Entrepreneurs: Celebrated in the Private Sector, Hidden in Government

September 17, 2010

Government 2.0, Social Media

Webster’s Dictionary defines an entrepreneur as “one who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise. It’s the “American dream” – owning your business, being your own boss, creating and growing something new and doing it better than anyone else. Kids are encouraged to dream big, to innovate, to invent, and to be ambitious. Silicon Valley has been built on the backs of these risk-taking entrepreneurs.

  • Facebook, the behemoth of a social network with 500 million worldwide users, was founded by a college student and his buddies.
  • Google, the search engine that processes  more than a billion searches a day, was founded by two graduate students.
  • Apple, the ubiquitous electronics company behind the iPhones and iPods we all carry around with us, was started by three guys building computers in their basement.
  • eBay, the most successful online auction site in the world, was started when someone bought computer programmer Pierre Omidyar‘s broken laser pointer on his personal auction site.

Read Fast Company. Read Wired. Read Inc. It’s not hard to find hundreds more stories just like these  – entrepreneurial people who have an idea, take a risk and build a business to scale that idea to the public.  Most of these ideas flame out, some become massive successes, but almost all will, at some point, go back to the drawing board and try to do it all again. There’s no shortage of opportunities to fix something or improve on something else, and the beautiful thing about America is that there will always be someone, somewhere, thinking of a way to fix it.

As this year’s Gov 2.0 Summit and Gov 2.0 Expo have shown, this spirit of entrepreneurship has spread to the DC area as well, prompting some to ask if DC can become the next Silicon Valley and Mark Drapeau to wonder about the long-term vision for for open government entrepreneurship. However, what struck me as I read through Mark’s article and GovFresh’s “10 Entrepreneurs Changing the Way Government Works” was they they focused entirely on people working in the private sector. Can civil servants not be entrepreneurs as well?

“One who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise.”

Does this not apply to those working IN government too? While they may not be entrepreneurs in the traditional sense, the spirit of entrepreneurship is certainly alive and well among those in the federal, state, and local government.  Unfortunately, while entrepreneurs who identify problems, take risks, and build businesses are celebrated and featured in glowing articles in magazines, those in the government who identify problems, take risks, and drive innovative changes usually toil in virtual obscurity at best, or are reprimanded at worst.

Dilbert.com

True open government entrepreneurship isn’t just about open data or mashups or social networking platforms or DC start-ups. It’s about those civil servants who organize, manage, and assume the risks of changing the way our government works. It’s about those analysts who create a platform that changes the way intelligence analysis is done. It’s about two State Department staffers fundamentally changing how diplomacy works.  Just because they’re not starting a business doesn’t make them any less of an entrepreneur.

Unfortunately, most civil servant entrepreneurs are hidden away from public view and recognition. For every Alec Ross and Sean Dennehy, there are ten other entrepreneurs who instead of being celebrated for their ambition, are penalized for their ambitions. Rather than New York Times articles or speaking slots at O’Reilly conferences, civil servant entrepreneurs instead hear:

  • “You can’t talk directly to the Director – you’re not high enough on the totem pole”
  • “That’s something that will have to be decided above your pay grade”
  • “Make sure you get approval from public affairs before you talk about that. And oh by the way, that process could take 1-2 weeks.”
  • “That’s not your job – let so-and-so deal with that”
  • “Sure, we might become more efficient, but that means we may also lose 2-3 billets and/or funding”
  • “According to policy X, that’s not allowed”

The long-term success of open government entrepreneurship lies not with more open government business models from the private sector, but within the government itself. We must do a better job of creating an environment where innovation and entrepreneurship is encouraged and rewarded. Government isn’t lacking for entrepreneurship opportunities, ideas, or ambitious people – it’s lacking the processes to do something with those ideas and people. Instead of relying on open government entrepreneurs in the public sector, let’s do a better job of encouraging and empowering the entrepreneurs within.

