Why Don’t Governments Invest in R&D?

How many governments would risk spending (investing) $5 million a year knowing they might save multiple times that amount in the future?


And I know that the word “might” is enough to quickly order the thinker to not even go there.

I also know that Research & Development is not totally absent in local government by any means. If the fire department buys a drone for their use and the police department asks for them to let them “play” with it to test a use in law enforcement, that experiment on slack time for both departments is a form of R&D.

But think of the areas in your city where service costs are growing and draining more resources each year – with control only getting tougher in the future. What would the private sector do? They would put money in R&D knowing that the investment now will enable for them to survive in the future. I know it’s not exactly the same in government.

Oh my, why did I just say that? It’s because I’ve been involved in local government for most of my career. To jump up first with a defensive argument of why we are different or why it won’t work here is a revealing statement.

The Think Tank

When just a young pup in my early career at the City of Garland, the City Manager, Charlie Duckworth had a coffee meeting for a handful of employees. He was seeking input on ideas and observations from mid-level employees and young professionals. I suggested the City create a Think Tank. I had just read a book with that title, and it may be about the time I read the book Mega Trends.

Typical of the fast-acting City Manager, he created just that kind of organization. I still have the booklet outlining the “charge” at that time. Also, typical of most cities, the think tank went nowhere fast as the crisis of the day shoved the idea to the back burner to disappear and never be revived.

I’ve often wondered if this idea had stayed on the front burner, and given some resources, would it have produced more than ideas but rather a completely different way of doing things over four decades later? I want to think so, but …

Another Thought

I’ve often wondered how resourceful staffers would be if they really had an incentive (and mostly the time) to take all of their experiences and smarts to blossom in the R&D mode?

“Here’s the deal: I will dedicate three people to create a Public Safety R&D function. I will give them x millions of dollars (depending on your city size) and five years to find ways to improve performance and save multiple times the investment. They would be free to look at all possibilities, including training (staff, public), technology and, get this, to spend as much money on preventive things as on responding to the demand not under their control. Prevention is our only hope. Progress would be reported on a monthly basis. A significant bonus would be made at the end of the R&D experiment for verifiable savings and workable solutions. The expectation is that we can truly reinvent government in ways not even envisioned today.”

Okay, I know I may be dreaming. But I do know that not much changes except for getting more expensive when there is no reason to change in a risk-adverse environment.

I read a story this morning about the Amarillo Police Department having 85 car thefts reported in one month, with 77 of those with keys left in them! I see these kinds of stories, and I think SENSELESS WORKLOAD. I assume that some fashion of R&D goes on to address the time required to deal with the 77, including how to prevent as well as how to recover the cost.


I know full well that various forms of R&D are on-going in every organization. To not be ALWAYS looking for ways to do the job better and to save money would be mismanagement.

My main purpose here is to point out how interesting it is that without R&D, many private sector companies would be doomed. And somewhere and somehow, I believe it is imperative that local governments increase their investment in R&D to be effective in a future where resources are going to be under greater pressure. Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. We are staring at that mandate.

Lastly, I am incapable of thinking about this topic of R&D without recalling my favorite scene in Robot cop. Language warning needed for the easily offended. However, you can watch it with the sound off and still appreciate the message. LFM


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