Do you think government agencies can be creative and innovative?
Of course, you say. We just have to get government officials to attend a meeting where there is enough time for…
Sound easy? Well, I have a prickly feeling in the back of my neck that tells me truly creative & innovative government won’t happen soon.
I have seen many government idea-generation sessions fall short of attacking problems creatively because of the fear that offending and dippy temporary ideas will go public and invite the attack and ire of others, and spoil chances for future careers.
And I remember one creativity session I led for the executive council of a large, prominent university where one of the deans quietly asked a student assistant to secretly destroy one flip chart paper because she didn’t like one of the ideas. It offended and insulted her, she said later.
Far-fetched brainstormed ideas just cannot exist or survive in the practical political world that doesn’t understand the absolutely temporary nature of the bizarre ideas generated in a creativity session. Or their necessity to achieve profitable solutions.
But all my experience with semi-creative creativity sessions pales with comparison to this paraphrased April 25th, 2010 report in the BBC news —
[***** “The Foreign Office apologized for a foolish document about the Pope during his September’s visit to the UK. The so-called disrespectful proposals suggested, among other more disrespectful items, that the Pope could apologize for the Spanish Armada or sing a song with the Queen for charity.
The Foreign Office stressed the ideas, which resulted from a brainstorm session on the Pope’s visit, did not reflect its views.
The Bishop of Nottingham said, if anything, it was “appalling manners,”
The UK’s ambassador to the Vatican, Francis Campbell, has met senior officials of the Holy See to express regret on behalf of the government. Foreign Secretary David Miliband is appalled by the incident.
An investigation was launched after some recipients of the memo, said to have been circulated to a restricted list, objected to its tone. “This is clearly a foolish document that does not in any way reflect UK government or Foreign Office policy or views. Many of the ideas in the document are clearly ill-judged, naive and disrespectful,” he said. “The text was not cleared or shown to ministers or senior officials before circulation. Once senior officials became aware of the document, it was withdrawn from circulation.
The individual responsible has been transferred to other duties. He has been told orally and in writing that this was a serious error of judgement and has accepted this view.
The Foreign Office said the memo had resulted from discussions by a group of three or four junior staff in a team working on early planning for the papal visit. A source told the BBC News website the individual since moved to other duties had called the group together for “some blue-skies creative thinking about how to make the visit a success,” but their discussions had become “a joke that has gone too far.” *****]
WOW. What a commotion. Such a fuss. Just imagine what brainstorming about how to improve the Popes visit can produce in the way of disrespectful ideas.
Which government official in the UK, or anywhere else, will hold meetings like this again. Any official who requests secrecy opens his career to a possible default, especially by offended coworkers.
On the other hand, hope exists. The mere fact that the foreign office in the UK held such a brainstorming meeting indicates that some people in that government want to foster more creativity & innovation in their work. Decades ago, the same problems with brainstorming meetings existed in corporations, and look how prevalent these meetings now are in corporations.
To gain a different perspective, I interviewed U. S. Congressman David Price, Congressman for the 4th congressional district of North Carolina, and asked him about his role in being creative in the U.S. Congress.
He told me he appreciates creativity in two major areas in his job:
the creative interface to help constituents with the federal government
in entrepreneurial policy making.
Congressman Price maintains offices in North Carolina that help people unravel problems with federal agencies. He encourages his district staff to be creative in tackling such problems.
“I want our constituents to know that we will help with more than a routine telephone call,” Price said, “and that they will get a response that is different from what they usually get from government.”
An associate in his Washington, DC, office, said Price’s North Carolina district office serves as the constituent’s advocate trying to cut the red tape of bureaucracy to make government work better for district residents. “It takes a lot of creativity to unravel red tape.”
For example, one constituent lost his military records in a fire, and could not obtain his benefits. Unfortunately, the military also lost his records in a fire. It took considerable creativity for Congressman Price’s staff to track down copies of the veteran’s records filed in other places so he could get his benefits.
Another time, the staff helped an elderly disabled widow get the Social Security Agency to calculate her benefit payments differently, and she received an increase retroactive for three preceding years.
Congressman Price focuses much of his efforts on what he calls “entrepreneurial policy making,” that is, the constant search for new and innovative ways to solve important problems. He and his staff are constantly looking for creative opportunities to fill policy gaps within Congress.
“No member of Congress can solve all problems,” Price said. “I need to be realistic in assessing policy gaps I can work on to be effective in Congress.”
That’s the approach Congressman Price took during his first term, steering to passage his Home Equity Loan Consumer Protection Act, which requires lenders to disclose the full terms of home equity loans before borrowers incur any obligations. He looked for a policy gap he could fill, a problem that needed a creative solution. It was a deliberate choice to meet consumer needs and to fill his desire to be productive and useful in office.
“I have to be creative to play a helpful role in the congressional process,” Price said.
The main trigger to Price’s creativity is a problem to be solved, and the search for solutions. These come from his staff, constituents, and colleagues. “The needs that surround us stimulates my creativity to find solutions,” he said.
He fosters the creativity of his staff with a management style that produces an atmosphere that values innovative problem solving and creative effort. “It also helps to hire good, intelligent people with a lot of drive,” he said.
Price concluded, “In public life, we often stress the pressures we are under. To me this is a partial picture. We have a lot of control over the roles we carve out for ourselves, a lot of leeway to define what we do, a lot more freedom to do a better job than we realize, and a lot of opportunities to be more creative in the process. We can create the slack to think and figure out better ways to do things.”
So how creative and innovative do we want your government to be?
©2016 by Edward Glassman
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ed Glassman, Professor Emeritus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, founded the Program For Team Excellence And Creativity at the university. He led scores of problem-solving creativity meetings and creative thinking workshops-seminars for many large and small companies. He was a ‘Guggenheim Foundation Fellow’ at Stanford University, a ‘Visiting Fellow’ at the ‘Center For Creative Leadership’ in Greensboro, NC, a Visiting Professor at the University Of California at Irvine, and a Visiting Scientist at SRI International.