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About sradick

I'm Vice President, Director of Public Relations at Brunner in Pittsburgh. Find out more about me here (http://steveradick.com/about/).

View all posts by sradick
  • Mark Drapeau

    Steve, I like what you’re saying, but in my piece I defined “entrepreneur” as specifically, starting a business to be profitable. I think you’re describing something slightly different, which is entrepreneurial behavior by people who are not entrepreneurs. One might even say I show such behavior within a giant company; but I am not an entrepreneur in the sense I was writing about. I think saying that Jared Cohen (or others like him) is an “open government entrepreneur” is a stretch; however, he certainly has exhibited an entrepreneurial, risk-taking spirit in conducting his duties. There’s nothing wrong with being entrepreneurial from within government. I’m just interested, specifically, in where all the business people are if open government data is truly so “good” to release. Is the data profitable? And therefore, is it of sustainable use. I don’t think hackathons can solve the world’s problems.

  • Anonymous

    Oh, I totally agree that I’m talking about something different from what you wrote about. That’s why I defined the term up front – using Webster’s definition, I would definitely say that you’re an entrepreneur within a giant company. Your behavior (and that of Jared Cohen and others) is exactly the type of entrepreneur we need more of. I think your post is spot on from the perspective you’ve laid out – I’m just looking at it through a slightly different lens.

  • Anonymous

    I tried being an entrepreneur when I was in state government. I heard many of the excuses and reasons you listed — above your pay grade, not allowed, not your job — which is why I left for the private sector.

    I tried getting the department to start a blog when I left in 2007. Three years later, and they still don’t have one. Or a working Twitter account.

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  • Steve,

    Thanks for you for this post. I will say the following (and may pay for it later), but I have heard all of the reasons on your list. It is discouraging. I appreciate you paying respect to those of us in government that try to move the ball. I also appreciate those outside of government that apply the appropriate pressure. I just hope that more people get your message that the government is full of people who truly do want to help and are here to help. Recognition is nice and it feels good, but personally I wake up every morning with the hope that I will improve my community in some way. I serve the public because as a government employee it is my duty.

    I just wanted to thank you for paying respect to those that fight every day. The support of you and others provide is what we need. Please keep providing insight and we will keep fight the good fight. Together we will change our government and society.

    Cheers, Brian

  • Mark Drapeau

    Agreed. So is Carl Malamud an “open government entrepreneur” and where’s the gray area? 🙂 http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/09/now-this-is-how-a-checking-account-should-look/63544/

  • Anonymous

    Erik – and sadly, there are thousands more stories that mirror yours. People with this entrepreneurial spirit routinely leave government because they’re tired of the red tape and of not being able to be innovative. The private sector craves people like you while the public sector doesn’t quite know what to do with you. That’s what we have to change.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Bryan – always appreciate your insight too!

  • Anonymous

    Well, what makes matters worse is not only is entrepreneurship discouraged,
    but the pay is sucky enough that even if they did allow an entrepreneurial
    spirit, they’ll leave for an opportunity where the pay matches the energy
    they put into the work.

  • CynicFan

    Steve, Being now on the “Dark Side”, what I see as handicapping Government the most is the search for perfection in paperwork where perfection is defined by subjective review with the feeling that only by finding fault and/or error in work are you doing your job.

    The second biggest handicap is that an error or mistake results in the creation of a policy or procedure to avoid that mistake in the future without any consideration of the risk and consequence of the error (i.e will it ever occur again and is it worthwhile spending money to check constantly to make sure it never happens again).

    Entrepreneurship doesn’t survive in that type of environment.

