• Opinion
  • October 11, 2018
  • 11 minutes
  • 3

Ten years on: Where is public sector innovation headed?

Opinion: Christian Bason reflects on eight critical trends in the field

This opinion piece was written by Christian Bason, the CEO of the Danish Design Centre. It can also be found in our government innovation newsfeed.  

It is a decade since I started writing Leading Public Sector Innovation: Co-creating for a Better Society — my take on how to work strategically and practically with innovation in government. This year, I edited the second edition of the book (just out), and in the process reflected on where the public sector innovation agenda stands today.

Over the past decade, perhaps the most significant change has been in context: from a backdrop of the global financial crisis starting in 2008, to a new form of crisis today. Globally, we’re facing unprecedented political and economic uncertainty, many of our post-WW2 institutions are being challenged, the economic and trade order is unravelling and democracy is increasingly being questioned.

Re-imagining the role of government in society has perhaps never been more crucial

Public organisations are being called on like never before to offer relevant answers to legitimate concerns of citizens. Re-imagining the role of government in society has perhaps never been more crucial. Here are some of the shifts I see happening to make public sector innovation deeper and more sustainable.

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From digital as add-on to digital as default

When I first wrote LPSI, the iPhone had only recently hit the market, and many public organisations were still grappling with some of the fundamental issues of “getting online”. Some of the projects I encountered were deemed successful if they simply digitised paper forms.

Today, the quest for digital government is much more pervasive and ambitious. As Tom Loosemore, formerly of the UK’s Government Digital Services team, recently posited in a blog, we now need to build public institutions that aren’t just “on the internet” but “of the internet”. Public bodies pursuing innovation must seriously understand the implications of the latter. A case in point is MindLab, the Danish government’s innovation team I headed for eight years, which has now transformed into a “digital task force” inside the Ministry of Business.

From evidence to experimentation 

In another shift, the widespread measurement and evaluation practice in the public sector has evolved into new and perhaps more fruitful territory. There will probably always be a need to document public efforts, to drive  “linear” performance improvements and to ensure accountability and transparency. But rather than moving to ever-more rigorous application of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) in the pursuit of evidence-based policies, many governments, including Finland and the UAE, are looking into policy experimentation as more fertile ground. This entails more open-ended and smaller but perhaps more ambitious exploratory pilots in search of better public futures.

From public-private innovation to agile governance

The relationship between the public and private sectors has also changed. The notion that the public sector “crowds out” private industry has been increasingly challenged, not least by Mariana Mazzucato of The Entrepreneurial State fame. Many are recognising that an innovative and bold public sector actually contributes to the creation of new markets.

At a time of unprecedented technological change, policymakers must become more future-oriented

That is at least partly the agenda which the World Economic Forum has recently launched under the heading Agile Governance: the idea that at a time of unprecedented technological change, policymakers must become more future-oriented and adaptive to harvest the benefits — and handle the pitfalls — of new emerging business models. This is also a key work area for my own organisation, which works in the interface between public policy and business innovation. We are hosting a conference titled Experimentation by Design: Agile Governance in Business and Society; it reflects how both businesses and governments have stakes in engaging speedily with technological change while maintaining long-term vision and creating value for citizens and customers.

From nations to cities

I introduced the original edition of LPSI with a case study on innovating climate change policies in the lead up to the Copenhagen “COP 15” Summit in 2009, where the onus was clearly on nations to reach a global, binding agreement.

As some may remember, that objective was not reached, leading to a significant shift where major cities took over much of the cutting-edge work on the climate change agenda. Organisations like C40 and Bloomberg Philanthropies have demonstrated how “cities act while nations talk” — and can be at the heart of innovation.

In my own city, Copenhagen, this has manifested itself in the BLOX partnership with the Realdania Foundation to put architecture and design at the heart of urban innovation. And in Berlin, this led to the first-ever Creative Bureaucracy Festival this September.

From first generation to third generation labs

The concept of innovation labs in government has moved from something of a novelty when I first wrote LPSI to a significant global movement, with literally hundreds of innovation labs embedded in public structures. This led me to add an entirely new chapter on labs for the book. I found that labs are now in at least their third generation, having shifted from “creativity units” to “strategic innovation” to “outcome-focused”.

Christian Bason

Increasingly, innovation labs are structured to recognise that change happens both top-down and bottom-up at the same time, that citizen and staff engagement must happen simultaneously and that digital needs to be embedded in everything. Meanwhile, we are also some labs being changed or discontinued and others are on the rise. Most likely the future landscape will be more varied and dynamic.

From innovating solutions to innovating governance

The language surrounding public sector innovation has also changed in the last decade. More often than not we now speak of “transformation” rather than “innovation”, perhaps signifying the pursuit of deeper and more sustainable change than the innovation of isolated public service offerings.

More to the point, and as I argued in my 2017 book Leading Public Design, the hunt is on for discovering the next governance model. There seems no doubt that more networked and collaborative modes of governance are on the rise, the question is in what form.

More networked and collaborative modes of governance are on the rise

A recent example is the UN Development Program (UNDP), which has suggested that the design of platforms — and embracing a platform way of working — can be a powerful means to involve many actors in co-producing public value. While the idea of government as platform is not entirely new, we still have not seen many organisations able to embrace it as a way of working.

From courage to future-making 

As the title of LPSI reflects, innovation in the public sector is a leadership issue. When I first wrote the book, I suggested that courage was a key component of innovative leadership — and I still believe it is. But perhaps another frame, derived from my work on design approaches, is equally useful: that of innovative leadership as “future-making”.

Rather than call for more courage, a framing of the public leader as future-maker calls our attention to the creative acts of imagining new and better futures, and insisting they are being made concrete. I have found that leaders can work with design teams to expand their visions, generate empathy with citizens — and make their insights actionable.

From national goals to global goals

Finally, the impact of the UN Global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) cannot be overestimated as a common frame and driver for government innovation. Within just over three years, the SDGs have provided cities, nations, global organisations and businesses with a common language (indeed a visual one) to address some of our most pressing challenges. Innovators in government have the opportunity to understand and share each other’s objectives for the first time.

Perhaps that will lead to another historic moment: when we become able and willing to fully share and make value of each other’s innovations. The rapid scaling of new valuable approaches from one context to another is still one of the challenges we haven’t entirely addressed yet as public innovators. But then again, there has to be something to write about 10 years from now… — Christian Bason

(Picture credit: Danish Design Centre)


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