Community Lessons from the Public Sector: Collaboration, Not Competition

The Fog Bridge At San Francisco's Exploratorium


This post is the first of a three-part series on lessons companies can learn from community-driven innovation in the civic innovation movement.

Yes, you read that title right. The public sector is leading the way in community-centered approaches to generating new ideas and approaches: the civic innovation movement.

Civic innovation is often seen as government taking on business best practices and technologies as an answer to its underwhelming efficiency and efficacy track record. In the offices that have gone beyond best practices and technology and embraced the collaborative nature of movement, it’s become about much more than efficiency. As offices work more inclusively, creatively and collaboratively, they are driving significant cross-sector innovation, resulting – in some offices – in a new dynamic that is part business and part government with their ever broadening community at the center of the solutions.

As Josh Stearns wrote of a fascinating people-centered approach to journalism,

“Regardless of your business model, having your community deeply invested in what you do, is key to the long term sustainability of your work. Building with community is also about building more resilient organizations, rooted in relationships that can help both challenge and support you.”

Few sectors are pursuing collaboration as seriously as the public sector, thanks in large part to tight budgets. In pursuit of innovative and resourceful solutions, the public sectors’ definition of community has grown beyond the people working within the industry to also include the people it serves. Today, the public sector not only empowers nonprofit and private sectors but is also empowered in return. From intra-sector collaboration, such as the Technology and Innovation Task Force of Mayors across the US, to cross-sector collaboration, public offices are looking anywhere and everywhere for new and better ways to respond to peoples’ needs.

In fact, an entirely new governance and innovation ecosystem has grown around offices willing to work with previously not-so-likely private and non-profit bedfellows, giving rise to organizations such as Code for America and Mind Lab that help connect community members and sectors. Code for America, part non-profit, part consultancy, and part civic tech accelerator and incubator, ‘addresses the widening gap between the public and private sectors in their effective use of technology and design.’ Mind Lab, first established as an in-house growth facility for innovation at the Ministry for Business and Economic Affairs in Denmark, now works with two additional ministries to create neutral spaces in which citizens and businesses are engaged for public sector innovation to take place. Furthermore, offices are establishing deep, on-going exchanges with increasingly common civic hackathons and tech meetups. The result of this kind of collaboration has been not only improved government, but created-or made viable-a new market in the tech industry: gov tech.

This level of civic engagement heightens everyone’s sense of citizenship and belonging, making them more inclined to be involved long-term with civic needs from bike routes to street maintenance to waste management. Similarly, if “a business is simply an idea to make other people’s lives better,” as Richard Branson said, the better you can do that, the more loyal your customer will be.

What can we learn from this? Let’s stop making variations on the same product: real innovation happens when you answer needs in totally new ways in the most resourceful way possible. Building on existing structures and sharing lessons within your community minimizes the barriers to creating something truly disruptive. The important thing to remember is that your community isn’t just your customer-base; community includes competitors, too.