Today’s global and local environments require public servants at all levels of government to explore and undertake innovative and even transformative changes. The desire and in some cases the demand for innovation is prevalent in the discourse of duly elected politicians, their senior public sector leaders and in many cases from citizens themselves. The desire for innovative solutions to complex societal, economic and environmental problems has been with us for some time, but the intensity and demand for such creativity have exploded….why?
First, the blinding speed of change and the increasing revelations of our interconnectedness, not just in systems and policies but indeed their results and outcomes have shown that many of our traditional services, programs and old ways of “doing” are no longer working well, nor fully meeting needs. Our available resources continue to be strained and politicians are consistently looking for low-cost, effective ways to advance their policy platforms. There has been no reprieve from “doing more with less”. It is alive and well!
Second, technological advancements have opened the doors to previously inaccessible methodologies, data sources and information. The public sector not only needs to urgently embrace and take advantage of new knowledge, but has to have the capacity to do so.
Thirdly, the public’s demand to be central to government changes, services and programs have been spurred on by the advent of social media as well as the increasing levels of education and sophistication of Canada’s population.
Finally the unprecedented number of natural disasters, civil protests and demonstrations have presented the governments of our western civilization with an urgent need for their public servants to achieve innovative solutions at an unprecedented rate. Complicating these seismic shifts is the growing number of vulnerable populations (indigenous, elderly, people in relative poverty, migrants, increasing numbers of people falling down with health issues, mental illness and drug addictions, etc.).
So what kind of organizations do public sector leaders need to develop in order to effectively respond to this high level of demand for innovation and creative problem-solving? What kind of organizational cultures most effectively become a crucible for innovative actions and solutions? One thing for sure is that the vision, the modeling and the organizational impact of public sector leaders will be the determining factor of their success to maximize innovation. My experience as a senior leader for decades has taught me that leaders have to take action simultaneously on four different fronts:
- inside the organization;
- cross-sectorial, not only geographically, but inter-jurisdictionally given Canada’s confederated and multi-layered governance systems;
- external to include other organizations, institutions, think tanks, universities and research enclaves and businesses engaged in parallel practices; and finally,
- upwards in close collaboration with their elected officials to ensure that their systems are able to move relatively quickly through windows of opportunity.
Although, there are two prerequisites that are out of range for public sector leaders: strong and determined political leadership; and an electorate receptive to the innovation;2 public sector leaders can nonetheless undertake decisive action to enhance innovation and creativity.
The top six areas for transforming our traditional public sectors into innovative ones requires the organizations to transform themselves from:
- rule based organizations to values and principle based;
- risk-adverse to risk assessment, management and mitigation;
- traditional legislative, regulatory and program design to disruptive processes which speed up implementation and move more decision-making to the front line;
- public consultation to public engagement involving the affected parties right at the beginning to help define the real problem as opposed to symptoms and participate in identifying plausible solutions;
- data protection and information control to transparent government, open data and even open-source problem-solving;
- and finally from government officialdom to building relationships and trust with stakeholders and citizens.
So what can public sector leaders themselves specifically do to accomplish the above organizational transformations where innovative public service employees thrive. Leaders, who understand the complexities they face, who can effectively manage change and who can consistently and regularly communicate a clear and compelling common vision, have the best chance of success. Their vision and modeled leadership practices must include:
- vigorously embracing the safe use of technology;
- creating a learning environment where legitimate errors become learning points and innovation is actively recognized;
- modeling collaboration and partnerships;
- actively pursuing dialogue with those of opposing views;
- investing heavily in employee training and development;
- funding research capacity both internally and externally;
- hiring and retaining critical thinkers and top talent;
- expecting and rewarding excellence and innovation; and,
- holding people, including oneself, accountable.
The overarching challenge for all of us in the public sector remains. Leaders, practitioners, researchers and academics must seek to establish unique and interconnected partnerships under a banner of urgency. A sense of urgency is key to establishing enhanced, timely collaborations allowing us to work together in experimental ways, harnessing our respective talents and achieving the kind of synergies that will maximize creativity and innovative approaches to our complex issues and problems. The resulting creative solutions would likely elude us if we continue to continue to set the course on our own in our traditional silos.
As a researcher and teacher of leadership in the public sector and as a seasoned practitioner, I can attest that following the above leadership tenants and collaborative partnerships with a sense of urgency are what will create the kind of organizational culture and structures that will help nurture the innovation and creativity we all seek.
Maria David-Evans, BSc. MBA, MA, RSW, MBA Instructor, University of Alberta, School of Business and Former Deputy Minister with the Government of Alberta (1997-2011).