Creating the Conditions for Change

February 12, 2021–By Kyla Fullenwider

In his 1962 book “Diffusions of Innovations,” author Everett Rogers defines an innovation simply as “anything perceived as new by its audience.” In fact, his research started with a study on the uptake of a new corn seed among farmers in rural Iowa. His now classic adoption curve shows how innovations are accepted by a population and how the uptake of anything new is—at the end of day—something that can only happen if people choose to adopt the change. 

Adopting change is at the heart of what the stories in this first release of The New Government Appointee Guidebook are all about. We start with work at the U.S. Census Bureau’s Open Innovation Labs, where the team came to understand the very real innovation fatigue career staff felt after many years (and sometimes decades) of “transformation efforts” and the critical importance of bringing people—and the institution—along with you. We look at both external-facing initiatives that asked the public to engage with the federal government in new ways and internal-facing initiatives that asked career staff to approach their work in new ways. And we explore how creating long term change, by necessity, means institutionalizing it. 

Cover of The New Government Appointee Guidebook.
Read the Guidebook

The phrase “if you build it they will come” has long haunted product designers and political leaders alike. Who hasn’t launched a new feature or created a new program that fell flat? At the federal Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) where a program not achieving its full agenda can mean fewer people across the world can access clean drinking water or U.S. taxpayers dollars are less effective than intended, they know all too well that just because you build it, doesn’t mean they will come. The Social and Behavioral Change team at MCC dubbed this the “field of dreams fallacy” and built an entire unit around refuting this notion. They also applied their expertise in engaging their colleagues as they stood up their new team, knowing that before they made their case to the world they needed to start inside the building. 

We also feature a series of quick tips—in the form of a checklist—on creating culture change from learnings at the Health and Human Services in the Office of the Surgeon General. Culture change may come in the form of something as banal as updating a performance review or as unlikely as a meeting over ping pong but it is nonetheless as critical as a technological or design innovation itself. You will see how the Surgeon General and his team found ways to both work within the bounds of the institution but to also leave it better than they found it. 

What these accounts have in common is not the products they created, the websites they rolled out, or the security features they launched, but rather an empathic understanding of what it takes to do the hard work of institutional change. Fear of change is real. And yet, what these stories demonstrate is that people and the institution are central to any new effort’s likelihood to succeed. In other words, you can’t make change without the people, and you can’t sustain change without the institution.

Up Next: Explore how to put some of the ideas into action in Section II: Tech Competencies for the 21st Century 

Kyla Fullenwider is a fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation and the National Conference on Citizenship. She served as the first Chief Innovation Officer for the U.S. Census Bureau. Follow her at @KylaFullenwider.