Originally published March 2011.
Governments and managers can promote innovation in Canada by crafting a culture of innovation in their bureaucratic environments.
Such an task could learn from the international innovation marketplace, show Canadians the nature and necessity of a complete innovation culture, and facilitate multilateral initiatives in education and in organizations for creativity, access to intelligence, trust building, the cutting of bureaucratic burden as well as the more apparent linkages among R&D, investment, tax credits, incubation and strategic partnerships.
Finland can serve as a benchmark for Canada’s efforts to build a more innovative and internationally competitive economy and successful society.
Finnish companies are thriving in the international marketplace. Their system steadily produces brilliant software developers, marketers, device designers and managers. Finland has only .01 percent of the world’s forests yet supplies much of the equipment for forest-based industries around the world, including Canada. Finland consistently leads in almost every international indicator for social, economic and environmental innovation, productivity and quality of life, including the lowest level of government corruption. How do they do it?
Innovation is serious business in Finland, and has been since they were making their own tools, clothes, music, architecture and poetry on remote farms. Like Canada, their innovation system includes tax support for R&D and the like, but there are some unique components that enable a culture as well as a system of innovation.
The national innovation system is led, top-down, by the Parliamentary Committee on the Future, in the middle by a series of councils in every sector, and bottom-up by every citizen. Over the past 25 years the Committee has led the creation of some radical innovations, including the creation of a 95 percent-connected transparent web of organizational and personal information. The four objectives for their policy of universal access to information are: higher levels of trust, efficient transactions, improved democracy, and more competitive exports. Information is in and freely accessible via the net until the case is made to take it out.
In Finland citizens can look in on the activities of government via the Internet rather than depend on press stories. They can look up the proposal that was discussed in Cabinet – or city council – last week. They can use the license plate to find the name and address of the person who owns the car in front of them … and examine their most recent tax return.
A key component of the Finnish innovation system initiated by the Committee is music. In Finland all children from 6 to 16 sing, play a musical instrument, and write music at their level. The results include better math skills, creativity, left/right brain connections, self esteem and teamwork.
Finnish students at all levels primarily learn through “research and making” projects. Universal access is provided to free post-secondary education. In the final term of all post-secondary programs – from architecture to math to zoology – each student creates (innovates) a new tool or application in partnership with an organization in the community.
There are regular competitions and awards in every line of work. Commissions for the design of most new public buildings are awarded on the basis of quick “idea” competitions enabling dozens of firms, large and small, to participate.
Lessons for Canada
No matter where you are, trust is the essential lubricant of all relationships and an absolute requirement for the risky business of innovation. Yet public servants in Canada often operate in a workplace that consistently tells them that their judgment and creativity are not trusted.
Forces in the bureaucratic environment that weigh against a sense of trust and innovation include political fear of the press, centralization of communications and policy initiatives, institutionalized risk aversion, and a maze of guidelines and sign-off requirements.
Here are some suggestions for turning this environment around.
Deputy ministers and central agencies should lead the development of a culture of trust and accountability in their departments and agencies. They should review the attitude, behavior and effectiveness of their finance and human resource directorates and challenge them to develop a fast turn-around environment of trust and accountability to replace the current swamp of appeals and zealous restrictions on initiative, ideas, transactions and shifts in resources.
Annual performance reports are a key tool and expression of departmental cultures. These documents are sometimes used by the press and other antagonists as a source for allegations against the minister. Senior officials, particularly those in the central agencies, should adjust the attitudes and expectations around performance reports to include learning from experiments and experience and unexpected results, both good and bad.
The policies, practices and case-by-case decisions of regional and local departmental offices should be integrated with overall departmental headquarter equivalents. Regions cannot simply do their own thing. They too work for, and on behalf of, the minister. The trick is to find operational frameworks that enable responsive innovation at the local level within a system-wide flexible operational framework. Regional offices and headquarters must work out protocols and trust-building practices to create synergies.
Studies and reports by legislative committees often produce recommendations for innovation in their area of responsibility. Unfortunately, they are usually constrained by skimpy funding for research and no guarantees of serious consideration by the government of the day.
Innovation requires substantive knowledge and mastery as well as the ability to lead and inspire bureaucratic teams and committees, yet senior officials are often selected and moved up and around for their process skills and intellectual capacity rather than leadership and substantive expertise. The most senior public service officials should lead a swing back to more substantive capabilities and expectations for innovation among senior managers, and develop a rapid response to counter bullying behavior and environments in the public service.
The Request for Proposal and Standing Offer (RFP-SO) system is a glaring culprit in the internal war on innovation. Innovation is not a commodity. It comes from the chemistry and face-to-face work between the supplier and client. The innovation process includes finding and integrating knowledge, collaboration, mid-course adjustments from learning and new insights.
The ideas and capabilities of the proponent count for little in the scoring of most RFPs. Rather, the RFPs demand illogical overlapping requirements for past experience and try to pin down outcomes before the fact, thereby precluding innovation during the project. The RFP-SO system has moved against a lively marketplace of trust, ideas, collaboration, entrepreneurship and competition among the people who provide the services.
Governments in Canada are in the midst of replacing their retiring baby boomer staff. Our new generation of public servants should be encouraged to find new ways to link, think and innovate on a collaborative and well-informed basis.
Fortunately, governments are beginning to train their staff at all levels in how government works, and public service unions are initiating education programs enabling their members to understand and participate better in government.
A positive force for innovation within some Canadian governments is the rapidly spreading use of sectoral foresight studies to produce plausible scenarios, 10 to 30 years out into the future, which can inform current policy and set in motion anticipative innovation of government policies, programs and capabilities.
In March and April of this year the Futures Synergies Network, a voluntary network led by Jack Smith of the Telfer School at the University of Ottawa, is undertaking the development of scenarios, circa 2017 and 2040, for Canada’s innovation system. The study will draw on the talents of many current and retired public servants, and could be a first step for turning this environment around.
Want more on foresight?
Glen Milne, “The Benefit of Foresight,” Vanguard, Dec2010/Jan 2011: http://vanguardcanada.com/TheBenefitOfForesightMilne
Lynelle Spring and Tim Woods, “Foresight: Harvesting shared wisdom,” CGE, Jan 2011: http://cge.itincanada.ca/index.php?cid=312&id=13791