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Deval Patrick on government innovation and the Massachusetts “edge”

Innovative leadership is about “risk-taking and willingness to fail,” former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick said in a May 8 talk with students at MIT Sloan.

So there may be no industry less susceptible to innovation than government, he suggested.

“I really do feel that this culture of innovation is an economic strategy,” Patrick said. “I also think it’s enormously important that culture infuse government, it infuse schools, and so on. Very hard to do in some of these institutions when you realize the aversion to risk is so high. You can make a mistake in government, even a small one … huge, right? So people don’t try things. And yet we need to try things."

Patrick, a Democrat, was governor from 2007 until earlier this year. After leaving office, he took jobs as an ambassador for Boston 2024, the civic organization leading the city’s contentious Olympic bid, and at Bain Capital, where he will oversee investments in companies with a positive social impact.

At MIT, he is a visiting fellow at the institute’s innovation initiative, where he spent the spring semester examining the intersection of innovation and public policy.

On government’s role in an individual’s success

A pro-government Democrat who grew up relying on food stamps, Patrick cast as a myth the idea of the self-made individualist.

“Individuals are indeed responsible for the hard work, discipline, sacrifice, and mental toughness necessary to excel,” he said. “But a community helped me rise from the South Side of Chicago to law school, to partnership in two big law firms, to the executive ranks of Fortune 50 corporations, and to the statehouse. And here’s the rub: sometimes that community is government.”

“Government is not some abstract thing out there,” Patrick said. “It’s us.”


“One of the reasons why I think that MIT has the footprint it does in the innovation space—and this is more kind of a feel—is that it’s a humbler institution. It’s a more modest institution,” Patrick said. “The reason I think that’s important is because collaboration is critical in the innovation space. Frankly, I think it’s critical in the 21st century economy.”

On the Massachusetts “edge”

Patrick emphasized the role of higher education in forming “innovation clusters” outside Greater Boston, including The Business Growth Center’s association with the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the higher education connections to Entrepreneurship for All in Lowell.

“The reason we emphasize this here in Massachusetts is because brainpower is our edge,” he said. “We don’t have oil or corn or things like that that other states pay attention to … for their own economic and cultural growth. We have brainpower. I think we are really fortunate to have that edge at this time in economic and human history because of the explosion of knowledge.”

On making government more innovative

“The public hasn’t made up its mind whether it wants government to try things or not,” Patrick said. “You try things, and people celebrate when you make the announcement, and then it goes sideways and they freak. And they’re encouraged to do so by a media which sensationalizes everything. The [Massachusetts health insurance] website experience was telling, right? The machine didn’t work. We added hundreds of thousands of people to health care while the machine didn’t work. But the story was ‘The machine doesn’t work.’ Well what was the point? To have a really cool website? Or to sign people up for health care?”

“I think some of this is up to us as citizens,” he said. “We’ve got to want change, but we’ve got to be realistic that change is messy.”

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