The words innovation and government are not an oxymoron. The post-recession world of 2008 has reinvigorated the role of the state and repositioned government back to the center of development.
For too long, innovations in Canada’s public service have been championed by individuals who overcome obstacles and succeed because of personal drive. Rarely is it embraced by the whole department or encouraged by managers or ministers.
According to the United Kingdom’s National Audit Office (NAO), public agencies tend to view innovation as a “big-bang” approach – a “one-off” change model that is not aligned with the core values of the organization and one that does little to encourage ideas. In a report by Deloitte and the Public Policy Forum, senior public servants said that innovation was too narrow and disconnected to have any meaningful impact.
To overcome incremental innovation in the public service a culture of innovation needs to be embedded into the structure of government. This entails creating an environment where ideas can come from everywhere. It means utilizing employees’ creativity and creating organizational structures that help cultivate and support the development of ideas. To have sustainable innovation and to go beyond the individual approach is to instill innovative practices into the DNA of public institutions.
In Denmark the government has institutionalized innovation by creating an innovation lab. Known as MindLab, the goal is to enhance policy responsiveness and efficiency through better services and programs. It is a simple idea that explores problems from different perspectives in a collaborative approach involving inputs from citizens, businesses and different government departments. To put it mildly, it functions like a shop. Senior public servants can access the work that the hub does, collaborate with external partners and different departments using the expertise of the hub to create a modern workplace that makes use of new technologies and new approaches.
An innovation hub works by developing projects based on user needs and testing out those ideas. The skills of the hub’s employees are different from traditional civil servants. There is more focus on qualitative knowledge as opposed to quantitative. Analysis is done at a more visual level and involves crafting solutions with people and not just for them.
Many countries have adopted similar practices. In the U.K., it is known as the Social Innovation Lab; in the Netherlands, the LEF Future Centre; and in Italy, Loboratorio Innovazione.
Why not have something of this nature within the federal government? A space where ideas can cultivate, be tested and collaborated among different stakeholders; where the goal is to create new values to a wide range of policies, regulations and legislations that give the government flexibility when dealing with so called “wicked problems.”
Innovation as a culture
Innovation in Canada’s public service is a bottom-up process. A study of IPAC’s innovation awards by Sandford Borins showed that 50 percent of innovations originate from middle managers or frontline workers, while only 25 percent are from senior managers. This means that senior managers play a more important role in enabling innovation practices than creating them. More important, it highlights the role that senior managers and leaders need to play in fostering and creating a culture of innovation.
Culture is what defines the form and function of an organization. An organization can have innovative practices in place but they are irrelevant if employees do not see them as part of the organization’s character. For senior managers this means removing barriers, building trust with employees, encouraging failures and making it clear that employees will be defended if their project fails.
Leaders have a responsibility to promote and support new ideas. They are in charge of setting goals, mobilizing talents, redesigning the organization, putting in place metrics and setting expectations. This can be done by partnering up with professional associations that embrace new ideas, encouraging the attendance of conferences and defining jobs broadly to help avoid narrow interpretations of tasks.
Whatever the case, the goal is to create a dynamic relationship between departmental heads and senior managers where both support the development of new ideas. The purpose is to create a culture of innovation that allows employees to experiment and collaborate. If embraced and done correctly, innovation might just become a permanent hallmark of Canada’s public service.
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