Innovation and Public Policy: A Lesson from Steve Jobs
Oct. 21, 2011
Innovation is a term that either gets a lot of play in certain circles, namely business, or gets completely overlooked in other circles, namely government. But in this era of economic challenges and policy complexities, innovation is not only a key term, but a critical reality that can define public policy. And the public sector certainly can learn some lessons from Steve Jobs.
With the passing of Steve Jobs, our society loses one of the great innovators of our time. The impact he has made in technology, media, education, and the global economy are profound. Although Jobs and his Apple and Pixar empires are notable in and of themselves for their value and reach, what is truly distinctive about Jobs and his initiatives is innovation.
When Apple started, much larger and more prominent computer companies dominated the technology field. But Apple did something the others didn’t. Apple made personal home computers something to be desired by the masses and included in the education of our youth. When Pixar was just a fledgling offshoot of Lucas films, many major motion picture giants knew not only how to make feature films but also successful animated features. What set Pixar apart was the distinctive way they merged technology with animation, bringing a higher degree of quality and interest to animated features. And then hand held devices emerged through major telecommunications companies to make information readily accessible. iTunes, iPhone, and iPads introduced a revolution in that idea -- having everything available in the palm of your hand, even if that hand belongs to a young person in a developing country.
This innovation model also can be applied to the public sector – bringing fresh perspectives and approaches to existing structures and systems:
Administration: The term bureaucrat originally meant “expert” – individuals with expertise and experience in a field. Today, bureaucrat and bureaucracy have come to mean career administrators and a bogged down system. The public sector can transform our current understanding of public administration by streamlining systems, sharing expertise between departments and agencies, creating incentives to innovate, recognizing merit and creativity, and focusing on effectively serving the public. Thus, the public sector can move from bureaucratic stereotypes to modeling innovation and efficiency.
Advancement: Many of the scientific and technological advances of our age have their roots in government – particularly in the military’s state-of-the-art equipment. What if the public sector was known for being “state-of-the-art” in general? For example, the US Postal Service recently started a marketing campaign encouraging customers to use the traditional mail. With budget constraints and the growth of online bill pay, the USPS’s campaign is understandable but misses a larger point. The reasons for the decline of traditional mail revenue may be the ground for creating new ways to use the postal system and deliver its products. Through innovative use of trends and technology, the US Postal System could minimize costs, maximize utility, and meet current customer needs – perhaps creating “state-of-the-art” systems for other parts of the public and private sector.
Application: Public policy can be one of the best vehicles for applying leadership and innovation principles to society as a whole. By setting sound policies – standards for achieving goals and ends – the public sector can incorporate best practices in leadership, innovation, and initiative that can then be modeled to the private sector. While government was never intended to replace the private sector’s own innovation and initiative, it can play a significant role in setting the context for encouraging such innovation and initiative in various spheres. Sound policy can not only impact our current working climate, particularly in places like California, but also that of the next generation—our up and coming innovators.
The major lesson that public policy circles can learn from Jobs is significant: there is still room for innovation and initiative in the public sector, but it requires commitment. Focused study, creative thinking, bold initiative, steadfast vision – the characteristics of Steve Jobs himself – are hard fought qualities that come with a price, and not just in dollars. For every monumental success Jobs had, he also had monumental failures, personal and professional. While Jobs was not a perfect leader nor model business mogul, his ability to continue undaunted was essential in achieving his vision. Similarly, the willingness to persevere in the pursuit of innovation can allow society to not only learn something new and different about our world but to actually change our world in new and different ways. Steve Jobs did just that…and his legacy can continue in an innovative way…through effective public policy that addresses complex issues with a deeper understanding of the times and the community which it serves.
Sosamma Samuel-Burnett, J.D.
Chair, Public Policy Department, WJU -- Preparing Tomorrow’s Leaders Today
Executive Director, Public Policy Institute, WJU – Equipping Leaders to Transform Tomorrow
William Jessup University – Transforming Tomorrow Today