Public sector innovation, once dismissed as a contradiction in terms, is now increasingly seen as an imperative. Last November, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) hosted an international conference on “Innovating the Public Sector” and announced that it has been building a database on public sector innovation. Many federal government departments are setting-up innovation labs, and the Privy Council Office has established an Innovation Hub to support the labs.
I’ve been writing about innovation for many years now. In my most recent book, The Persistence of Innovation in Government (2014) and report, The Persistence of Innovation in Government: A Guide for Innovative Public Servants (2014), I compared the applications to the Harvard Kennedy School’s prestigious Innovations in American Government Awards (HKS Awards) in the early 1990s and in 2010 to show how public sector innovation has both changed and stayed constant over the last twenty years. I chose to work with the HKS Awards because its applicant questionnaire is unparalleled in its comprehensiveness and has not changed over twenty years.
I’ll summarize a two-hundred page book in a few sentences: First, I find much more interorganizational collaboration in recent innovations. There is now much more external evaluation of projects. Not least, there is more media interest about public sector innovation than was the case two decades ago. But I also found considerable continuity in the process of innovation: who conceives innovations, the circumstances of their conception, and how they are implemented, including how innovators overcome resistance to change.
My methodology is primarily statistical, analyzing the 127 semifinalists in the 2010 HKS Awards to 217 semifinalists between 1990 and 1994. These samples are large enough to use regression analysis to determine similarities and differences between the two groups and also to test hypotheses.
Here are four key recommendations based on this evidence and analysis:
Prepare to Collaborate
A full 80 percent of the 2010 HKS Awards applicants involved interorganizational collaboration, either within the public sector or between the public sector and civil society. In addition, the typical innovation had two funding sources. A public servant trying to develop an innovative solution to an important policy problem should look for collaboration from public sector agencies having jurisdiction over other pieces of the problem and civil society groups having an interest in the outcome. Look for several funding sources, develop an organizational structure to guide the partnership, and seek out senior leaders committed to working on the problem and neutral third parties who can mediate conflict among partners.
An example of interorganizational collaboration is the Northeast Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a carbon emission reduction program for two hundred power plants in ten northeastern states that was the first mandatory cap-and-trade system in the United States. By 2010, the program had raised over $700 million in auction fees, much of which has been reinvested in increasing the energy efficiency of the plants. Global warming is politically contested, but controversy did not stop this innovation. Because the George W. Bush Administration was not taking action, Governor George Pataki of New York, himself a Republican, took the lead in convening his fellow governors. Massachusetts participated in the planning phase, but then-Governor Mitt Romney refused to sign the agreement, apparently because it would have conflicted with the “severely conservative” image he sought to establish to win the 2012 Republican nomination.
My research showed a consistent set of obstacles to public sector innovation over 20 years. More were internal (logistical issues, shortage of resources, getting different occupations to work together) than external (public skepticism, political opposition). The research also showed a set of responses that had proven to be effective at overcoming these obstacles. Most frequently, the best responses involved persuasion (demonstration projects, social marketing) and consultation with or co-optation of opponents.
Establish performance indicators and seek external reviewers
The use of performance indicators has been an important public sector trend over the last twenty years. The 2010 semifinalists included the Boston suburb of Somerville’s SomerStat performance management system that advanced the state of the art by developing a close relationship between statistical analysts working in the major’s office and departmental managers and involving the community in providing feedback about performance.
My research shows that public sector innovations that have established performance indicators and that have invited external review, for example by academic evaluators or consultants, are more likely to be replicated and receive awards or media attention than those that haven’t. Many public sector innovations received at least part of their funding from foundations, and foundations want evaluations to determine the effectiveness of their contributions.
The Gates Foundation contributed to several educational innovations, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to health care innovations, and the Bloomberg Philanthropies to innovations based in New York City. All three of these foundations demand the application of leading-edge evaluation methodologies such as randomized trials to the initiatives they support.
The winner of the competition, New York City’s Center for Economic Opportunity, was established to improve the effectiveness of antipoverty programs. The Center evaluates initiatives using randomized trials and scales up those that are working and terminates those that are not.
Performance data and external reviews should also be made available online to citizens to encourage feedback and suggestions for improvements, as Somerville did. This forms a strong link between public sector innovation and the Open Government movement.
Recognize that the media are watching
Another big difference between public sector innovations now and two decades ago is the dramatic increase in media attention: from 50 percent of innovations being the subject of stories then to almost all innovations being covered now. The data also showed that, among the national media, those with a more liberal orientation (New York Times, Huffington Post, National Public Radio) are more likely to cover public sector innovation than those that are centrist (CNN, CBS) or conservative in orientation (Fox News, Wall Street Journal).Innovators should proactively seek out the media most likely to tell their story in a sympathetic way; this can be useful in building public awareness and support and in finding funding.
Though the methodology I used in this research is primarily quantitative, I do provide examples to illustrate the characteristics of innovations that I observe and measure. One of the dichotomies I observed is between top-down and bottom-up innovation.
Both the former (political leadership) and the latter (local heroism) are well-represented in both periods. A paradigmatic instance of political leadership among the 2010 semifinalists was the NYC Service Program. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, inspired by President Obama’s call to public service in his first inaugural address, moved quickly to establish a program to enable thousands of New Yorkers to volunteer to assist government in its work. Bloomberg ordered his staff to design the program within a few weeks.
An equally paradigmatic instance of local heroism is Oregon’s Solar Highway Program. Allison Hamilton, a middle manager in the state Department of Transportation, saw a documentary on Germany’s solar energy initiatives, including the use of solar panels beside the autobahns to power their overhead lights. Hamilton worked from the bottom up, persuading senior managers in her own department and the electrical utility regulator to endorse this concept. Ultimately, the federal Department of Transportation agreed that putting solar panels on the interstate highways, which it regulated, was in the public interest. Hamilton’s entrepreneurial attitude was apparent in her view that the obstacles she overcame were simply “words written on paper long ago that could be changed as circumstances changed.”
My research about public sector innovation provides both inspirational stories, such as those of Michael Bloomberg and Allison Hamilton, as well as evidence of how to achieve results. Successful innovation requires inspiration to dare to change the status quo and analysis of how best to do it.
Sandford Borins is a Professor of Public Management in the University of Toronto. He is also a research fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School. Borins is a frequent conference speaker on public sector innovation and writes a blog on public management, innovation, and narrative atwww.sandfordborins.com.