Many organisations struggle to define innovation and lack a strategic approach for generating, capturing and implementing innovative ideas or address existing challenges in an innovative manner. Innovation is the art of making hard things easy. It is a collaborative, open and structured process that involves different parts of the organisation and outside partners creating and exploiting new opportunities to find new ways to solve complex service delivery challenges. The sole action of generating ideas or being creative is not enough. An idea only becomes an innovation when it has been implemented in a form that generates value or improves a process.

Innovation and technology is also not synonymous. Whilst new technology brings new opportunities to innovate, not all technology generate value or improve a process. Furthermore, many innovations are non-technological or may use “old” technology in a creative way to address a challenge.

Public sector innovation therefore is concerned with interventions by officials or teams to solve service delivery or organisational challenges. Public sector entities innovate by introducing new approaches to provide quality public services and better respond to society’s needs.

Each country or region has a distinctness based on the combination of culture, legislation, unique challenges, etc. It would thus be a mistake to simply borrow from other countries. What is distinct about South Africa’s public sector innovation is that it is rooted in a compassion for its people to lift citizen from systemic inequality, poverty and unemployment. Public sector innovation in this contexts is therefore also personal and relational. It should enable public servants to empathise with individuals and their home, history and identity.

For us being a public sector innovator is about building identity by affirming citizens’ sense of ownership of and responsibility for their country, region, people and (scarce) state resources. It is also transformative in its support for significant re-allocation and prioritisation of resources, participation and benefit towards economically and socially marginalised groups. It also open in encouraging and enabling participation in public sector innovation from diverse communities, in a transparent way.

As such, we define innovation as ‘creativity that is contextually relevant’. A longer description, borrowed from the broader National System of Innovation would include both the process of innovating (verb) as well as the outcome in the form of a novel product, service, model or approach (noun):

‘Innovation is the process of transforming an idea, generally generated through research and development, into a new or improved product, process or approach, which relates to the real needs of society and and in such a manner that risks and unintended consequences are mitigated.’