• Opinion
  • January 10, 2019
  • 17 minutes
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Eight myths about public sector innovation — debunked

Opinion: Stereotypes about the public sector stymie innovation. Here's why many are false

This opinion piece was written by Ole Bech Lykkebo and Majken Præstbro from Denmark’s National Centre for Public Sector Innovation. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.


“Innovation is a foreign word in the public sector.” “Public employees are resistant to change.” “If the public sector were a car, it would be a Ford T.”

There are myriad cheeky one-liners to describe the public sector. The same is true of the myths that surround public sector innovation.

The majority are based on anecdotes, unsupported opinions and one-off stories about what this or that person once experienced. Each one of them may indeed contain an element of truth. At the same time, it does not hurt to subject them to a fact check.

Overlooking real problems

Anecdotes and individual cases constitute a poor basis for decision-making. The risk is using resources on non-problems and disregarding real, maybe future problems. That is an unsatisfactory basis for the crucial dialogue about how the public sector needs to evolve and become more future-oriented.

Fortunately, the debate has many nuances. However, all the myths and scandalmongering are enough to kindle spontaneous reactions and ignite shitstorms capable of filling Facebook pages with tons of traffic. And call for swift political action. But does this kind of debate constitute a promising road to new solutions? Hardly.

Dialogue is the key word. Certainly, an abundance of simple answers do not present themselves to the often complex questions facing the public sector. That is why we need an ongoing, nuanced, and multifaceted discussion on the basis of valid knowledge. So let’s have a look at some of the facts.

Separating myths from realities

In 2015, in association with Statistics Denmark, the National Centre for Public Sector Innovation began separating myths from realities. The result – The InnovationBarometer – was first published as a book in 2016. This meant that Denmark was the first country in the world to produce an official statistic for public sector innovation.

Subsequently, for some time now, we have been sharing and applying the results of the second edition of The InnovationBarometer. All sorts of different people regularly appropriate the figures and apply them for their own purposes: for teaching, research, consultancy services, legitimising certain decisions and criticising others.

“Four out of five public workplaces introduced at least one innovation over 2015-2016”

That is just fine by us. Statistics are public goods. Most recently, we published the book Nyt Sammen Bedre (New Together Better), a handbook on the subject of cooperation in public sector innovation, featuring about 100 of the many different public and private actors who have experiences as well as opinions on public sector innovation.

These new figures put an even brighter spotlight on the numerous myths. The myths can often be articulated more succinctly than the more sophisticated responses. But we must have a proper basis, from which to speak. So here are COI’s responses to the eight biggest myths about innovation in the public sector.

1. The public sector is not innovative

The myth: The public sector is large, cumbersome and bureaucratic. Employees are stifled by a no-error organizational culture, where no rewards are given for creating something new and mistakes are promptly punished.

Consequently, the public sector is inhabited by self-absorbed bureaucrats whose only concern is sticking to the rules for the sake of the system. On top of that, you have short-sighted politicians focusing primarily on their re-election, steering clear of any risky long-term development for fear of bad publicity. At the end of the day, all this prevents the public sector from being innovative.

The truth:
Four out of five public workplaces – 80% – introduced at least one innovation over 2015 to 2016. The innovations create many forms of value. Three out of four public sector innovations have led to improved quality, while just under half have led to higher efficiency. One out of three public sector innovations has led to more citizen involvement.

The large number of innovative public workplaces is matched by the public sectors in the other Nordic countries who have copied the Danish Innovation Barometer.

“The myth of the non-innovative public sector is hereby laid to rest. But that doesn’t mean we can sit back and relax. New, complex problems are constantly evolving, calling for innovation to tackle them,” says Ole Bech Lykkebo, Head of Analysis at COI.

2. The private sector is more innovative than the public sector

The myth: Private companies are driven to be innovative by market pressure: “Innovate or die”. That means the private sector is far more innovative than the public sector, where there is a lack of market competition and no financial incentives to take risks.

The truth: The majority of both small start-ups and large older companies are innovative. And innovation is an extremely important driver for export, growth and prosperity. And yes: Market competition is the most important driver of private innovation.

This is all well documented by innovation statistics for the private sector. But those statistics also reveal that many other companies are not innovative at all. According to Statistics Denmark, 44% of Danish companies were innovative in 2016. That figure has hovered between 41% and 47% since 2007. So, even though market competition is a significant driver for the many growth-generating innovations in the private sector, many companies make their money entirely by selling old stuff.

“The overall framework, the type of innovations and the value they create differs in the two sectors. So you cannot compare the 44% private innovative companies with the 80% innovative public workplaces. Nor can we say that the private sector as a whole is far more innovative than the public sector, just because market competition in the latter is less common,” says Ole Bech Lykkebo.

