• Opinion
  • November 9, 2018
  • 9 minutes
  • 1

What makes human services innovation tick?

Opinion: Nothing undermines innovation more than a highly risk-averse culture

This opinion piece was written by Gaurav Gujral, who leads Accenture’s global consulting practice for social services. 


Human services agencies play a vital role in society, providing a wide range of services to help citizens lead better, more productive lives. However, budget constraints and rising expectations for modern, customer-focused delivery have many organisations searching for new ways to improve operations and outcomes. A recent survey from Accenture of government social service and employment agency professionals in 10 countries found that 90% see “innovation” as an important part of the equation. Unfortunately, many lack a clear understanding of what it takes to be innovative.

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To help such organisations systematically cultivate innovation, we developed a framework that outlines the key characteristics and enablers of innovation in human services. The results revealed that standout innovative organisations, around 15% of those surveyed, distinguish themselves in three main categories: leadership and culture, ecosystems and technology adoption.

What factors influence innovation?

Innovation isn’t just an action — it’s a state of mind. Leaders in human services take steps to create a culture of innovation within their organisation, by cultivating an environment that rewards risk-taking, collaboration and creative thinking. For example, organisations that provide their people with incentives such as honorary placements or fellowships are significantly more innovative. It’s also important to avoid a siloed, department-specific approach to innovation.

Innovation isn’t just an action — it’s a state of mind

High-performing agencies understand that taking a cross-functional approach to the innovation process leads to greater success. Leaders also ensure that innovation-focused initiatives align with their strategic objectives. More than 60% of such agencies that our research identified as leaders explicitly encourage innovation, compared to 37% of other agencies.

Another defining characteristic of innovation leaders is their tendency to create an ecosystem to boost innovation. More than 80% of leading agencies collaborate with third parties on IT modernisation initiatives, and most encourage the development of new ideas from outside sources.

Case in point: our research found that employment services agencies tend to have a greater capacity for innovation than other segments within government, in large part because they generally operate as part of an ecosystem of diverse but linked participants — jobseekers, employers, trainers, civil servants.

KEHA, the Finnish employment services agency, is an example of embracing an ecosystem to create new value and better outcomes for job seekers, employers, and a variety of service providers. KEHA created a “platform of platforms” to connect all employment stakeholders.

Citizens and immigrants use it to recognise and build skills, find job opportunities, and obtain life-coaching support. Meanwhile, private and public employers use it to find and attract talent, while public, private and third-party service providers and public service orchestrators connect people and employers via a “digital marketplace”.

Unsurprisingly, innovation leaders are also ahead of the curve when it comes to implementing new technologies. More than 60% are leveraging cloud platforms to reduce costs, enable data collaboration and accelerate technology adoption, compared to only 38% of their less-innovative peers.

Meanwhile, more than 50% report using emerging technologies such as video analytics, biometrics or blockchain to fuel their missions. Innovative organisations embrace open-data principles at a higher rate, publishing data for public consumption and engaging with developers to explore new capabilities that could improve citizen service.

Virtual agents are enabling Australia’s Department of Human Services to streamline processes and provide more personalised services to citizens

Organisations that embrace technology often see remarkable results. For example, virtual agents are enabling Australia’s Department of Human Services to streamline processes and provide more personalised services to citizens. “SAM” responds to questions on family and student benefits and helps users navigate the Department website, while “Roxy” helps claims processing officers with policies and procedures.  Roxy can answer 80% of inquiries, freeing up humans to perform more complex tasks.

The research identified additional enablers that underpin innovation in human services: finance, skills, ability to scale, and impact measurement. Significantly, leaders in human services allocate more than 10% of their budget toward innovation, compared to less than 4% among peer agencies. From a measurement perspective, nearly 90% of high-performing agencies have a framework in place to evaluate the impact and ROI of innovation initiatives.

Overcoming barriers to innovation

What’s keeping organisations in human services from moving more aggressively to cultivate innovation?

Nothing undermines innovation more than a highly risk-averse culture

One significant barrier is fear of failure. Nothing undermines innovation more than a highly risk-averse culture, as found in many public agencies. Leaders can address this by reframing risks and rewards in terms of public value. Driving innovation depends on enabling some experimentation, including the use of incentives and redefinition of key performance indicators and desired behaviours.

Specific people or positions within an organisation must be empowered to innovate and supported with tools and technologies. Capability development is essential fuel for innovation, and performance appraisal processes may need realignment to value and reward innovation.

Upskilling and empowering the workforce is essential for innovation

Secondly, upskilling and empowering the workforce is essential for innovation. Innovating effectively partially rests on agencies’ abilities to evaluate workforce talent and skills gaps and invest in training and recruitment to address the gaps. Crowdsourcing and building talent “cooperatives” across aligned organisations are additional options to complement workforce innovation capabilities.

As the ultimate goal of human services innovation is more effective citizen services, citizen-centric design initiatives can provide the pathway for mobilising innovators and identifying and implementing better ways to operate or deliver services. Engaging front-line employees and citizens, co-creation sessions with end-users, data mining and analytics and problem-solving with ecosystem partner organisations are among the options to tap new insights and steer innovation to improve citizen services.

Innovating with purpose involves developing organisational culture, collaborating within and often across ecosystems and an openness to use of new tools and emerging service opportunities. Truly innovative organisations know that modernisation initiatives must be mission-driven, and they’re not afraid to take risks or work with others to reach their goal.

By fostering innovation in a more deliberate manner, human services leaders boost the chances of dramatic success in achieving the outcomes they aspire to. — Gaurav Gujral

(Picture credit: Unsplash/Jacek Dylag)

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