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Public Entrepreneurship Defined

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Harvard Professor Howard Stevenson studied and taught entrepreneurship at the Ivy league school for many years. Stevenson’s explanation of entrepreneurship as “ the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled” is accepted as the gold standard definition.

An article in Harvard Business Review details Stevenson’s logic. You can find it here: In that article, they explain the three elements of entrepreneurship: pursuit, opportunity, and beyond resources controlled. Let’s explore how that definition applies to public entrepreneurship.

“Pursuit” implies a singular focus and a sense of urgency. In the government sector, especially the military sector, entrepreneurship is necessary to meet a critical requirement. For instance, right after troops were deployed to Iraq, roadside bombs were destroying military vehicles, causing many casualties among American troops. The Army needed a quick solution — they did not have time for the years of development and testing normally associated with new equipment. Army Research Lab developed a way to uparmor HMMWVs that were already in use in theater and rushed it to the battlefield in 60 days.

 “Opportunity” implies a novel offering that is a new product, a new business model, or a new application for an existing product. In the blog post “Meet three government entrepreneurs,” we introduced you to a scientist at USDA who upended the product development cycle when she built the customer base first and then created the new product. This is the essence of entrepreneurship.

 “Beyond resources controlled” is an especially important element of government entrepreneurship. Merely executing a funded project is not in itself entrepreneurial. Expanding the scope of that funded project to solve more problems, is entrepreneurial. An example of this: In recent years the volume of environmental samples that need to be analyzed has risen exponentially. Often these samples are contaminated but their exact hazard is unknown and they must be analyzed in specialized containment facilities. Three government agencies are responsible for different aspects of collecting and analyzing samples, each with their own outdated facilities. Instead of building three replacement facilities, leaders of Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation pooled their money and constructed one facility to handle each of their three missions. This was unprecedented and required strong entrepreneurial skills to put this deal together, overcoming institutional biases and the bureaucracies of three government organizations.

As you can see, entrepreneurship in government is alive and well, creating better solutions and reducing cost.