Innovations
May 7, 2012

Innovation in the public sector: A global view

As the Ontario Public Service readies for its involvement this April in Creativity and Innovation Week, it is interesting to look at the state of innovation in public sector organizations around the world as well as what our organization is doing to prepare for change.

Because of the efforts of Social Innovation Generation (SiG), a collaborative partnership between The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, the University of Waterloo, the MaRS Discovery District, and the PLAN Institute, Ontario has been fortunate in being able to draw from the wisdom of a wide variety of individuals who have become leaders in public sector innovation. From Christian Bason, the director of Denmark’s MindLab, to Peter Shergold, a former deputy to the premier with the Australian Public Service, and Charles Leadbeater, a leading author on innovation and creativity, to Adam Kahane, a partner at REOs Group, we have had the opportunity to learn from them how organizations need to adapt to this changing landscape.

The world is changing. There are higher public expectations and limited budgets to meet them; more complex policy and program challenges that require horizontal solutions rather than the vertical processes as are the norm in our governance structures. There are changing demographics: a new cadre of public servants, new generations, internationally trained professionals, a more competitive labour market sometimes making it difficult to get the right people into the right jobs and keep them there; a senior cohort anticipated to leave the public sector with their vast amounts of knowledge and information.

We know that today’s employee, our clients and Ontarians are demanding change. They are looking for us to be accountable, transparent and they need us to be more effective and efficient with their tax dollars.

Don Taspscott and Anthony D. Williams, in their book Macrowikinomics, write that “the law of new paradigms has kicked into play: leaders of the old paradigms have great difficulty creating the new.”

In the OPS we have created an Innovation Action Plan. Our plan, based on the work done in the state of Victoria, Australia focuses on the creation of a culture of creativity and innovation. The organization has included both creativity and invention in our definition. We define creativity as ideation … the generation of not a single idea but of many. Organizations around the world have recognized that we need many ideas to ensure we advance the right ones. Innovation is about the implementation of those ideas that make sense.

The OPS has defined what a creative and innovative culture might look like. The organization believes that an openness to new ways of thinking and doing that bring about service improvements ultimately improves outcomes to the people of Ontario.

So what have we done in the OPS to begin to prepare for some of the changes that are necessary in our organizations?

In the province over the last year we have taken some concrete actions. Most importantly, we have developed an Innovation Action Plan with tangible activities to support culture change in the organizations. We have developed tools and are taking new approaches to how we talk about our complex challenges through the adoption of a design thinker process. We are generating ideas to support staff in finding solutions to their everyday challenges. We are working closely with our learning organization to define the skills and capacities we will need in the future to face our challenges and we are developing formal and informal learning tools to support staff and leaders. We are also supporting peer-to-peer learning and experimentation by working with our grassroots communities of practice and engaging them in finding solutions to our challenges. In addition to face-to-face connections we have developed a virtual space for sharing knowledge and learning and connecting with one another.

So as we move to celebrate WorldCreativity and Innovation Week 2012 and look to engage all segments of the Ontario Public Service, what can we learn from those “experts” we have engaged in conversations this year?

Charles Leadbeater has told us that this is a time of “fundamental change – from a world of to and for which is also with and by.” Without finding new partnerships and engaging horizontally with our partners and colleagues it will be difficult to embrace the change that is necessary.

For simplicity, Christian Bason argues that “the journey towards the highly innovative public organization must be led simultaneously across four dimensions: Creating consciousness of what innovation is and means to the organization; building capacity to innovate, from political context over strategy and organizational structure to people and culture; mastering a process of co-creating new solutions with people, not for them; and finally, to display the courage at all levels of management to really lead innovation.”

Lenneke Albers and Adam Kahane and their colleagues in Reos Partners tell us that, “if we always do what we’ve always done, then we’ll always get what we always got. So if we want to solve our toughest problems – if we want to be able to make progress, peacefully and sustainably, on our most complex social challenges – then we will have to learn a new approach. This new approach must be systemic rather than piecemeal; it must involve stakeholders rather than rely only on authorities; and it must be creative and emergent rather than merely replicating existing best practice.” They have been pioneering such a new approach: the Change Lab.

And finally, from the Australian Public Service report, Empowering Change: Fostering Innovation, “without innovation, the public sector is destined to disappoint – both those it serves and those it employs. An effective public sector must be one that recognizes rewards and nurtures innovation.”

Let’s make Creativity and Innovation Week 2012 more than a celebration of innovation in the public sector. Let’s make it the next step in our journey in becoming part of the solution.

 

Karen Prokopec is the manager of Ontario’s Centre for Innovation + Workplace Culture in HROntario, Ministry of Government Services.

 

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