Innovation is critical and urgent as public servants continue to improve the quality and efficiency of public services while responding quickly to changing social and economic conditions.
Tough policy challenges such as climate change, poverty, aging and children with special needs require new ideas, especially in a context of surging demand, declining revenues, and a political focus on delivering measurable outcomes.
We all buy into this virtuous project but making progress is a little challenging. Innovation involves doing new things or doing existing things differently; this goes hand-in-hand with experimentation and trial-and-error in the process of developing new ideas, processes and products. But doing this is difficult in risk averse environments in which there is little tolerance for failure or in organizations that are resistant to change.
How can we enable public servants to break through this challenge to innovate faster and to replicate or adapt the thousands of innovations developed at all levels of the public service every year? We often talk about the need to do better in managing risk or to find the right balance between risk management and innovation. This is on the right track. But managers and frontline staff would benefit from a clear understanding of what innovation means in their organization, a clear message from the top of the organization about the degree of their freedom to innovate, and step-by-step advice on the application of risk identification and risk mitigation to innovative projects.
Risk aversion is common in public sector organizations but it is not a significant deterrent to innovation in all jurisdictions – it is one of the factors to be addressed in establishing an environment in which innovation can flourish. Equally interesting is that every Canadian jurisdiction has many examples of innovation at the policy, program and service delivery levels. Innovation is out there, but is not being sufficiently shared.
Experience in other jurisdictions tells us that progress in promoting innovation, while managing risk to the extent possible, requires leadership in at least three areas: learning from close-to-home innovations in our own organizations and sectors (as well as others); providing necessary support and tools to ongoing innovation projects; and promoting innovation in the context of organizational objectives.
Public service leaders across the country have a significant opportunity to build on Canada’s record of innovation in order to sustain and improve public services, and build resilient and adaptive organizations responsive to rapidly changing conditions and wicked policy problems. Canada’s public services are also well positioned to build on parallel investments in human resources transformation, rapid knowledge transfer and feedback loops from frontline professionals, improved policy capacity and success with integrated service delivery initiatives. Canada also has a strong track record with provincial generation and incubation of new approaches (Service New Brunswick is a flagship example).
On the challenge side, culture change and promoting innovation in risk averse cultures requires that leaders clearly set out expectations and parameters; that tools are provided to support effective risk management; and that there are ongoing efforts to break down entrenched departmental and central agency silos.
Above all, a significant change will require sustained leadership, modeled behavior and culture change, finding a new balance between the centre and periphery. This requires explicit permission to managers to innovate, providing tools and frameworks for risk identification and mitigation, and empowerment of frontline professionals.
In parallel, high-level political support should be sought for a step-by-step innovation agenda. Successful innovations can be highlighted and support built for scaled experimental pilots with an emphasis on risk mitigation, real-time monitoring and explicit recognition of the possible need for course correction or termination. This involves mutual recognition of the benefits of freeing up our professional and non-partisan public servants to innovate. Exemplary public service initiatives usually reflect well on the government of the day, regardless of its political stripe. That is the way the system should work.
Public services are rich incubators for innovation and it is in the public interest that a culture of innovation be nurtured and supported. While it is important to look around the world for best practices, the most important ones are those closest to home. So it is vital that these be identified and disseminated and that communities of innovative practitioners are supported and rewarded.
Tony Dean is a Fellow in Residence at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. From 2002 to 2008, he was Secretary of the Cabinet and Head of the Ontario Public Service.
Innovations in Government: International Perspectives on Civil Service Reform. Guy Lodge and Susanna Malinowski, Institute for Public Policy Research, UK, April 2007: www.ippr.org
Excellence and Fairness: Achieving World Class Public Services. The Cabinet Office, UK, 2008: www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/media/224869/world-class.pdf
Innovation Across Central Government. National Audit Office, March 2009: www.nao.org.uk/publications/0809/innovation_across_government.aspx
“Innovation in the Federal Government: The Risk Not Taken.” Discussion paper prepared by the Public Policy Forum as background document for a roundtable held on behalf of the Office of the Auditor General. Public Policy Forum, October 1998: www.innovation.cc/discussion-papers/risk2.htm
Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School: http://ashinstitute.harvard.edu