• Opinion
  • August 10, 2018
  • 8 minutes
  • 2

Diversity in public sector innovation: does it really matter?

Opinion: Today's "innovators" look a lot like those who have always had power

This piece was written by Supriya Trivedi, an intern at the OECD’s Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (OPSI). It can also be found on our government innovation newsfeed.

Diversity in innovation, what does that mean? Why am I thinking about it?

Last year, I worked on a conference on how public sector innovation could fit into all facets of social policy. At first, it felt like a breath of fresh air. Change in government seemed imminent. Even though I was drawn to the public sector because I wanted to improve people’s lives, I sometimes secretly wondered if my future would just be grey days in a cubicle, working on some unimportant document while awaiting my pension.

The world of innovation promised an out. My first glimpse of it through the conference showed me a public sector Narnia: stepping through the door would take me to a land where public servants were fearless but strategic risk-takers, change-makers and disrupters. And, they were actually praised for being so.

Unfamiliar people, unfamiliar ideas

So, it was decided: I was going to be an innovator. My first step on this journey had me think about the current problems my team — mostly made of males and middle-aged people — were working on. I knew that I could bring my unique perspective as a young, freshly graduated, indo-Canadian woman to help me shape a solution that my team had perhaps not thought about.

We were looking at ways to heighten user-centricity on our communication platform to draw more young people to innovation. We wanted to develop a social media campaign that could help achieve this goal. This was a perfect opportunity: I had experience in social media, and was precisely the kind of young professional we were trying to attract.

“The people who get to be recognised as innovators still look a lot like those who have always had power and influence”

After a few days of thinking and running ideas by colleagues, I felt ready to voice my opinion at the next team meeting. I made my points with confidence, and used my experience to illustrate them. The idea I proposed came from a thought process that took into consideration my own diversity and the diversity of the target professionals: gender, ethnicity, age.

I knew my point was relevant, but it was met with blank stares and confusion. I knew I was not alone in having experiences like these. Why were different opinions, from people who might seem “different”, so readily dismissed?

Perhaps this was the paradox of the current ways teams are “doing” innovation. Even though innovation aims to change and question the status quo, the people involved are not always willing to turn that critical eye on themselves. While innovation often seems progressive and transformative from the outside, innovation teams or the people who get to be recognised as innovators still look a lot like those who have always had power and influence…

Diversity in innovation: old problem, new arena?

Can innovation achieve its ends of progression and transformative change if it continues to be dogged by conventional problems of equality and equity?

I’m probably not the first person to offer a viewpoint, from personal experience, in a meeting and have it fall on deaf ears. Or the first to look at the lauded “change makers” making waves in the field and see that they don’t look like me.

If we care about innovation being about true change, from the inside out, then we need to start asking questions about this. Representation and participation matter.

What you can do

I see the point of increasing diversity within innovation as a form of innovative practice in itself. For me, diversity is not only about increasing representation, but also ensuring that people with different backgrounds are given the same amount of time and opportunities.

“Public sector innovation is not an empty buzzword. At its most elemental, it is a practice; a way of seeing things and a way of working”

Public sector innovation is not an empty buzzword or abstract concept. At its most elemental, it is a practice; a way of seeing things and a way of working. Like with any human activity, it has social dimensions. Their influence on the way we “do” innovation and, significantly, who gets to be recognised as an “innovator”, has consequences for innovation’s impact and import.

During my internship at the OECD’s Observatory for Public Sector Innovation (OPSI), I am conducting research on how governments can better support women who want to enter the world of innovation. I am investigating how governments encourage diversity in public sector innovation projects and looking at the significance and influence of diversity on innovation practice or outcomes.

Do you have an experience or thoughts to share? I am looking for interview subjects who would be willing to discuss their views on the links between diversity and innovation, their personal or professional experiences on the topic, or who can point to best practice where governments are actually supporting women within innovation. To get involved, you can join sign up to OPSI’s platform and connect with me in the Diversity in Innovation group.

If innovation is really this magical land that I once thought it was, then I believe we need lots of different people with different backgrounds to help open that magical wardrobe door. Let’s start the conversation to help lead the way. — Supriya Trivedi

This article was originally published on OPSI’s blog.

(Picture credit: Pexels)



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