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Start Within authors Karen Holst & Douglas Ferguson speak with Niles Friedman on what it takes to innovate within the federal, state, and local governments.
Hi there. I'm Karen Holst, and with me I have Douglas Ferguson, my co-author of Start Within. Today our guest is Niles Friedman, who is joining us to talk about civic innovation. Niles has managed, or advised both in the public and private sector within the U.S. and internationally. He has an extensive background and experience in creating technology and innovation capacity within federal government, and that's all the way down to state and local agencies as well. And to have you here, thank you. I'm so excited to talk about your work.
It's good to be here.
Yeah, thanks. To kick it off I would love for an audience that works within the private sector and maybe civic innovation that word has a lot of weight. What does that mean?
That's a great question. And this is something with a lot of the work that I've done I would say over my career, but specifically in California at the state and local level. So with the State of California and Los Angeles County, this is one of those things that I think is really important, and it gets into how do you start an innovation movement? How do you get people on board? How do you start to shift culture? And you know this from some of the work as a FUSE Corps fellow, this idea of bringing your expertise forward, but not starting necessarily with a set definition. It's something that I just truly believe because you have to go into an organization and say what is important to you? What are the business needs that you have? How does the culture operate today? What are some gaps?
And so this idea of civic innovation, I totally agree, it's a term that I think it has very strong meaning in the context of local government and how to do things differently, how to address business needs in a very different way, but I think before we start with a set definition, a lot of times it's really exciting, actually, important to step back and listen and hear what leaders are saying, what departments are saying, what agencies are saying, and spending ... When I was at the state level, when we were looking to launch the Office of Innovation underneath this umbrella of civic innovation I spent two months engaging with department leaders and literally not saying what civic innovation could be, or innovation could be, but more tell me what is top-of-mind for you? Tell me what are some of the business challenges? How do you want to think about solving those business challenges in different ways?
And then what we were able to do is step back and say, okay, well, here's the premise of innovation for this agency. And so that step I think is not only important, but I think it builds a level of trust and sustainability, and there's a level of engagement from the stakeholders and the leaders that I think just keeps things moving. I can't hear you.
I can't either.
I am so sorry. I have a four-year-old so I muted it so you couldn't hear him in the background. So sorry. So I just wanted to give a plug for FUSE Corps because we both came from that program as an executive fellow and they take private sector leaders and put them in public sector problems. For me, that was such an eye-opening experience to come from a startup, right? Launching a startup and going out and doing that work and then getting put into the public agency of trying to create change is very different. And I have some of my own experiences, but just in thinking about those similarities and differences of doing this kind of work in the public space versus private I would love to hear your thoughts.
Yeah, for sure, absolutely, and we've talked about this, Karen, on many occasions about that experience, and both having worked for the State of California and jumping into this amazingly innovative place, but also a place that if you're not from there, sometimes it can be challenging to navigate where do you start? But what's interesting, and I've had time to reflect on this, even going back to my days in management consulting some of the approaches that consulting firms were taking when I worked there was about launching new products, launching new service delivery models, engaging with partners in a different way, and then coming back to your core team and saying, hey, what worked? What didn't? What products are resonating? And then adjusting and then going back out to the market with a new approach. So the term iteration was not really used, but it gets into that space of putting something out there, doing it in a deliberate and effective way, testing it, and then seeing what works and then coming back to the table and continuing to iterate on it.
So when I worked in the private sector, that was a fundamental. It was funny, we didn't really even talk about it, but it was through the lens of product development, business development, service delivery. When I worked for a startup that was based in South Africa, we were doing a lot of work around health system strengthening and building capacity and health systems to support the HIV positive population in South Africa, we were taking a very similar approach as well. We had this pool of funding from USAID and PEPFAR, and we were trying to go out into different regions at a local level of government through these partnerships and trying to figure out what is going to resonate most with that jurisdiction, with that province, with that district, and then adapt an approach that is truly custom to the needs of their specific population.
So you could argue that's product testing, right? In some way, shape or form. So there was definitely this theme from private sector management consulting to a startup, and then now working more primarily in the public sector solely it takes on a different form, but the intention I think, and approaches are very similar.
