Innovation is not neutral. It can be negative because of unintended consequences, neutral or have a positive impact. As such, public sector innovation should be guided by clear values and principles. We discuss some below:
The prescriptive approach typically taken by the French public sector must give way to a human-centric approach to public policy, and more specifically to a user-centric approach (with users potentially including public servants themselves for issues internal to public sector). Defining procedures according to “life events” (i.e., what happens when a user moves house, needs to renew a passport, etc.) enables public servants to look beyond bureaucratic segmentations and focus on the user experience during his/her dealings with public services in connection with these life events. By putting themselves in the user’s place and plotting the user’s course through a user-centric approach, public servants become aware of complexities to which they had always been oblivious; this can pave the way to solutions which, although obvious, had previously remained hidden from view.
Open to new knowledge and research findings, public institutions must have ready access to an abundant array of tools coming from the human and social sciences and behavioural insights. A multidisciplinary approach can ensure smart decision-making, rather than viewing problems through the lens of a single method that one seeks to apply at all costs. The need to “break silos” applies to organisational structures as well: collaboration among players coming from different fields and different organisations has become imperative for dealing with the complexity of these challenges.
Planning methods such as foresight are useful tools that will assist in ensuring innovation is infused into the planning process which will allow our government to be agile and is able to predict future challenges that impact on planning.
Whether creating a new service or adapting an existing service to new practices, it is crucial to draw on collective intelligence by getting all the relevant stakeholders. There are two different ways to act on this principle: by participatory innovation, using ideas put forth by public servants regardless of their occupation or job level; and by open innovation, in which this approach is extended to include all the stakeholders of a given organisation or topic.
The knowledge created through these approaches must promote a culture geared to the development of prototypes through testing and piloting leading to new solutions. Today’s public sector must be action-oriented. Public servants can themselves become the producers of new solutions, rather than merely following procedures. By this creative dimension, “innovation” becomes more than a synonym for “modernisation”. With a more radical approach, innovation is embodied by new – if initially marginal – outcomes.
Designing an initial prototype allows a rapid proof-of-concept, to test what works and what does not. Successive iterations to test new ideas in real-life conditions of use and users will yield a tried-and-tested solution. Major innovations are born when “project teams” are empowered to engage in trial and error.
Achieving one major success requires a great deal of trial and error. Many spectacular failures – including examples in public sector IT projects – have demonstrated the wisdom of starting small rather than attempting a moon-shot right at the outset. Those who view innovation as a risk have it all wrong: the true risk lies in embarking on a large-scale project without first succeeding on a smaller one. Failure must be recognised simply as another way to learn. The point is to live by Nelson Mandela’s famous quote: “I never lose. I either win or learn.“
Innovation must go hand in hand with evaluation. Evaluation must be built into the initial planning with meaningful metrics and performed systematically: first to measure the results of an innovation, and then to assess the value of deploying it more broadly.
The innovation process is anchored by strategic leadership and the management of diversity.
Strategic leadership that has a focus on capacity building is an important tool to foster innovation in the Public Sector. Such leadership encourages responsible risk-taking and is open to ideas from members of the team. If an innovation is based on a leader and is not institutionalised, the innovation will die as the leadership changes. The role of an effective leader is to build capacity and share responsibility and authority so that the innovation introduced can survive.
To build a culture supportive of innovation, it is necessary to promote an organisational environment that values a sense of ownership among all employees as this empowers them to take proactive measures. When public servants perceive their jobs to be repetitive and mechanical, with no margin of autonomy, innovation is less likely.
Management should also ensure diversity of staff in terms of background because Innovation depends on the ability to see things differently. Therefore differences in the backgrounds and perspectives of an organisation’s members are likely to foster innovation.
Public sector innovation takes root when the knowledge of a problem and its potential solutions come together with people who are able and motivated to do something in order to solve the challenges. These people need to understand the rules and bureaucratic constraints in order to know what constraints are posed by rules and innovatively come up with solutions within these constraints.
Everyone in a team must participate in the solution development process, and everyone is recognised or rewarded. Diversity brings alternative perspectives and open opportunities for new ideas to be incorporated.