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2/7/2016

GovernmentEntrepreneurisNotanOxymoron

ENTREPRENEURSHIP

GovernmentEntrepreneuris
NotanOxymoron
MitchellWeiss
MARCH28,2014

Entrepreneurshipalmostalwaysinvolvespushingagainstthestatusquotocapture
opportunitiesandcreatevalue.Soitshouldntbesurprisingwhenanewbusiness
model,suchasridesharing,disruptsexistingsystemsandcausesfrictionbetween
entrepreneursandlocalgovernmentofficials,right?

ButimagineiftheroadthatledtotheSeattleCityCouncilridesharinghearingsthis
monthwithrulingsthatsharplycurtailUberX,Lyft,andSidecarsoperationsthere
hadbeenavastlydifferentone.Imaginethatpublicleadershadconceivedandbuilt
aplatformtoprovidethisnew,sharedmodeloftransit.Orattheveryleast,thatinstead
ofhavingarevolutionofthecurrenttransitregimedonetoSeattlepublicleaders,itwas
donewiththem.Amidsttheacrimony,itseemshardtoimaginethatpublicleaders
couldenvisionandoperatesuchaplatform,orthatprivateinnovatorscouldworkwith
themmorecollaborativelyonitbutitsnotimpossible.Whatwouldittake?Answer:
morepublicentrepreneurs.

Theideaofpublicentrepreneurshipmaysoundtoyoulikeitbelongsonalistof
oxymoronsrightalongsidegovernmentintelligence.Butitdoesnt.Public
entrepreneursaroundtheworldareimprovingourlives,inventingentirelynewwaysto
servethepublic.Theyareusingsensorstodetectpotholeswordpedometerstohelp
studentslearnharnessingbehavioraleconomicstoencourageorgan
donationcrowdsourcingpatentreviewandtransformingMedellin,Colombia

https://hbr.org/2014/03/governmententrepreneurisnotanoxymoron/

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withcablecars.TheyarecodingincivichackathonsandcompetingintheBloomberg
challenge.TheyarepartneringwithanOfficeofNewUrbanMechanicsinBostonorin
Philadelphia,codevelopingproductsinSanFranciscosEntrepreneurshipin
Residenceprogram,ordeployingsomeofthemorethan$430millioninvestedinto
civictechinthelasttwoyears.

Thereis,however,abigproblemwithpublicentrepreneurs:therejustarentenoughof
them.Withoutmorepublicentrepreneurship,itshardtoimaginemeetingourpublic
challengesormakingthemostofprivateinnovation.Onemightarguethatbungled
healthcarewebsiterolloutsorinternetspyingareevidenceoftoomuchactivityonthe
partofpublicleaders,butIwouldarguethatwhattheyreallyshowistoolittle
entrepreneurialskillandjudgment.

Thesolutiontocreatingmorepublicentrepreneursisstraightforward:trainthem.But,
byandlarge,wedont.ConsiderHowardStevensonsdefinitionofentrepreneurship:
thepursuitofopportunitywithoutregardtoresourcescurrentlycontrolled.Wecould
teachthatapproachtopeopleheadingtowardsthepublicsector.Butnowconsiderthe
followinglistofterms:acknowledgementofmultipleconstituencies,riskreduction,
formalplanning,coordination,efficiencymeasures,clearlydefined
responsibility,andorganizationalculture.Itreadslikealistofthekindsof
conceptswewouldwantanewpublicofficialtoknowlikeitmightbedrawnfroman
interviewevaluationformorgraduateschoolsyllabus.Infact,itsfromStevensonslist
ofpressuresthatpullmanagersawayfromentrepreneurshipandtowards
administration.Ofcourse,thatsnotallbad.Wemusthavemoregreatpublic
administrators.Butwithallourchallengesandamidstallthedynamism,wearegoing
toneedmorethananalystsandstrategistsinthepublicsector,weneedinventorsand
builders,too.

Publicentrepreneurshipisnotsimplyinnovationinthepublicsector(thoughitmakes
useofinnovation),anditsnotjustpolicyreform(thoughitcanhelpdrivereform).
Publicentrepreneursbuildsomethingfromnothingwithresourcesbetheyfinancial

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capitalorhumantalentornewrulestheydidntcommand.InBoston,Iworkedwith
manyamazingpublicmanagersandahandfulofoutstandingpublicentrepreneurs.
ChrisOsgoodandNigelJacobbroughtthecountrysfirstmajorcitymobile311appto
life,andtheyarepublicentrepreneurs.TheycreatedCitizensConnectin2009by
bringingtogetheriPhonesonloantogetherwithalocalcoderandthemostundertapped
resourceinthepublicsector:thepublic.Theytransformedthewaybasicneighborhood
issuesarereportedandrespondedto(20%ofallconstituentcasesinBostonarereported
oversmartphonesnow),andtheirmodelisnowaccessibleto40townsinMassachusetts
andcitiesacrossthecountry.TheMayorsteaminBostonthatstarteduptheOne
FundinthedaysaftertheMarathonbombingswerepublicentrepreneurs.Webuiltthe
organizationfromPayPalandaPostOfficeBox,anditwentontochannel$61million
fromdonorstovictimsandsurvivorsinjust75days.Itstilloperatestoday.

