Typically radical or systematic innovation is driven by Ministers, with manifestos and political commitments providing a broad framework that encourages the flow of new ideas. However, public sector organisations should not simply depend upon politics as the primary driver of innovation, as significantly incremental innovation that promotes continual improvement in public services is mainly generated internally.
Research indicates that half of all innovations are initiated by front-line staff, middle managers and users. Thus it is vital for organisations to have robust processes for listening to what users, front-line and middle management staff say with regards to ways of working, services and how to improve performance.
Organisations that have a pool of staff that are diverse in terms of background and ways of thinking, for example coming from contrasting disciplinary and professional perspectives, are more likely to be innovative. "Innovative thinking and action can flourish in conditions of heterogenieity and even constrictive conflict" (Benington and Hartely, 1999)
Systematic scanning of other organisations, other sectors, other countries, new technologies, research findings, and inspection and audit can contribute significantly to identifying promising ideas. Possibilities for innovation are generated when individuals and organisations observe and reflect on what others are doing.
It has been found that when organisations work backwards from hoped for outcomes, rather than forwards from existing policies, practices and institutions, a greater variety of potential options are conceived. Although a significant management challenge, developing a nonconformist organisational rule-breaking culture can provide an environment that allows the innovation to flourish. For example, the UK Education Act 2002 allows schools to apply to have a rule suspended if they can show a justifiable case that by suspending the rule they can improve results in some way.
Within the private sector competition with other firms is a key driver of innovation, and although typically less salient to the public sector environment, competitive objectives can nonetheless effectively generate innovative thinking.
INCUBATING, PROTOTYPING AND MANAGING RISKS
Whilst it has already been stressed that the successful fruition of an innovative idea requires that many people come together throughout the innovation journey, nonetheless innovation "champions" can be critical at the stage at which an idea is turned into a viable prototype for testing. Innovation champions are those individuals who are willing to invest resources and organisational capacity for designing, implementing and evaluating an innovation.
Incubators for innovation provide advice and general support, finance and freedom from external pressure and rules. Incubators are more common in the private sector than in the public sector, where they provide seed capital, business advice, technology and infrastructure support and space in return for a high share of profits. However, as is probably becoming clear, the public sector and governments internationally are, as they intensify their focus on how to successfully innovate, increasingly employing methods to promote innovation that has previously been the remit of the commercial world.
Regardless of the method opted for in testing and developing innovative ideas, end-user involvement in the design and development of prototypes significantly increases the likelihood of identifying and remedying weaknesses and problems of innovation implementation.
REPLICATING AND SCALING UP
Monetary reward is a less powerful motivator for innovation in the public sector than it is in the private sector. Instead, recognition particularly by peers has been found to be of more importance. Pride in contributing to the creation of public value is the most powerful motivator to innovate in the public sector. Therefore recognition is essential.
Although direct monetary rewards to individuals is not effective in the public sector, additional funding for organisations for successfully introducing, adopting or adapting innovations as this provides extra facilities and opportunities for staff and users.
It is true that one size rarely fits all - public expectations are now that services will be tailored to personal and local needs; and innovation occurs in highly differentiated organisational and local contexts. Furthermore, caution should be exercised about the universilisation of 'best practice' because standardisation reduces the ability of services and systems to innovate in order to meet future unforeseen and unforeseeable circumstances.
Key skills and competencies in scaling up and spreading innovation mirror those of more general change management.
ANALYSING AND LEARNING
Clear and transparent measurement systems and yardsticks for assessing the success of innovations are critical to evaluating what works and creating cultures of learning. Specific measures need to be set in the areas of improvements in outcomes; service responsiveness to individuals and localities and reductions in costs against outputs and increases in productivity.
Real-time learning through formative and summative evaluation is extremely important in order to avoid producing findings in a timeline that is not responsive to immediate delivery and political pressure (often a failing of innovations with medium or long-term goals).
Networks of peers play a critical role in learning from and supporting continuous improvement. Equally user involvement adds significant value in developing and implementing successful innovations.
Processes and mechanisms need to be in place to analyse, evaluate and learn about innovation more generally in order to support understanding of innovation across the public sector. Effective knowledge management systems are crucial.