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IDEAS

Government doesn’t take enough risks. Let’s change that.

The city and state need big R&D budgets and someone making sure we tackle the big problems.

City Hall in Boston.Lane Turner/Globe Staff
Heather Hopp-Bruce

Mayor Tom Menino used to vent at us on his staff: “If we had a new idea around here, it would die of loneliness.” He grumbled when we failed to birth new ideas or to nurture them. While he had a particular way of making his point, his frustration was not unique. It’s been almost 20 years since I first heard worry about the dearth of innovation. I’ve worked with amazing public innovators and studied others on six continents. I’ve spent time with hundreds of mayors and thousands of other public leaders at all levels of government around the world who’ve labored to bring about novel solutions. Many share the same lament: It’s too hard to try new approaches.

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Two decades after Menino’s remonstration, I’m convinced that all the government hackathons, all the gov-tech sprints, all the courageous public entrepreneurs who venture forth and the neighbors who join them can’t effectively solve the problems that face us. Amazing individuals can’t deliver new fixes within government systems that are designed to preserve the status quo.

But we can redesign the system. And in Massachusetts, three changes would help bring “possibility government” about.

Start with the systems for budgeting and procurement. Add a dedicated line item for research and development in the state budget and in budgets for our largest cities. Neither the Commonwealth nor Boston has a dedicated line item for R&D, and neither do most states and cities. They should. The US Department of Defense will spend over $100 billion this year on research and development, 15 percent of its budget. Localities can’t be “laboratories of democracy” when they have minimal funding for experiments. One percent for R&D would be a reasonable first target. The money could be spent on exploring new approaches and technologies, prototyping new programs and services, and evaluating them.

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We should also transform our systems for hiring and developing public servants. Begin with a commitment to upskill 10,000 state and municipal employees on public entrepreneurship, product management, software engineering, data analytics, and digital transformation in the next five years. There are well over 100,000 city and state officials across Massachusetts. Our wonderful, but modest, programs for training up existing public officials on innovation and bringing in outsiders on summer or year-long fellowships aren’t nearly enough. A goal of upskilling at least 10 percent of current workers is necessary and attainable — and it’s an investment in their future as well as ours.

And if we are really serious about remaking the future, let’s augment our accountability systems. We already have officials who ferret out waste. In the coming months and years, the state auditor will be watching to see that none of the federal money from the American Rescue Plan or the infrastructure bill is spent fraudulently. So will the state’s inspector general. But who will police timidity and weakness? Who will make sure we use the federal dollars to try to tackle the toughest problems that face us? A “possibility general,” by a better name, could and should.

It’s a maxim of management: “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” If government doesn’t imagine, that’s because it’s been perfectly designed not to. If government doesn’t take up enough new projects, that’s because government agencies and government jobs have been perfectly designed to avoid them. Our next big new idea should be remedying that.

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Mitchell Weiss is a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School. He is the author of “We the Possibility: Harnessing Public Entrepreneurship to Solve Our Most Urgent Problems.”