What does it take to support innovation within government?: Lunch & Learn with SPUR’s Gabe Metcalf

The need for innovation in government has never been greater, and we must work with our greatest resource — our human capital — to find new solutions to old challenges. –San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee

The Startup in Residence program — an initiative of the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation — is our 16-week residency in which we match startups with City departments challenges. The program recently had a “Lunch and Learn” with Gabe Metcalf, CEO of SPUR, a non-profit research and advocacy organization.

In our thought-provoking session, Gabe describes a few big ideas around innovation and the public sectors for our startups.

Progress in the public context

In open, competitive sectors of the economy, Gabe points out, market competition should force poor performing businesses to close up shop. Unprofitable product lines tend to be discontinued. Meanwhile, high-performing businesses get to grow. In contrast, poor performing government departments, even those suffering from major scandals, continue to operate. We can’t do without a policy department or a public health department. So the mechanism of differential rates of growth and decline, which act on organizations in the market, does not act on the public sector.

Therefore, in a public sector context, we actually need to do the hard work of reform. We need to turn all public agencies into performing organizations.

A “deeply American” model for change

Gabe describes a pathway to changing institutions that draws from the tradition of alternative institutions within social movements: build separate, parallel organizations outside of the existing organizations. Create “safe zones” that are insulated from normal pressures. Test and innovate in this safe zone. And if you come up with something that works, try to grow this alternative organization.

He describes this as a “deeply American” way of enacting change. The Puritans set up a model community and attract others to their way of life rather than directly reforming the Church of England.

It’s also the story of startups: Smart small with an MVP, win people over, then disrupt an incumbent or old way of life.

A word of caution

There obviously will be challenges along the way. Organizations will often face a dilemma when these “side projects” grow. When do you integrate? Do you subordinate the original team? Sometimes innovations fail at this juncture, but at least getting to this point gives you a chance to progress. During our discussion, a participant also pointed out that this is precisely why executive buy-in is so important.

Another pitfalls that Gabe has seen is that technology and innovation is great, but we have to make sure that the organization is capable of using it. This is consistent with the user-centered approach to building products — it doesn’t matter if the solution is great if your users don’t know how to use it.


San Francisco is lucky to have tremendous resources and an appetite for experimentation. These conditions make it possible to follow the model for change that Gabe described. Hopefully this means that we will continue to see solutions being incubated here then adopted in other cities.


This post was originally written for the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation blog.

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