How Governments Can Use Networks to Accelerate Innovation

April 10, 2014 3:46 pm PST | Effective Governing
Government Networking for Innovation

Although we rarely give it much thought, networks are all around us. And throughout history, they have played a singular role in driving innovation. Here’s how.

Most breakthroughs in science, technology, medicine, the arts—you name it—are creative re-combinations of existing ideas. Vibrant networks serve as a kind of backbone, connecting people and organizations with specialized expertise, resources, and influence to accelerate development of new ideas and new markets. In short, they break down traditional boundaries to the flow of information.

In particular, the last few decades have offered a veritable case study in the power of networks. The evolution of the Internet is the most obvious example. The Internet provides the computing infrastructure to connect millions of computers around the world through a series of distributed network access points. It provides the underlying ‘tooling’ to enable all of these computers and the users operating them to ‘talk’ to each other, in real-time. As the technology matured, the Internet brought the advent of modern digital social networks, embodied by sites like Facebook, Instagram, and whatever comes next.

How Government Can Be a Catalyst for a New Kind of Network

But how does the network concept relate to government? Actually, government could provide the next, most exciting evolution of the network model .

For centuries, governments existed as monolithic, highly bureaucratic entities. Examples of these kinds of institutions still exist of course (some might point to the size of the U.S. federal government as an example). But times are changing—fast.  A new generation of public sector leaders recognizes that the endemic problems governments face—massive challenges like modernizing transportation infrastructure and fostering job growth—require collaboration, even crowdsourcing to solve.

These forward-thinking leaders are embracing the benefits of a more interdependent model of government—one, in which public agencies do not try to tackle every issue on their own. Instead, the role of government in this model is to facilitate services through networks of public and private entities.

This approach is gaining momentum for a good reason. Governments have discovered that the data their organizations collect as part of their daily operations—311 requests, building permit applications, restaurant inspection reports, and an increasing volume of data from sensor networks—can be an extremely powerful connecting agent. When thoughtfully collected and contextualized, these data elements form high-resolution pictures that can help unlock innovative solutions to age-old problems. In short, these leaders recognize the enormous strategic value of open data. Further, they have embraced the idea—ahead of their peers— that one of the most important functions of government in the twenty-first century is as an aggregator and disseminator of the high-impact, public information at their fingertips.

Why Cities Are Natural Hubs for Innovation

As mentioned, networks support innovation. And cities have shown a unique propensity for advancing new ideas, inventions, and government practices. Cities like Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle have taken the lead in opening up public data as a resource for creative, collaborative problem solving. And many other cities and metropolitan areas throughout the U.S. and around the world have followed their lead.

It is not by accident that urban areas have provided such fertile soil for the open data movement. Population and infrastructure density create an environment for solution-oriented collaboration among government agencies, businesses, academic institutions, community groups, and individuals. The result of this collaboration has been extraordinary. Take the City of Chicago as just one example. In just a few short years, the city’s ambitious adoption of open data has not only helped the city dramatically improve services like snow removal and fulfilling citizen 311 requests; through the city government’s role as a data services provider, it has fostered the development of numerous businesses, including at least five open data-fueled startup companies.

The Benefits of Reimagining Government

By recasting the role of government as a provider of valuable data and data services, these future-oriented leaders are helping to transform the way government actually works. The alternate model of the data-driven government yields benefits across the following four areas.

Economic development: Data-driven governments are fully engaged contributors in the emerging information economy. By accelerating the flow of data between government and external entities like businesses and academic institutions, government data publishing efforts can help incubate new civic startups, support enterprise research and development efforts, and empower consumers to make better-informed purchasing decisions.

Citizen experience: By making data easier to access and visualize and delivering more government services as location-aware apps, data-savvy governments can provide citizens with a more consumer-friendly experience. Delivery of real-time information on public works projects, transit schedules, and emergency alerts, and integration with consumer web services like Google, Yelp, and Zillow, increases the use of public data sites. This, in turn, strengthens citizen engagement and supports government efforts to involve the public in decision making.

Governance: Commitment to a data-centric approach supports government efforts to set clear, measurable goals, and rigorously track performance against those goals. This requires governments to de-silo their operations, expanding collaboration opportunities, and empowering employees to make fact-based decisions—factors that ultimately result in more effective program management and better public policy.

Operational efficiency: By moving their information-sharing infrastructure to the cloud, government organizations can also reinvent processes, retire aging systems, and scale programs more easily. Through consolidation and re-use of IT assets, increased self-service access to information, and a reduced system maintenance burden, government organizations can save millions in technology and staff costs.  

This is not a utopia. Forward thinking mayors, governors, county administrators, and federal agency leaders have already started to bring this vision to life. Scaling this movement is the next phase. And it is already under way.

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