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Occupy D.C. movement protesters rally outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Dec. 8, 2011. (YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS/YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS)
Occupy D.C. movement protesters rally outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Dec. 8, 2011. (YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS/YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS)

Opinion

Public sector in America a 'Petri dish' of innovation Add to ...

The United States may be suffering a crisis of confidence in its ability to find a path out of its economic and fiscal crisis, but it would be a mistake to believe that the country has lost its ability to innovate. After all, the U.S. is still a place where innovation is revered. Apple, Google, and Starbucks are among the innovative American brands well known to Canadian consumers. It is too soon to count America out.

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Even against crippling debt, the public sector in America is a Petri dish of innovation, driven by an activist populace, a culture of creativity and a growing tradition of philanthropy. We in Canada should not confuse our neighbour’s economic and political struggles with a dampening of their innovative spirit. The can-do attitude that propels the world’s biggest private market is now permeating many of the “microreforms” taking hold across its public service landscape.

Outsourcing to the crowd

Take the Seattle Police Department’s Get Your Car Back program, which uses Twitter to recover stolen cars. The city is among the 15 largest American cities with auto-theft problems, with over 16,000 vehicles reported stolen each year. But since other types of crime take greater priority over property crimes, it has always been hard to recover stolen vehicles. So Seattle decided last year to ask its citizens to help in the fight against car thefts. Working with the city’s 911 centre, the police department tweets the colour, year, make, model, body style and licence plate of every vehicle that is reported stolen – turning the citizens of Seattle into millions of eyes and ears for the police, and reuniting many more drivers with their wheels. Incremental cost to taxpayers? Peanuts.

Advancing policy through microtasking

The U.S. State Department is embracing technology to engage and develop the next generation of American diplomats. The Virtual Student Foreign Service electronically connects select American college students with U.S. diplomatic missions throughout the world. These student foreign-service officers spend five to 10 hours each week on microtasks, such as conducting research, developing Web pages or creating infographics for use by State Department officials. The program gives the U.S. government access to an educated labour force while providing college students with valuable work experience. Harnessing free skills and starting early to attract scarce talent? What taxpayer wouldn’t want that?

Co-producing for public good

U.S. departments and agencies are well ahead of their Canadian counterparts in using technology for open engagement and collaboration with citizens. On Challenge.gov – the official government platform that “challenges” citizens to come up with creative ways to improve services, reduce costs, and to advance the public good – more than 30 agencies are running more than 100 challenges, many of which come with cash prizes to individuals that propose workable solutions to complex public problems. The open government movement has spurred a new industry of online activists dedicated to mining and distilling the vast stores of unlocked public data, serving nearly every form of public interest.

A recent example: Why does the universe behave in ways that suggest there is more matter than we can observe? NASA challenged both professional and armchair scientists in the Mapping Dark Matter Challenge to find better algorithms for measuring dark matter. A $3,000 (U.S.) prize encouraged 107 participants to study 100,000 galaxy and star pairs, leading to the realization that algorithms used to study glaciers might also be helpful in measuring dark matter. Citizens empowered to co-produce public good using public data? Sounds good.

Monolithic bureaucracies are embracing innovation as the key to survival. Here at home, where most of our provinces and largest cities face unsustainable fiscal models, the pressure to reform, while mounting, hasn’t yet produced the kind of urgency that is unleashing creativity and action south of the border and around the world. The fiscal challenges in Britain have the government of Prime Minister David Cameron pursuing an “open public service” agenda that allows private-sector firms and voluntary groups the chance to deliver health care, education and housing, recognizing that innovation can best be achieved when all sectors collaborate with one another.

The world continues to be envious of the Canadian public sector, where our professional, politically neutral bureaucracy has been a steadying force in the choppy waters of the global economy. But it is short-sighted to think the need for change is not upon us – or that those at the edge of a crisis don’t offer useful laboratories for reform.

Paul Macmillan is the public-sector industry leader for Deloitte Canada (pmacmillan@deloitte.ca ). Howard Yeung is a manager with Deloitte Canada’s public-sector consulting practice in Ottawa (hoyeung@deloitte.ca ).

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