Advice from Silicon Valley: How tech-sector practices can promote innovation in government


In March 2018, McKinsey and The Aspen Institute held a two-day event with senior government leaders and tech industry executives to explore how lessons from Silicon Valley could be implemented by government. Topics covered included resource allocation, talent management and organizational culture.

While the advice that arose from the discussion does not touch on nutrition, there are important lessons for governments, donors and policymakers to consider in the funding, design and implementation of nutrition programmes. This article also highlights the need for sectors to work together, taking advantage of existing expertise, systems and data to help create better and more effective policies and services. Some of the key lessons from the report are summarised below:


Think big but start small. 

To do this, the Silicon Valley executives offered a practical, three step approach: fast, flexible ways of working; a focus on minimally viable products, which offer just enough features to satisfy early adopters; and rapid user testing.


Focus on the end user.

For governments, end users include citizens as well as companies, organisations, and foreign visitors and investors. To really put them at the centre of the work “requires a close consumer-facing, individual-user perspective, both on today’s users and on the next wave about to come online.


Such a paradigm shift can be challenging, but an empathetic, citizen-obsessed perspective will allow public-sector leaders to create programs and products that generate significantly better outcomes at a significantly faster pace. 


Solicit feedback in real time.

Innovations in Silicon Valley depend on feedback loops that help improve products – this includes negative reviews. This process allows more responsive adaptation, and will help governments understand the perspectives of their ‘customers’.


Make room for failure. 

Rather than long phase projects with minimal reviews, innovators advocate for short testing cycles and small-scale pilots which allow for regular assessment of progress. Executives say this offers more opportunity to correct and improve products and services, and ultimately launch better products more quickly, and with lower costs.


Don’t wait for the perfect moment. 

Conditions will never be perfect for major change, so instead governments are advised to develop pilot projects to test in current environments. With this approach, “governments can first, prove that an idea has value, build upon it to determine the direction of change, and then decide which bigger tech changes might unlock additional value.”


Take an agile approach.

In addition to short testing and feedback cycles, the agile organisation model allows companies “to assemble the right people quickly to solve the problem at hand, regardless of organisational reporting structures, hierarchies or presumed resource constraints.”  This is very different to the often long, complex, and bureaucratic approval processes and rigid organisational structures in governments.


Embrace changing nature of work.

Increasingly workers – especially millennials – are looking for purpose driven work, changing jobs more frequently and adapting to ‘gig economy‘ rather than long-term career paths. Employment in the public sector may offer more value to job seekers, but governments need to adapt to changes to ways of working.


“Governments have the best missions and the best purpose. Their missions are transformational to people’s lives. For millennials, that’s a motivator—and governments can build on this mind-set to create talent-sharing opportunities across agencies and even across the public and private sectors.


Capitalise on partnerships and collaboration.

The success of innovations in Silicon Valley rely on integrating and building off existing products and systems to create the best user experience without reinventing the wheel. For example, Uber technologies partnered with government to share - for free - better, more accurate traffic data. With this new information, transit and transportation agencies were better equipped to create and implement policy.


Government leaders should look outside their organisations to find better, cheaper, or faster solutions that already exist and could improve the quality of desired outcomes—or even create ecosystem benefits the organization might not have imagined.”


This resource is based on experience or opinion