Publicentrepreneurshipisentrepreneurship.Itsthepursuitbypublicofficialsand
theircollaboratorsofopportunitywithoutregardtoresourcescontrolled.Firstyear
studentsatHarvardBusinessSchoolaretaughtthatentrepreneursfacesubstantialriskin
pursuinganewopportunityandabasicCatch22thatcomeswithit:thatitsdifficultto
reduceriskwithoutresourcesanddifficulttoattractresourceswhileriskishigh.Public
entrepreneursfacethesamepredicament.Thecourseteachesfourtacticstocopewith
thechallenge:leanexperimentation,scaling,partnering,andstorytelling.Wecancreate
publicentrepreneursbyteachingtheseskills,moreoftenandjointly,tofuturepublic
leadersandtheirpartners.Andwecanteachthemwellifwerecognizethatpublic
entrepreneurshipisentrepreneurship,butthatitalsotakesplaceinadifferentcontext
andrequiresnuancedapplicationofthesetactics.

Leanexperimentationandtestswithsomethinglessthanthefinalproductcanseem
scaryinthepublicsector,butspecialopportunitiesexist,toopublicpressand
communityengagementcansometimesserveassmoketests,andevenpublicbetas
canworkwelliftheyaremanagedright.
Scalingtoofastespeciallybyaddingtoomanypersonnelandtoomuchhierarchy
canbeaparticularpressureforpublicsectorofficialswhoareaccustomedto
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workinginbiginstitutionsscalingtooslowcanmeantoolittlegrowth/commitment

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whenpoliticalleadershipchangesover.
Partneringisderigueurinthepublicsectortoday,buttheofficialsmustkeepthe
powerdynamicinmindandkeepthepublicinthepublicentrepreneurquestions
ofprofitandintellectualpropertyareespeciallycomplexanddynamic.Andwhereis
thelinebetweenpartneringwiththepublicandoutsourcingworktothemthatthey
likelyexpectedgovernmenttodo?Thepublicentrepreneurneedstounderstandhow
thetoolssheusesincentives,rewards,etc.canchangethefeelingand
ultimatelythevalueoftheirpartnershipwiththepublic.
Storytellingisanessentialleadershiptooland,ifanything,thisappliesevenmoreto
publicleaders,inwhompressandpublicinterestareespeciallyacute.Howdoesthe
publicentrepreneureffectivelyleveragethepressuretoannouncestuffinwaysthat
willprovideincentivestorunlean(asacashflowcurvewouldforprivate
entrepreneurs)withoutforeclosingpivotsandchanges?

Ifwestartwiththebasicsofentrepreneurship,thenconsiderthespecialcontextand
dynamicsofthepublicsectorandcloselyexaminethedecisionsandactionsofpublic
entrepreneurs,wecanlearnwhatmakesgreatpublicentrepreneurship,andwecan
generatemoreofit.

Itsworthnotingthatpublicentrepreneurship,perhapsnewlybuzzworthy,isnot
actuallynew.ElinorOstrom(44yearsbeforeherNobelPrize)observedpublic
entrepreneursinventingnewmodelsinthe1960s.BackwhenRonaldReaganwas
president,PeterDruckerwrotethatitwasentrepreneurshipthatwouldkeeppublic
serviceflexibleandselfrenewing.AndalmosttwodecadeshavepassedsinceDavid
OsborneandTedGaeblersReinventingGovernment(thethenhandbookforpublic
officials)carriedthepromisingsubtitle:HowtheEntrepreneurialSpiritis
TransformingthePublicSector.Publicentrepreneurship,thoughnotnearlyas
widespreadasitsprivatecomplement,orperhapsasfashionableasitssocial
counterpart(focussedonnonprofitsandtheirecosystem),hasbeenaroundforawhile
andsohavethosewhopracticedit.

Butstilltoday,wemostlytrainfuturepublicleaderstobepublicadministrators.We

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schooltheminperformancemanagementandleavethemtooinclinedtorunfromrisk
insteadofmanagingit.Andwecommunicateoften,explicitlyornot,toprivate
entrepreneursthatgovernmentofficialsarefailuresanddinosaurs.Itseasytoseehow
thatroadledtoSeattlethismonth,buthardseehowitempowerspublicofficialstotake
ontheenormouschallengesthatstilllieaheadofus,orhowitenablesthepublictohelp
them.

https://hbr.org/2014/03/governmententrepreneurisnotanoxymoron/

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