Some responses on public innovation

Last week, I wrote about my sense of urgency for there to be more public innovation in society if we are to improve public life and politics. Today, I want respond to three comments from people who wrote me. David Marsters from Vermont wrote in response to one of my blogs, that too many of us “worship relentlessly at the altar of efficiency.” I agree David. Our desire to prove just how efficient we are oftentimes distorts our very efforts at innovating. Take, for instance, how much time is required to generate real, meaningful change. The push for efficiency can lead us to set timetables and benchmarks that defy any notion of reality. When we’re not careful, our drive for results can produce nothing better than the peddling of more false hope in public life.

Still, those of us who seek to innovate must be prepared to talk about how we can make our efforts more effective and efficient. For me, at issue is how we envision change and whether we will have the gumption to step forward to set the right kinds of benchmarks and timetables – for we must always hold ourselves accountable. That leads me to say that part of the answer to the push for efficiency resides in a more robust notion of stewardship. All good stewards must be accountable; and those of us in the public innovation world must find ways to set benchmarks that reflect reality and what progress might look like – and then argue on behalf of those benchmarks.

“Zgirl” wrote the following to me: “I work as a community development strategist, specializing [in] civic and social development. I find that just getting folks to agree to meet to discuss a book is challenging at times.” Yes, I have experienced that, too. Now, the question is, “What’s the response?”

The danger in our attempt to “engage people” is that we lose sight of how change unfolds. Too often I’ve seen people undertake civic engagement initiatives that fail to produce results. My experience is that most communities lack the civic infrastructure, the civic norms, and the civic leaders to sustain large civic initiatives (and often we don’t think critically enough about the lack of capacity for smaller efforts, too).

I think we need to approach engagement efforts with the following questions. What’s the purpose of engaging people? What pathways are we creating for people to engage over time? How does our current work connect with what came before and what might follow? Where, then, must we begin our efforts? I am especially interested in the challenge of how we can build a culture of engagement that is embedded within a community and grows based on a web of relationships and organizations that can lead to real change.

Maybe the notion of taking a broad view of things is what Richard Puffer had in mind when he wrote to me last week. He said this “is why I think your discussion is so timely and why I hope others become involved. Public innovation, public renovation, and old fashioned community building has to become a priority if we are going to be moving up and not sliding back. We have to find ways to help people help make it happen!”

Indeed, we do, Richard. That’s why I’ve been writing about public innovation. After 20 years of doing this work, I believe we need to create new pathways for people. Those pathways will come only by us creating them anew. This will require (as I have said in other blogs) that we must move in two opposite directions simultaneously: We must be ruthlessly strategic in how we go about our work, and we must keep in our line of sight at all times what gives people authentic hope.

I believe our own words and deeds must actively reflect these principles if we are to tap people’s potential to make a difference and join together to build a common future.