• Analysis
  • February 1, 2019
  • 10 minutes
  • 4

What is government innovation?

Everyone's talking about it — here, we break down what public sector innovation really means

This piece is part of a monthly email series called The Explainer, which breaks down big issues in public service in easy-to-understand terms. Sign up for the email here.

If you work in the public sector, you’ve probably heard the term “government innovation”. But do you really know what it means?

There are many complex definitions out there, but broadly the term refers to the process of implementing new approaches to tackle old problems, with the goal of helping public services better serve citizens.

But as innovation techniques gain traction outside of labs and units specifically devoted to experimentation, that definition is evolving.

While innovation is synonymous with invention in the private sector, government innovation is its own beast. It may mean turning a new idea into a policy or process, but it can also mean building and improving upon solutions that already exist.

(Have questions about how to make this work in your department? See our Quickfire Q&A below.)

To get buy-in for innovation in government, we have to understand what it is and how it’s achieved — and dispel any notion that the term is an oxymoron.

With trust in government at an all-time low in many countries, it’s more important than ever to replace archaic systems and services with better ones.

But, in a climate of scepticism, margins of error are tight. There’s less time and money for civil servants to talk about and test new solutions. Failure, an inevitable part of innovation, becomes less acceptable.

When we overlook government’s role in innovation, policymakers are less likely to take risks in the future — which is why building an understanding of innovation in the public sector is key.


Innovators from the Danish Design Centre at work

Innovators from the Danish Design Centre at work

But what makes something an innovation?

From India’s national digital ID and Estonia’s data embassy to Singapore’s robotic police force, it’s technocentric innovations that grab headlines.

But one of the most misleading and dangerous assumptions about innovation is that it must involve complex technology. It gives public servants without digital skills the impression that innovation is unattainable.

And most would say that for a policy, intervention or approach to be innovative, it has to be new.

But single-minded focus on novelty leaves us constantly reinventing ourselves. We spend millions redesigning government websites that don’t work. We axe schools’ arts and sports programs to pay for tablets with few proven educational benefits. We use AI in courtrooms to save time, only to find out it can discriminate against minorities.

“Single-minded focus on novelty leaves us constantly reinventing ourselves”

This isn’t to say government should never try anything completely new, or use technology to tackle social problems. Tech has helped solve a number of them, from curing malaria to combating air pollution and curbing loneliness.

Often, there are simpler, tried-and-tested fixes out there. It’s when policymakers use technology or reinvent policies just for the sake of it that we waste time and money.

duduThe government of Argentina runs its own innovation school

The government of Argentina runs its own innovation school

You may have to look to another country to find out which tools and methods work — or they may exist in your own backyard.

Research conducted by the Danish government, often cited as one of the most inventive in the world, found that most innovations introduced by its public servants are inspired by or copied from other departments.

“You can’t fully grasp public sector innovation looking through the same lens as you would the private sector”

It may seem like a contradiction: copying someone else’s policy and calling it innovation. But, as one of the researchers in charge told us: “You can’t fully grasp public sector innovation looking through the same lens as you would the private sector”.

The easiest way for policymakers to innovate, they found, is by reproducing a solution that works. (While, of course, tailoring it to their own context.)

It’s not just Denmark — governments all over the world are replicating solutions proven to have worked elsewhere. The UK’s Government Digital Service, for example, shared code and lessons from its successful digital transformation process with New Zealand to help it get a head start on providing digital services.

Innovation lab La 27e Région's mission is to transform French bureaucracy

Innovation lab La 27e Région’s mission is to transform French bureaucracy

Regardless of how they’re achieved, the best public sector innovations take a system that’s hard, slow or inefficient and make it easy-to-use and impactful. The innovation may lie in changing how public servants work — rather than introducing a new program or policy.

And they should focus on what citizens want and need, not necessarily what looks flashiest. This may mean working on simple ways to improve roads, hospitals and schools, rather than using the latest application of blockchain or artificial intelligence.

Government’s biggest stumbling block is its inability to learn from itself. Better lesson-sharing, storytelling and evidence-building are key to changing that. The faster we move away from our laser-focus on the private sector’s twin pillars of innovation — technology and novelty — the better we’ll be able to serve citizens.

Quickfire Q&A

We’ve spent years interviewing innovation experts — here’s how they’ve answered public servants’ top questions about experimentation and risk-taking in government.

What are key ingredients to innovation? Support from senior management. A diverse, multidisciplinary team. Involving end users in design. Measuring progress, learning from failure and rewarding success.

What makes an innovation lab successful? An understanding of the political and bureaucratic constraints public servants operate under, and a willingness to take on risks they can’t. The ability to build an appetite for experimentation in a civil service. Humility.

How can we incentivise more public servants to innovate? Give them cover to experiment. Focus on the end goal, not process. Identify your most innovative employees and have them teach others. Celebrate achievements, even in small ways. Normalise failure.

What holds back innovation? A lack of agreed-upon definitions and terminology. Little sense of community for government innovators, which leaves many to work on the same problems without knowing what works and what doesn’t. A dearth of professional development opportunities, like training and mentoring.

Innovation by the numbers


The percentage of innovations in the Danish public sector that are inspired by or copied from other departments’ solutions

$38 million 

The annual amount saved by the UK’s court system after it implemented a text message ‘nudge’ introduced by the Behavioural Insights Team, whose budget is less than £1 million a year


The number of public servants trained at Argentina’s government-run innovation school, the Design Academy

$15 million

The amount of money saved by the UK Department of Work and Pensions by using gamification to solicit employee feedback


The proportion of public sector workplaces in Sweden that have introduced at least one innovative project in the last two years —Jennifer Guay

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(Picture credit: Unsplash, Giphy, Danish Design Centre, LABGobAr, La 27e Region)


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