Public Sector Innovation

Public Sector Innovation

Broadly defined, innovation involves a process of purposeful change. These changes range from improved processes, new or refined products or services, to new business models and strategies. Innovation occurs on a continuum from basic improvements to transformational or over the horizon initiatives.

Innovation occurs in any organization – private, public or not-for-profit, in any sector and any jurisdiction. In addition to regular innovation activities – such as, process improvement and new offerings – the public sector often takes responsibility for pursuing over-the-horizon, game changing innovation initiatives. Unlike most innovation projects where results emerge quickly, many public sector innovations may take years (or longer) to contribute to desired outcomes.

At the same time, public sector innovation is often patchy, uncertain and slow. Too often, solid ideas are not implemented and woven into operations and service delivery activities.

Innovation is important and challenging in all sectors.

There is now a recognition that different types of innovation require different approaches. Techniques that work for quality improvements – incremental changes in existing processes and offerings – are insufficient to support more complex and aspirational initiatives. When considering an innovation in a whole system, such as the types often initiated in a complex collaboration, which involve more actors, interdependencies and continually shifting contexts, a design-based approach is often more appropriate. However, innovating in a system must align key principles of the client- and society-facing aspects in the delivery and management systems as well as the underlying policy architecture. These can be invisible to those focusing only on the service or program.

We also recognize that ambitious innovation agendas in the end involve all types of innovations. An over-the-horizon initiative is made up of many smaller components that contribute to the overall aims and desires. Some of these smaller sub-elements can involve quality improvement approaches, others emerge from a traditional project-based approach and, still others benefit from a design-based methodology.

While the core principles of innovation are universal – consistent across sectors – public sector innovation involves unique processes and challenges. For example, public sector innovation occurs in a politicized setting – the interplay between government (particularly Cabinet and Minsters) and the public sector; new initiatives often require enabling legislation and regulations (with the resulting time period required for these systemic enablers to be created and approved); often, there is a high sensitivity and cautiousness around real and perceived risks (and, as a result, an unwillingness to move forward on initiatives). As well, obtaining adequate resources, navigating the highly formal budget planning and allocation system, finding ways to work on innovation projects (which typically require the flexible use of staff, resources and infrastructure) in systems designed for predictability and consistency also present challenges. The process of prototyping and purposeful pilot testing to assure a new approach will work across multiple settings and diverse populations is at odds with the need to show citizens new action. While these challenges can be overcome, public sector innovation requires that innovators (in our case, collaborative innovators) have the capabilities to navigate this complex environment.