures, but with similar purposes, in order to manage technology adoption and IT-induced changes. For example, the Offices of New Urban Mechanics in Boston and Philadelphia are managed under the Mayors’ Offices to spur civic innovation by multi-department and multi-sector efforts.1 Even though technology-enabled solutions such as smartphone applications are key outcomes of these offices, these initiatives are not led by the IT Department. Rather, they are led by the top management team with the help of IT staff so that there is a clear focus on governance concerns and service outcomes.

Given the current political and fiscal environment, in which public trust in governmental institutions remains historically low,2 the media and many politicians tend to have a negative bias in their portrayal of the government.3 Also, there is less willingness to pay for public services, especially through property tax,4 and public organizations are challenged to find new solutions to do more with less and to meet various public expectations.

As a result, technology will inevitably become increasingly important. However, this does not mean that the IT Department should lead the change process. Client needs, user experiences, adaptation capacity concerns, organization mission and program goals, and the fundamental values of the organization should still be the primary foci and key drivers of innovation, while the IT Department should continue to play a key supporting role in the planning and execution processes. Based on the experiences of different cities and the past research findings about innovation and organizational change, it is time to abandon the idea of IT-led service innovation once and for all.

1For more information about the Office of Urban Mechanics in Boston, please refer to S. Crawford and D. Walters, “Citizen-Centered Governance: The Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics and the Evolution of CRM in Boston,” Case Study, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the John F. Kennedy School, Harvard University, 2013. For more information about the Office of Urban Mechanics in Philadelphia, please refer to

2Pew Research Center. Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology: Fragmented Center Poses Election Challenges for Both Parties. Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, 2014.

3Please refer to S. Ansolabehere and S. Iyengar, Going Negative: How Political Advertisements Shrink and Polarize the Electorate, New York, NY: Free Press, 1995; S. Soroka, L. Young, and M. Balmas, “Bad News or Mad News? Sentiment Scoring of Negativity, Fear, and Anger in News Content,” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 659(1), 2015: 108-121.

4I. W. Martin, The Permanent Tax Revolt: How the Property Tax Transformed American Politics, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008.