Policy Innovation Through Creative Disruption: How Government Can Learn from the Private Sector

Through his groundbreaking work, economist Joseph Schumpeter described the process of “creative destruction.”  

It is the phenomenon where new technology often destroys and replaces existing technology in the business world.  The result is a product that is better than the one it replaced and a consumer who is better off because the new product. 

Old vs New

Although this transition can be painful for the maker of the old product, society benefits from the change.  It was difficult for horse and buggy makers when the automobile was invented, but the societal increases in productivity and quality of life were enormous as a result.  More recently, it has been extremely difficult for camera and film manufacturers to adjust to a world of digital cameras that are built into the smart phones that have become ubiquitous in modern life, however each of us is benefitting from this technological advancement.  New technology and creative thinking have allowed small, agile and inventive companies to upstage larger, slower, more traditional firms.

Promoting Entrepreneurship in the Public Sector

While innovation and reorganization are constantly happening in the private sector, these forces often struggle to occur in the public sector, especially at the federal level.  Too often, change is slow and inefficient, leaving the public struggling with old and outdated policies.

This problem is perpetuated by a bloated and unresponsive regulatory environment.  This is not necessarily by design, but it is the result of legislation that fails to anticipate how policies will be implemented and the nature of change.  Many of the nation’s problems aren’t being solved.  Indeed, many are becoming worse.

However, we are starting to see the rise of “policy entrepreneurs,” throughout our country, who are questioning the previous conceptions and challenging the status quo.  These individuals are promoting the idea of “creative disruption” as a way to advance policy change throughout the United States.  

Education Disruption

One area where disruptive innovation is having a large impact is in education policy.  For many years, the concept of a formal education involved a teacher lecturing to a group of students in a formal setting such as a classroom.  This model is similar whether at the elementary level or at the graduate level of instruction, and it has remained largely unchanged over time.  

However, with the advancements of the internet a new model is emerging.  It is changing the nature of education and is disrupting the old model as it advances.  

Khan Academy

The Khan Academy is one of the best examples of this creative disruption in education policy.  It is named after Salman Khan, the founder of the academy.  Mr. Khan never intended to create an organization that would challenge the notion of the traditional education paradigm.  Instead, he was simply trying to help tutor his cousin who was struggling with her math school work.  Since they didn’t live close together, in 2004 Mr. Khan recorded algebra lessons and posted them on YouTube.  

Soon, others began to watch the lessons and they increased in popularity very quickly.  By 2009, Mr Khan left his job and formed the Khan Academy, with the backing of a number of foundations throughout the country.  The Khan Academy is organized as a non-profit with the goal of providing free education to anyone.

At first, the Khan Academy focused entirely on mathematics instruction.  Lately, however, due to increased financial support, the academy has been able to expand to areas such as economics, history, finance, biology, and computer science, to name a few.  In 2015, the Khan Academy expanded beyond YouTube when it developed its own smart-phone app, which is available to download for free.  

The Khan Academy is now being translated into other languages, including Spanish, French, Italian, Chinese, Arabic, Russian, Swahili and many others.  The Khan Academy website has now been translated to 23 languages and its videos into 65 languages.  

In 2004, Salman Khan likely had no notion about how much his idea of online tutoring would revolutionize education instruction.  Furthermore, we are still in the early stages of this revolution.  It has the potential to provide the kind of creative disruption that will alter the way education is delivered for generations to come.  This new paradigm will surely be difficult for some to embrace, especially those who resist change.  However, it is the kind of innovation that can positively impact the lives of millions of students.  Those policy entrepreneurs who are supporting and promoting the Khan Academy understand the kind of fundamental policy change that this breakthrough can bring about.

Public Policy Can Benefit from the Lessons of Private Enterprise

Government can never operate exactly like a business.  It is fundamentally different in its purpose and its motivation. However, government can benefit from the pursuit of innovation and entrepreneurial policy-making to solve America’s problems.  If government encourages rather than resists policy innovation through creative disruption, positive changes to society can be realized.