  • Twitter Comment


    RT @sradick: Entrepreneurship needs to be encouraged and nurtured WITHIN Government ([link to post]) #gov20

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  • Twitter Comment


    Entrepreneurship needs to be encouraged and nurtured W/IN Government [link to post] #gov20 #govloop RT @AlecJRoss; RT @sradick

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  • Twitter Comment


    Good piece by Booz Allen’s @sradick – Entrepreneurship needs to be encouraged and nurtured WITHIN Government [link to post]

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • Twitter Comment


    RT @natedapore: gd piece by Booz Allen’s @sradick – Entrepreneurship needs 2 B encouraged & nurtured w/in Government [link to post]

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • Twitter Comment


    RT @nahumg: RT @natedapore: gd piece by …@sradick – Entrepreneurship needs 2 B encouraged & nurtured w/in Government [link to post]

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • Twitter Comment


    Where I work a student assistant has a class in entrepreneurship this term so I’ll get his take on [link to post].

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  • Twitter Comment


    Can civil servants not be entrepreneurs as well? ([link to post]) #government #entrepreneurship (via @AlecJRoss)

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  • Twitter Comment


    RT @AlecJRoss good piece by @BoozAllen’s @sradick entrepreneurship needs to be encouraged + nurtured w/in govt [link to post] #gov20

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  • Twitter Comment


    RT @evanbsmith: RT @sradick: Entrepreneurship needs to be encouraged and nurtured WITHIN Government ([link to post]) #gov20

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • Twitter Comment


    RT @Rchards: RT @evanbsmith: RT @sradick: Entrepreneurship needs to be encouraged and nurtured WITHIN Government ([link to post]) #gov20

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  • Twitter Comment


    RT @cheeky_geeky: Entrepreneurs: Celebrated in the Private Sector, Hidden in Government, by @sradick – [link to post] #gov20

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  • Twitter Comment


    RT @cheeky_geeky: Entrepreneurs: Celebrated in the Private Sector, Hidden in Government, by @sradick – [link to post] #gov20 #yam

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  • Twitter Comment


    Entrepreneurs: Celebrated in the Private Sector, Hidden in Government, by @sradick – [link to post] #gov20

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  • Twitter Comment


    “Open govt success lies not w private sector but w/in govt” rt @sradick: Entrepreneurship needs be encouraged & nurtured [link to post]

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  • Twitter Comment


    RT @meghaller: RT @sradick: Entrepreneurship needs to be encouraged and nurtured WITHIN Government ([link to post]) #gov20

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  • Twitter Comment


    RT @IdeaGov Entrepreneurship needs to be encouraged and nurtured WITHIN Government ([link to post]) #gov20

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  • Twitter Comment


    Check this; DOE: http://bit.ly/bjlGd1 RT @IdeaGov RT @meghaller RT @sradick: Entrepreneurship WITHIN Government ([link to post]) #gov20

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  • Twitter Comment


    We must do a better job 2 create an environment where innovation & entrepreneurship are encouraged & rewarded within Govt [link to post]

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • Twitter Comment


    Good piece by Booz Allen’s @sradick – Entrepreneurship needs to be encouraged and nurtured WITHIN Government ([link to post]) #gov20

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • Twitter Comment


    RT @artbaron @craignewmark @SteveCase @AlecJRoss Entrepreneurship needs to be encouraged & nurtured W/in Gov’t ([link to post]) #gov20

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  • Twitter Comment


    RT @AlecJRoss: @sradick – Entrepreneurship needs to be encouraged and nurtured WITHIN Government ([link to post]) #gov20

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • Twitter Comment


    Entrepreneurs: Celebrated in the Private Sector, Hidden in Government [link to post]

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • Twitter Comment


    RT @SteveCase RT @AlecJRoss: Good piece by @BoozAllen – ent.ship needs to be encouraged and nurtured in Government [link to post] #gov20

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • Twitter Comment


    RT @AlecJRoss: piece by Booz Allen’s @sradick – Entrepreneurship needs to be nurtured WITHIN Government ([link to post]) #gov20

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  • Twitter Comment


    RT @SteveCase RT @AlecJRoss: Entrepreneurship needs to be encouraged and nurtured WITHIN Government ([link to post]) #gov20

    Posted using Chat Catcher

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