DevelopmentGovernmentPublic Sector
February 28, 2019

Stumbling our Way to Build a Public Sector Innovation Ecosystem

There is an interesting paradox playing out with the public sector innovation efforts which parallels similar efforts in Australia. The Australian Public Service Commission “State of the Service” 2015 report is a snapshot of the current understanding of innovation methodologies at its federal agencies. Two findings are worthy of note:

  • “… agencies reported that practices to encourage and support innovation were in use across part of the organization,” and
  • “… most agencies had not yet identified the knowledge and skills that their workforce needed to support innovation.”

What is the current state of innovation in Canada? The OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (OPSI) reviewed our approach to innovation. It called our approach “relatively fragmented,” which was an improvement from the preliminary report that called it “relatively immature.” This report made some observations:

  • there is no overriding sense of what the intent driving the system is;
  • there is no overall picture of the innovation system, what it includes, what it involves, what is happening, nor how it is performing;
  • the expected roles to be played by individuals and organisations is not clear;
  • the behaviours and norms for supporting innovation are not well established or explicit; and
  • there is no shared sense across the system of what needs to happen next.

For innovation to happen in our organizations, they must build capacity of staff to innovate as part of an overall innovation ecosystem. It’s clear that, like Australia, our agencies and departments are not defining the innovation skills and knowledge staff should have. At a minimum, those at the top of government must define the core definitions and knowledge to ensure a consistent understanding across all departments and agencies.  

Insights into Skills for Managing Ideas

Creativity expert Edward de Bono offers a useful perspective on training in this context: “The English language does not distinguish between idea creativity and artistic creativity. Because of this failure of language, people are reluctant to accept that idea creativity is a learnable skill. Once we have separated idea creativity from artistic creativity, then we can set about learning, and develop the skills of learning for new ideas.”

His notion of learning for new ideas is insightful. If we focus on what people actually do when they “innovate” – from practice, research, and observation – they are solving problems. Some problems could reflect national concerns while others may focus on improving the flow of mail inside a department. All need a steady flow of quality ideas to achieve results.

Research tells us that problem solving involves three phases:

  1. Problem-finding and discovery skills – people do not solve problems until a situation is established as a problem worth solving. Skills help to find problems and processes to solve them.
  2. Problem-solving skills – this is often supported by creativity tools or problem-solving processes such as brainstorming or design thinking. Engineers and scientists may use other models to solve technical challenges.
  3. Solution-implementation skills – Innovation can’t happen until ideas are put into action and they create value for stakeholders. Realistically, most ideas simply improve the situation.

Skills’ training in any these areas is useful. There is growing evidence that simply using a problem-solving process like design thinking is not sufficient if participants do not have some advanced skills in the elements of generating and judging ideas.

I worked with the Singapore Government to help launch an innovation skills program in 2002. It introduced a skills framework called “The Hand of Innovation.” Each finger represents a skill needed by staff:

  1. Generating ideas
  2. Harvesting and developing ideas
  3. Evaluating ideas
  4. Proposing and marketing ideas
  5. Implementing ideas

People could take two to three days of courses in each skill delivered by the Civil Service College. I wrote the innovation guide that went to 20,000 staff.

Compounding the challenge of skill development is the confusion between skills and behaviours of someone using the skill. It is useful to clarify the terms:

  1. Skills: The definition of skills is fuzzy, yet skills develop over time with practice, application of knowledge, and involve education and training.
  2. Attributes and behaviours: You may read about the attributes and behaviours of people deemed to be creative. Risk taking or thinking outside the box are often highlighted as skills. The OECD suggests “insurgency” is a skill. All of these are closer to behaviours.
  3. Bodies of knowledge: Some models suggest “user centricity,” “data literacy” and “story telling” are skills when they are closer to a body of knowledge useful as a foundation to use skills.

As a practitioner in the public sector since the 1990s (delivered over 250 workshops), it would be more effective if we designed programs to build the capacity of the public servants by recognizing these categories of knowledge, and then strategizing the need for different skills and knowledge for different segments of public servants. To lead innovation, what do executives need to know and communicate? What do managers need to know to engage teams to innovate? What specialized knowledge could benefit staff working in service delivery staff, policy, or more technical scientific areas?

Communicating Innovation to Engage Staff

Linked to the need for clear definitions and skills training is the need to shape communication strategies to engage staff across the public sector. The Singapore innovation guide (and others from Australia, South Africa and New Zealand) was one tactic in a broader innovation communication strategy. Australia engages staff at the federal level through a community of practice. Victoria (Victoria innovation strategy) and Queensland have had such programs for ten years.

The lack of well-structured communication tactics is blurring our understanding of two core approaches for change, improvement and innovation. I started my career working with New Zealand Post’s “Total Quality Service” group. We crafted strategies to improve internal and external services. Later, more formal approaches to innovate services were launched. To clarify this issue in Singapore, public servants were offered this insight to bring meaning to both approaches: “Innovation is more than improvement. Continual improvement and innovation work hand in hand. Improvements are important, but innovations are like a quantum improvement that breaks new ground to create value in new ways.”

Whether it was intentional or not, the Clerk of the Privy Council, Michael Wernick, clouded this issue in a speech to IPAC by suggesting: “The point of innovation is not to do something new or something cool; it’s about improvement.”   

The essence of change in public services requires that we embrace both improvement and innovation. Research from large service companies finds that 90 per cent of new ideas will be improvements focused on efficiencies or making current services more effective. Just 10 per cent of ideas are likely to be seen as true innovations.

There is some irony here. One of the few innovation guides produced in Canada dates to 2004. “Organizing for Deliberate Innovation: A Toolkit for Teams” was published by the Canadian Centre for Management Development (now called CSPS). It is still useful and would be ideal to update and distribute widely as a tool for staff to use.

One can only wonder about the benefits of investing in a more robust innovation ecosystem to support the current challenge of reforming services for digital change.

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