Bringing Together the “Tucked” and “Untucked” Shirts

Each year, Global Entrepreneurship Week brings new insights and learnings for those of us trying to better understand entrepreneurialism and how policymakers can best foster it. This year, we closed with a view of the value it brings to orderly governments witnessing the productivity of a creative and messy class of entrepreneurs.

Last week, we wrapped up Global Entrepreneurship Week with a meeting of startup policy advisors to governments from nearly 50 countries called the Startup Nations Summit. It was a historic moment – not just because so many nations have elected to replicate the Startup America model, but because so many governments are showing willingness to at least interface with startups on their level if not follow them in a supporting role.

I sat next to Choi Yanghee, Korea’s minister of science, ICT and future planning, who reminded me that not all government leaders were so enamored by startups. We talked about what to do about it and one theme kept emerging – placing entrepreneurs-in-residence in government and encouraging the unconverted to join a hackathon or spend a day working out of a startup hub or accelerator. Of course we should be precise with our language as there is no such thing as an “entrepreneurial bureaucrat”, but it got me thinking.

There are few in America who would dispute the notion that government in Washington has become less efficient on account of partisanship, the decline of statesmanship and good old fashioned courtesy within our deliberative democracy. In startup communities across the globe we witness a different culture – one where the whole village celebrates the achievements of the few – even those we might be expected to wish had failed. Perhaps startup culture might do our capitals some good.

Governments are already benefiting from entrepreneur-led solutions like better procurement processing systems or enlisting citizens as guardians of security by facilitating alert submission via a phone app. Bringing entrepreneurs in-house can offer many valuable benefits. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) new Entrepreneur Pathways, a custom-designed resource for immigrant entrepreneurs, is an example of the agency’s entrepreneur-in-residence program, launched in close coordination with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in 2012.

Not too long ago, the idea of entrepreneurial thinking – creative, non-linear – in government bureaucratic structures with long-standing standard operating procedures and a top-down approach was ludicrous. A move to adopt entrepreneurial approaches to problem-solving in government offices appears to be taking root, with many city halls and economic development departments at the state and federal levels bringing in successful entrepreneurs, as reported by the Pew Trust and noted in this blog over the last two years.

Startup-savvy policymakers are not often rock star officials like former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but rather they work in advisory roles and many times behind the scenes. Entrepreneurs in public service bring first-hand insights from environments unencumbered by institutional malaise into public offices, and help fine-tune interventions. Such exchange of perspectives can offer insights into policy roadblocks that cannot be perceived from raw data from within a government agency. Former Dell entrepreneur-in-residence Ingrid Vanderveldt was an advocate for entrepreneur-in-residence programs in government, and advised lawmakers across the country as they sought to implement the idea.

But of more significance is culture. I remember when UK Prime Minister David Cameron came into office, within days of meeting with his team in the formal elegance of 10 Downing Street in London his chief advisor was wearing jeans and a t-shirt untucked. Governments, we learned last week, are open to bringing in people with entrepreneurial skills and to trying to help their own people absorb such thinking. Many send their representatives to immerse themselves in the startup culture at events like last week’s annual Startup Nations Summit, or the Global Entrepreneurship Congress, each March or design academic courses together, like the city of Philadephia, which founded an Academy for Municipal Innovation in partnership with Philadelphia University for its employees to attend classes on the principles of innovation and how to act on them on the job.

Others enlist entrepreneurs, through programs like Code for America, to design specific solutions to the plethora of challenges cities face –from struggling to respond to requests for public records to providing real-time information about public transit.

The mix of cultures to instill the entrepreneurial mindset in government is not the only practice. Policy experimentation and evidence-based policymaking (also referred to as the lean startup approach) are other iterative practices common in the startup world now being embraced by the public sector.

Governments should never operate like startups, yet an entrepreneurial mindset among public office teams can yield positive results in terms of responsiveness and efficiency (better targeted programs and less duplicative regulations). Entrepreneurs also gain when they have an understanding of the limitations placed on innovation and disruptive thinking within institutions that must be guardians of the public interest. Their voice in government can also help identify and fill gaps in their local ecosystem.

It is common now to refer to the communities that strive collectively to increase rates of new firm formation across the globe and all the benefits that brings as a startup ecosystem. As in nature, each part needs the other in an interconnected environment. We would be wise to encourage this global trend toward a flatter conversation between the traditional institutions of our communities and those individuals forming teams and taking risks to birth the new. No doubt a common “casual dress” code has little to do with improved outcomes but anything that integrates the best of both traditional and creative thinking can only bring a breath of fresh air to our collective efforts at creating value for society.


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jonathan ortmans
Jonathan Ortmans serves as president of the Public Forum Institute, an independent, nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization dedicated to creating the most advanced and effective means of fostering public discourse on major issues of the day.