3. Public employees are opposed to change

The myth: The public sector is pervaded by conceited specialists, creatures of habit with a wage-earner mentality, strong trade unions and hundreds of different collective agreements that regulate simply everything. That means there will always be strong opposition to any change and innovation in the public sector. Our stone-age brains are not keen on change anyway. But things get really bad when you – as is the case in the public sector – assign employees the rights and power to hamper any development.

The truth: We cannot exclude the possibility that occasionally some of the aforementioned factors are present. But we can say that the overall picture is quite different. All kinds of professional competencies can contribute to innovation processes. Employees play a key role in nine out of 10 public sector innovations: specifically by initiating and promoting innovation. When they do, innovation processes more frequently leads to higher quality.

4. The public sector spends its time reinventing the wheel

The myth: Public workplaces are segregated from one another and spend their time reinventing the wheel. In Denmark, there are 98 municipalities and five regions with totally identical project portfolios. They all look the same, all have the same kinds of citizens and companies to serve, and still, we see them coming up with their own solutions to the same problems.

The truth: Almost 3 out of 4 solutions in public sector innovation reuses other people’s solutions. Brand new innovations account for only 18% of the cases. These copied or adapted innovations often create value too. So, overall, the public sector largely reuses each other’s solutions.

“Despite the widespread myth, the public sector is not constantly inventing solutions to the same problems. And that’s a good thing. To reuse a quote from a leader in the public sector: ‘We have acknowledged that we don’t all have to reinvent the wheel by ourselves. Using the very best wheels that other people have invented is fine’,” says Majken Præstbro, Head of Relations at COI.

5. The public sector is afflicted by the “not-invented-here” syndrome

The myth: The “not-invented-here” syndrome – the rejection of the solutions of others simply because they were developed elsewhere – prevails in the public sector. It may very well be that public sector workplaces reuse, but we often hear of a municipality conjuring something up itself, even though it already exists somewhere else in the country. So I do not believe they are good at copying each other.

The truth: There may be some truth in the suggestion that public employers have a greater tendency to adapt the solutions of others rather than making faithful copies. We can see that only 15% of workplaces directly copy the solutions of others. Maybe organisations have a tendency to overestimate how special they are, thereby also overestimating the need to adapt a solution for their own particular context.

6. Digital platforms are the most effective way to spread innovation

The myth: It requires virtually no resources to spread your knowledge and your excellent solutions globally. If you put your innovations on a website, other people can access them easily and draw inspiration from them. In other words, websites featuring positive case stories and portals providing a complete overview of the innovation landscape are the most effective means of spreading innovations. After all, we are spending people’s taxes, so we should save money, where we can.

The truth: When asked about the channels, through which public sector employees and leaders had become aware of a solution that had inspired them or they had copied, only 11% said they heard about the solution via websites and email newsletters, 8% via social media and 8% via news media coverage. This is despite the fact that a startling 50% of the innovators, who have tried to spread innovation, say that they tried to share it on their own website and in email newsletters, while 23% tried to share it via news media coverage and 23% via social media.

“There’s a contradiction between what we think works for other organisations and what works for us, when we draw inspiration from others. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that it’s more legitimate (and convenient) in a workplace to publish content on websites. But our figures reveal that it’s those physical meetings  – personal networks, attending conferences or discussions between staff in your own workplace – that work,” says Majken Præstbro, Head of Relations at COI.

7. Financial pressure is always good for innovation

The myth: External financial pressure is good for innovation. It keeps people on their toes and kindles change. As we all know, necessity is the mother of invention. Conversely, an abundance of resources makes us lazy, and encourages us to rest on our laurels.

The truth: Yes and no. Financial pressure can actually promote the innovation process. It is a driver for 23 % of public sector innovations. However, in another 36% of innovations, budget limitations hamper the innovation process. Out of a long list of various factors, budget limitations is the factor that most frequently has an inhibitive effect. So the situation is not black or white. We simply cannot say that financial pressure is always conducive to innovation in the public sector.

8. Denmark is a frontrunner when it comes to public sector innovation

The myth: A myth also prevails within the public sector — that Denmark is at the forefront of public sector innovation. We prioritise development and we are the world digitisation champions. We concentrate on robot technology, and we have already come a long way in some places. Other countries constantly visit us to learn about our work.

The truth: Yes, the United Nations actually named Denmark the best country in the world when it comes to digital government. But in terms of public sector innovation in general, all the other Nordic countries are equally as innovative as Denmark. We are not even the Nordic champions.

“It’s no longer just Silicon Valley and China, we’re playing second fiddle to. The other Nordic countries have come at least as far as us and are currently on the point of overtaking us. They are all fortifying the innovation supply chain, practically, politically and systemically, and backing their efforts with subsidy schemes,” said Majken Præstbro, Head of Relations at COI. — Paul Sauer and Ole Bech Lykkebo

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