How to Stoke Innovation in the Public Sector

How to stoke innovation in the public sector

By Stewart Rendall

What is innovation?

Let me start by making three statements:

  • At its simplest, innovation is “addressing a problem by transforming any idea into a creative solution that is adopted and valued by stakeholders”.
  • The process of innovation may simply require seeing what others don’t see or can’t see.
  • This series of articles will disprove the oft-quoted myth: “in the safety of the public service, where there is no competition, no threat to survival, there is no drive to innovate or excel”.

Underlying all of the above, innovation is a desire to rethink the existing approach, and perspective relating to, an issue, topic or problem.

When one first thinks of the term “innovation”, is the first association that of the public service or something more akin to Silicon Valley? Let me be clear, there are absolutely no impediments to innovation in the public service – there are no borders to innovation. Innovation exists everywhere and tends to flourish in any environment that permits strategic solutions.

Innovation is not new. Gutenberg, the book printing pioneer, was an early example of an innovator. By adopting a new approach to the use of pre-existing elements and components, and by combining them in a new and valued way, he demonstrated the underlying fundamental value in being innovative.

All of the elements of book printing existed well before he was born in 1400. Presses were used to make olive oil, and ink and paper were in common usage.

He, however, combined the constituent parts in a way that had not been done before, to provide this moveable-type printing press – a new offering that has been ‘adopted and valued’ ever since.

Nonetheless, as important as the definition above is the clarification of another myth – there is no such thing as a single approach to, or definition of, innovation.

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What innovation means to us

We have probably all witnessed colleagues return from courses, seminars, or events on innovation and, based on their three-hour or two-day experience, state that there is one way to be innovative. This dogma requires the adoption of a singular approach to the task of being innovative – it must be discussed, developed, introduced or implemented in a particular ‘way’ or it is not deemed to be innovation.

Perhaps there is something in the bottled water that is distributed at these types of events.

This behaviour is simply wrong and can be downright dangerous as it can stifle and stunt the growth of innovation within organisations.

There are absolutely no impediments to innovation in the public service – there are no borders to innovation. Innovation exists everywhere and tends to flourish in any environment that permits strategic solutions.

Innovation predates all of us. It certainly predates the creation of bean bags, sticky notes, or consulting firms with baristas, electronic work-boards and a sense of controlling a monopoly over the ‘pixie dust’ to which only they possess the recipe.

There are certainly more successful and less successful ways of being innovative and there are great sources of innovative thinking but no one has the monopoly on what it is and what it is not, how to introduce or use it, or to demand the use of a specific set of terms, language, or way of thinking.

Such arrogance normally emanates from organisations who want to sell you their latest ‘pixie dust’ and will advise that it is based on sound research, evidence and data and that they, and only they, possess this magic elixir which if applied using the assistance of their high-price-tag consultants will produce success. They, of course, will advise that your departmental head has committed to the implementation, so who is going to argue?

And remarkably, next year, there is an even more improved version, which requires a new and costly approach.

Sprinkling real pixie dust

In the last 30+ years, I have seen various ‘pixie dust’ recipes. Many are derived from pre-existing material which is freely available and some produce excellent results. Positive results, in my experience, may have a high correlation, but have rather less causation.

If there were only one specific way of defining and/or implementing innovation in an organisation, why does Amazon have more than 50,000 Kindle e-books on the topic and more than 3,000 on the topic of public service innovation?

Innovation is not limited by size. There are large and small innovations. The impact may be somewhat different, but they both possess the requirements of being innovative.

What really matters in being innovative is the problem, and the impact and effect of – and the intended users relating to – the innovation. In the medical sector, for example, the adoption of what may seem to others like a minor change to procedures may in fact save patients’ lives.

Innovation can have multiple formats, and normally involves people, culture, structure, process and technology. Being innovative can manifest itself in several forms, including:

  • Process innovation, which can also include changes and improvements to methods. As an example, the recent Covid-induced innovation changes implemented by most public service organisations around the world have dramatically increased and reinforced the public’s confidence in possessing a strong public service.
  • Services innovation. Like process innovations, the introduction of new services, common in most public service organisations, can be the catalyst to significant innovative changes.

In closing, how innovative are public service staff? In a recent master’s degree level class comprising both public servants and business people, I asked for suggestions of innovative ideas. Each student provided at least one weekly proposal for the period of the course – and I use the term proposal because as this was an exercise in class, we could not measure the impact as they were yet to be “adopted and valued by stakeholders “. Many of these ideas were truly inspired thinking and all were capable of being implemented as they added value to the various stakeholders.

*Stewart Rendall is Honorary Associate Professor at ANU Research School of Management

*This article first appeared on the website.

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