So when I was with the State of California we were looking to launch an Office of Innovation that was part of my FUSE fellowship, but one of the things that I was working with the under-secretary at the time on was this idea of innovation use case teams. And this was about showing how it could be done through three to six month projects that were entrenched in business needs across departments, and then working with department teams to basically deliver against what we were intending to accomplish. So, again, you could argue that's a bit of product testing, service testing, right? But in the public sector it's really about at the core getting into the organization, asking the right questions, listening, coming back to them with your ideas of what we could do as part of this use case team model, and then truly getting into the delivery because the delivery is really when you start to see a shift in culture, you start to see a shift in demand.
If you can deliver against let's say a first cohort of five projects, which was part of what I was doing at the state level with this agency, the Health And Human Services Agency you can then say, hey, we've delivered against these five and you can present on the process, and the approach that was taken to deliver that, which then inherently created demand from other leaders and departments saying, hey, that's a really interesting project and I have a similar business need and how do I then take that approach and replicate that for my own users?
So I think there's definitely some common themes. I think in the public sector the focus on delivery is probably a bit more important because in the public sector there are so many competing priorities. When you think about a Health And Human Services Agency, or Los Angeles County and the departments, so you have to really figure out how to also integrate in these approaches around innovation into how they think, right? So meeting people where they are and really customizing that approach from the ground up.
So I'm really curious when you think about these processes, or just this mindset it's typically a lot of the rhetoric is about building products and aligning the users. And I see a big shift to where there's lots of HR professionals show up at design thinking conferences, et cetera. I like to refer to it as employee experience, and in the public sector you've got this need to serve constituents, but it's also well-known that there's a lot of bureaucracy so the employees, the stakeholders inside have to go through things to make programs come together. So I'm just wondering, I'm really curious how much you see these tools being used inwardly as well as focused outward toward constituents?
That's a great question. I think this, actually, and correct me if I'm wrong, the dimension you're talking about is a really important one because in the public sector we've looked at this through the lens when I was at the state level, and then more recently with Los Angeles County, who are your end users? The end users very much so in the public sector are your customers, the end users of services, your residents, the communities that the government and the programs are serving, but there's also this dimension of the employees of a program of a department, of an agency, of a government entity being also the end user because if you are creating innovation internally within a department, or a program to let's say improve manual processes, and making them automated so that the staff can be more efficient and effective at what they do on a day-to-day basis that is going to directly impact the end user who are in the communities, right? And their customers.
So when you think about it through both of those lenses, I think it's a really important vantage point. And I think it's a really important nuance because you're right, a lot of the focus, rightfully so, is on the end user in a community, right? The customer in a community. The resident of a specific city, county, or state, but if we also look at it through the lens of an internal department, or a function, and how do we improve their operations, or their processes using analytics, predictive analytics, digital services, human-centered design workshops that get them to think in a very different way about their end user that they're serving, ultimately, the resident, or the end user in the community is going to benefit.
So I think it really is important to look at both. And when I was at the state level and even more recently with L.A. County, that was always a dimension of how we thought about different initiatives that could have ranged from digital civic engagement, to analytics, to procurement, to empowering the workforce, as well as mobility. When you think about mobility's strategic initiatives, there is a dimension of how do we mobilize our staff to better serve the public, right? Through mobile devices, but then how do we empower residents to use digital services in a more effective way to access services that the government's providing?
It's so interesting, something in your earlier answer when we were talking about the process of doing this kind of work within public agencies. One of my findings within that was unless your call to action is improving the process, unless that's what you're going after, then you really need to figure out a way to fit within the existing process. And we talk about that in the book and it doesn't mean that it's prescriptive, and there's no room for growth, there's no room for new insights to come in, but instead it's trying to find, mapping out where it fits. And I think that's one of the biggest challenges in this work is that you've come from the outside saying, look, it's great, do it this way. It works with the private sector. We can just do it this way here, and you're not going to get buy-in. And that's where you're going to lose stakeholders internally. I would love to hear more about how you bring people along in that?
That's a great question. It's a really spot-on comment, too, Karen, just on I think if you fly in with this private sector approach, and, hey, I've done it for 20 years in the private sector and you should adopt it. I mean, you might get some folks that engage because they see the connection, but I think the level of longevity there can sometimes be more challenging.
