Innovations
May 7, 2012

Getting serious about public service innovation

CGE Vol.14 No.3 March 2008

Innovation is one of those concepts talked about so often and yet realized so rarely that the word has almost lost its power. It seems we talk about, research and report on innovation more often than we act on it. Even in the private sector, real innovation has proven elusive for most companies. For the public service, advancing innovation is all the more challenging.

That does not mean we are not doing innovative things. I know that all across the BC Public Service there are innovative projects and policies taking shape, and that’s something of which we can be proud. But we need to reach beyond that. There is a difference between being a truly innovative organization and just being an organization where innovative things happen. Private-sector icons of innovation like Apple and Google are among the few organizations where innovation is fostered and encouraged as a fundamental contributor to every aspect of their operations. There are no public service organizations in that same league.

Jurisdictions like Singapore, Denmark and New Zealand are often held up as examples of public service leaders that have implemented strong innovation strategies. But innovation experts have told us that no public service has yet succeeded in establishing a genuine culture of innovation across the organization. That is precisely what we are trying to achieve in the BC Public Service. Our goal is to be an organization where being innovative is not just something we do but something we are. Getting there is no easy task because it means a fundamental shift in our entire corporate culture. Innovation must be more than a program; it must become an essential part of our identity.

One of the often-cited obstacles to innovation is that it is hard to measure progress. On individual projects, you can point to cost savings or other improved outcomes. But can we measure progress in building a culture of innovation across the organization? I actually think we can. We can measure the overall cost-per-citizen of delivering public services. We can measure how satisfied citizens are with their public services. We can also measure whether or not our employees themselves feel they work in an innovative environment. So I don’t think measuring progress toward a culture of innovation is really the challenge.

In large part, the challenge we face is really rooted in how we work. We tend to be risk-averse in the public service. Yet innovation by its very nature demands a willingness to take risks and even accept that sometimes we will fail. In a culture of innovation, we must be prepared to take those risks. We can plan and prepare, but we shouldn’t let the process undermine what is possible. On the contrary, innovation is all about the opposite – allowing ourselves the creativity to redefine what is possible and then shaping the process to make it happen.

Our risk-averse nature reflects the realities of intense public and media scrutiny, the demands of working in a balanced budget environment, with an already heavy workload. These are all challenges. But innovation could actually help on all these fronts. It could improve public confidence in the public service, it could improve our fiscal bottom line, and it could reduce workload. But instead we tend to use these factors as excuses to always favour stability over innovation. Too often tradition anchors us in the safe harbour of what we know, no matter how much we talk of exploring the open ocean of innovation.

What message does that send to the members of the public service? We employ some of the most creative, passionate, professional people you’ll find anywhere. Yet even as we urge them to be innovative, the good ideas they bring forward often end up becoming victims of more pressing priorities, entrenched policy, or a tenacious adherence to the financial bottom line.

But the research tells us that the best ideas often come from the frontlines. Yes, innovation needs to be supported by an executive motivated to pursue and advance innovation. That is why innovation is now one of the holdback measures accepted by every deputy minister in the BC Public Service – because I do think you can define a value for innovation and set targets. But the spirit of innovation is not confined to the executive office, it cannot be mandated from the executive office, and it should not be stifled by the executive office. Given the opportunity, innovation thrives anywhere in an organization. After all, our employees are the experts in what they do. They know their work and they know how to do it better. But it isn’t enough to ask for their ideas. We must also act on their ideas or they will stop sharing them and a culture of innovation will remain an elusive goal.

That is why I would argue that to build a true culture of innovation in the public service we need to build a culture of engagement. This is precisely what we are trying to do in the BC Public Service, and the need has never been more pressing. We must make this shift not for our own sake but for the sake of the public we serve. Whether or not we think there is enough time, opportunity or resources for innovation, the necessity for innovation now arguably outweighs all those obstacles.

The public service is not immune to the demographic and labour market realities now challenging every employer. Indeed, we may be even more susceptible to their impact. Our forecasts show that, by circumstance and not by choice, the BC Public Service will soon be a much smaller organization serving a larger population. Clearly adjusting to that shift is going to require more than tinkering around the edges. It will require major innovation in service delivery. But to achieve the level of innovation required, we need to establish a corporate culture in which every employee feels they have an opportunity, and even a responsibility, to bring forward innovative ideas for improvement.

The culture we are trying to establish is embodied in our employer brand: “Where Ideas Work.” It stands as our promise to our employees that the BC Public Service will be an employer that listens to their ideas and is prepared to put those ideas to work. We began fulfilling that commitment with the launch of our Corporate Human Resource Plan, Being the Best. That plan itself has been recognized as an innovative approach, setting out a clear corporate direction and sending a clear message that we are prepared to completely re-evaluate how we work as an employer. But most importantly, Being the Best has become the foundation for an ongoing discussion with employees about what we need to change to create a truly engaging workplace. We have actively encouraged employees to make that a frank and honest discussion, and they are increasingly taking up that challenge.

Our effort to build innovation through a culture of engagement goes beyond human resources issues by encouraging employees to have direct input into how we meet broader operational goals. For example, when the government set out its ambitious climate action agenda in 2007, the first thing we did was turn to our employees for their ideas on how we could get there.

A series of so-called “skunk works” sessions was held to encourage open brainstorming of ideas. Ministries all established Green Teams to coordinate climate action ideas among their employees. We also quickly launched a new recognition program specifically targeted at gathering employee ideas on tackling climate change, and we committed to implement the best of those ideas. Notably, we also encouraged employees to think of ideas that reach beyond the operations of the provincial government to address the broader impact of global warming. In essence, employees have the opportunity to be directly engaged in shaping BC’s response to one of the most pressing issues of our time.

Ultimately, innovation is not about “the big idea” but rather the free and open exchange of ideas of all sizes at all levels. So we continue seeking new opportunities for employees to bring forward their ideas, regardless of their job description or the magnitude of their proposal. We have looked to other jurisdictions for inspiration as we develop our own unique approach. But whether or not we succeed will ultimately be determined by the employees of the BC Public Service itself.

There is still a great deal of work ahead of us. There is still scepticism to be overcome, but employees are beginning to recognize that creating a culture of innovation is not something we just talk about in the BC Public Service. Instead they see it as something we are serious about and, most importantly, something they are helping build.

Jessica McDonald is Deputy Minister to the Premier and Cabinet Secretary for the province of British Columbia.

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