For government innovation to take off, it needs to break out of the lab

Opinion: All public servants need the skills to change how government works

This opinion piece was written by Ed Bernacki, who has been part of many public sector innovation projects in various countries. It also appears on our government innovation newsfeed. 


A single team or lab could never create the volume of ideas needed to make hundreds of small improvements in all aspects of a complex organisation.

That became obvious to me while working for New Zealand Post. I was in the Total Quality Service team, which had a year to develop comprehensive strategies to improve internal and external services.

We set up a service design capability to pilot new business mail service designs. Yet it was obvious that we had to build the skills of staff across the organisation to create solutions to our challenges. Collectively, this built our capacity to innovate.

My specialty became translating innovation and improvement knowledge and strategies into communication tools for managers to engage their staff. This started with a deep understanding of the skills, tools and stories we wanted to cascade down to staff.

We created training programs and resources. We also wanted staff to solve the challenges in their own jobs.

“A single lab could never create the volume of ideas needed to make hundreds of small improvements in all aspects of a complex organisation”

I later worked with Singapore to help launch a national public sector innovation skills model (and training programs). My role was to write an innovation guide to reach 20,000 staff. It gave staff a practical understanding of what it means to be innovative and how and why this may differ from what they were doing now.

The innovation skills framework opened with this statement: “To build our innovation capacity we must focus on creating a culture that supports new thinking. For individual public officers, we can provide essential training to enhance their capability to innovate.”

This understanding of building a capacity to innovate is given too little focus amid the vast innovation buzz today. For example, the OECD OPSI office reviewed Canada’s approach to public sector innovation, calling it “relatively immature”. It did not criticise the numerous innovation labs inside departments; it criticised the lack of tactics to design and build capacity to innovate. A shortcoming was the lack of communication, training or other initiatives to build the capacity of 250,000 public servants to innovate.

Building capacity to innovate

This need to build capacity was well defined by the former Clerk of the Privy Council in Canada. Jocelyne Bourgon wrote, “Governments around the world are inventing solutions to society’s problems. State intervention and public innovation are inseparable entities. Public innovation is both the goal and the process of generating innovative solutions. The difficulty is preparing government to improve its capacity to generate interventions.”

Governments must consider how they pursue two areas of expertise:

  1. Innovation in public services: creating innovative solutions to solve challenges, improving systems, practices and service delivery functions. For example, innovation labs, digital transformation and new service models can improve service delivery.
  2. Building capacity for public service innovation: the capacity of government to invent solutions to the current and future challenges facing society. This requires innovation skills training, processes, tools and internal HR, communications and support services aligned to support new initiatives.

Today, the OECD makes the same observation:

“Around the world, the majority of government innovation agendas are built on loosely defined concepts and inconsistent implementation strategies. Most governments do not incorporate innovation into competency frameworks that prepare civil servants to meet challenges, and close to half have not allocated dedicated funding for innovation.

“Perhaps, most importantly, innovation too often occurs in pockets and silos – an age-old challenge of government – such as hubs and labs. As long as this is the case, innovation may at best burn like a series of bright matches, but will never ignite a fire across government.”

Making innovation meaningful to staff is the major challenge for all levels of government: innovation skills cannot be held by those in innovation labs alone. While this seems intuitive, the lack of focus on building capacity to innovate or on educating and empowering staff remains a critical unsolved challenge.

Ignoring the need to build this capacity will leave problems poorly solved or worse, ignored until there is a crisis. — Ed Bernacki

(Picture credit: Pexels)

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