I think when I was at the State, this is a really good example of this. First of all, I had an amazing sponsor for the work that I was doing with the State and launching this Office of Innovation who had been with the State for the majority of his career, understood the mechanics, understood the culture. So for my ability as a FUSE fellow to drop in for a year and figure out how to navigate the departments, I was very much reliant on Mike Wilkening, who was the under-secretary at the time to help navigate that. So that was foundational to a lot of this work, but I think what really to your point of how do you get that level of buy-in is listening, literally listening to the leaders, listening to the managers, listening to the teams, and hearing what they're saying without your bias of what you think innovation is about.
And then formulating what we did with these use case teams was driving process improvement, service delivery, adoption of digital services, using analytics in different ways that they could then see how that would impact not only their job directly, but the customers and the residents that they were serving, or the public that they were serving, but what was really important, too, was we had to deliver. And so when we had these scopes of work, we didn't think of them through the lens of multi-year. They were very tailored to three to six months. We wanted them to engage in rapid-fire sprints. And so it created a different experience. It felt, I think, very empowering to them because we were creating this environment where they could test and iterate and change the scope based on feedback they had received. And it was truly an environment that allowed them to really just think very differently and act very differently about service delivery.
So I think this other dimension was once you've delivered then how do you communicate? And so we had this whole delivery summit structure where the teams were presenting to senior leadership on a monthly level about what they were doing. What were the challenges? What were some of the failures? What were some of the successes? And so the leadership could see this process and how these teams were mobilizing, which then started to create demand. The leaders were saying, oh, interesting, tell me about that data matching project. Tell me about how you were able to change procurement processes to get a digital app into your department in three months. And so the demand started to build on itself, which then turned into new cohorts of use case teams. So we had a second and a third and a fourth cohort. And so with each of those cohorts, you had business needs. You had to focus on delivery. You created a safe environment for people to innovate and iterate on what they were doing. And then we had this communication approach, which allowed the larger agency, even if you weren't participating to see what was actually happening.
And I think that gets to your adoption question of different phases of people that will engage. You're going to have those early adopters and then people in a second wave are going to say, oh, that went really well. I've engaged. I see the potential for my department. And then you have a third and a fourth. And I think keeping that communication across all those stakeholders was another huge dimension of when we started to see buy-in.
Yeah. We talk about in the book for every 80 hours of work, you have two hours of communication, so when I share that with certain people, they're like, "That's not enough communications." And then others are like, "Wow, that's a lot." And I think there's definitely a formula that works for the work that you're doing and maybe early on there's a lot more communication. And the goal being that you get more efficient, right? That you're sharing in bigger groups, and you're spending less time on that and more on the work. And it evolves as you go forward, but a big part of innovation is the communication and bringing people along.
Absolutely. Well, and you know this, too, because even if you've communicated it five times, communicated again and again and again, it was always I think appreciation for, also, the leaders that I had been working with at the state and local level of government here in California, knowing that they have 50 other things that they're thinking about probably at any one time. And so our innovation use case teams we thought were really amazing and powerful, but in the context of what else were they thinking about, we needed to make sure that the messaging was very tailored to how they thought about it, and how we thought they would best engage in it. So it's a really important dimension.
Excellent. Well, Niles, just making sure that we keep track of time here.
I'd like to say it's been a real pleasure chatting with you, especially, hearing about the importance of listening as a professional facilitator that really struck home to me. And it made me think there's all this advice about if you want to be a good leader you should read a lot. And as you were talking, it just struck me leaders need to listen more. And to your point around communicating and sharing the narrative, those things we're going to be much better at those if we listen a lot. So really great points. Thanks so much for being here with us today. And for all of you listeners, we speak with the reader and the doer and the entrepreneur on Innovation Space every week. So if you're interested in coming on with us please look us up. And you can find the book on Amazon. Thanks so much for being here, Niles, and, of course, Karen.
Thank you for the opportunity. It was great to talk with you both.
Before you quit your job, take these 5 steps to create a better job that you actually want. How to make the job you have today, one you are passionate about. Seriously.
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