Why public sector innovation efforts are falling short in Canada
The OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (OPSI)* reviewed Canada’s approach for public service innovation concluding it was “relatively immature”. Most Departments set up innovation Labs. The OECD was not a criticism of Labs; it was critical of the lack of tactics to build the capacity of 250,000 staff across Government to innovate. While individual departments are developing other initiatives, the innovation picture painted with comments from 100 staff working in innovation roles led OECD to conclude (quoted from its paper):
- “There is no overall picture of the innovation system, what it includes, what it involves, what is happening, nor how it is performing.
- “There is no overriding sense of what the intent driving the system is.
- “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
- “There is no shared sense across the system of what needs to happen next.”
Having worked on national innovation strategies in several countries, this result was sadly predictable. There is a clear failure in Canada to make innovation meaningful to staff. If the goal is a highly innovative public sector, it is hard to see how these initiatives will reach this goal, In other words, you can’t get there from here.
One OECD OPSI interviewee said, “The innovation hub is perhaps 10 people. All of the self-described innovators in the broadest sense of the word are less than 300 people. Three hundred people amongst 250,000. We are drop in the ocean.”
Recent news also questions the success of Labs. The high profile ISED (Innovation, Science and Economic Development) Lab has closed. The poster child for innovation Labs was Denmark’s MindLab. It too closed. Thomas Prehn, who headed MindLab said, “MindLab stood at the forefront, both in theory and practice, of efforts to make government cleverer, faster and more inventive.” Some say Labs build a culture of innovation. While a comforting idea, it’s wrong. Prehn added, “They don’t help usher in a sustainable change to how organisations work.”
In the late 1990s, I had a partner who ran the Polaroid Creativity Lab. US research showed Labs create useful ideas, but, “Labs cannot, by themselves, significantly impact the bottom line culture of an organization.”
My first job in the public sector was with New Zealand Post’s Total Quality Service group. While we created a type of Lab to design new service models, we knew a small team could never create the volume of ideas to solve hundreds of challenges across the organization to improve internal and external services. We had to create programs to engage managers and staff.
Innovation is a puzzle with many pieces
I find it useful to view innovation as a puzzle: a picture of an innovative organization is on the cover of the puzzle box. You open the box to discover how many pieces must be assembled to create this picture. As will any puzzle, when you step back to see the whole picture missing pieces seem obvious. This is what the OECD OPSI did. To explore different pieces of this puzzle, recognize that every team, Department, and Government faces two innovation challenges. If you want more innovation, you must build capacity to innovate.
Former Clerk of Privy Council of Canada, Jocelyne Bourgon suggests, “Governments around the world are inventing solutions to society’s problems. Public innovation is both the goal and the process of generating innovative solutions. The difficulty is preparing government to improve its capacity to generate interventions.” This suggests we pursue two areas of expertise:
- Innovation in public services: creating innovative solutions to serve the public.
- Building capacity for public service innovation: the capacity of government to invent the systems, processes, and services to solve current and future challenges of the public sector.
Each requires a systems solution. The first focuses on where the public sector must innovate. The second focuses on questions like…what do we want staff to do differently? What individual and team skills and expertise are needed to do this? These factors are the pieces of the puzzle. The least developed is the second: building capacity to innovate across an organization.
In November 2017, the Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick hosted 100 executives to launch the “Federal, Provincial and Territorial Declaration on Public Sector Innovation.” This statement was intended to prompt a wave of new initiatives across Canada.
While it provided a vibrant vision, “We need to rely on the diversity, ingenuity and creativity of Canadians to solve real problems”, it did not address the urgency to build skills and capacity to innovate across all levels of government. This declaration came close:
“Seeking out and applying new insights, ideas, tools and technologies to complex problems by working within and across governments to continuously improve policies, programs and services.”
What is in place to develop the skills for people to create new insights and ideas, and to understand how to use a diversity of tools and technologies? Which tools? From experience in training about 4000 staff over ten years of presentations, this must be based on foundation skills for solving simple and complex problems effectively.
Shaping a systems approach to innovation
For the first innovation challenge, it is worth reflecting on the “products” public servants must invent, manage, and deliver. Each could have a unique strategy to shape more innovative results.
- Innovating services – the product is new or improved public services. Current strategies focus on digital change to improve the customer experience with public services.
- Innovating policy development – the product is a robust policy that reflects challenges facing society.
- Innovating technical solutions – Canada has 16,000 sophisticated problem solvers: scientists, engineers, architects, and researchers. How can their work be more effective? We could consider how this expertise could help with the first two “products”.
- Innovating people management systems – the core product is culture. We also need innovation in people management programs to improve productivity and results.
In Canada, there is a buzz about new management ideas such as Free Agents and the GC Entrepreneur program. About 80 people are involved with the first and 18 with the second. Both are potential management innovations but not sufficient to engage 250,000 public servants.
The urgency to focus on (4) is reflected by the current conflict between Canada’s Auditor General and the Clerk of the Privy Council. They are having a public debate about the quality of the current culture of the public service. It is clear that the best minds must focus on innovating internal systems and make recommendations for the overall public sector.
Many governments around the world know shaping culture requires a common and consistent understanding of innovation. I collaborated with the Singapore Government to write an innovation guide for 20,000 staff. We decided that the actions of all staff and managers would be crucial to shape this culture. This guide started with these words: “The Public Service is building a culture of innovation. By doing so, we create new strengths and capabilities for the future – but it means changing the way we think in some ways.”
To give meaning to this notion of “changing the way we think” I used these prompts.
“What it means to be “innovative”?
“Creativity is about finding new and original ideas that solve problems and or create opportunities. But to bridge the gap between creative ideas and results takes action. That’s when innovative thinking is needed most – acting on our ideas and making them happen. That’s innovation! This may mean…
- Taking new perspectives to our daily work.
- Doing things differently; doing different things.
- Focusing on finding ideas and acting on them.
- Striving to create value in new ways.
“The Public Service is known for its efficiency and effectiveness. Going forward by building a culture of innovation ensures we will find new ways to create greater value for the organisation, its people and those we serve.”
This approach is common with Governments to help staff understand that being innovative is part of everyone’s job. These words were carefully chosen to prompt the behaviour we wanted public servants to demonstrate on a daily basis.
To develop more pieces of the innovation puzzle, consider these core programs:
1. Executive programs
Leaders must lead. Leaders need a sophisticated understanding of core innovation concepts to lead the innovation talk. Their decisions must build this capacity and then ensure senior managers cascade this understanding to managers and staff. I remember speaking at an innovation conference in Singapore where the Government Minister sat in the front row of the room. He was signalling that learning to innovate is important.
While the “Declaration on Public Sector Innovation” offers useful perspectives, one idea needs to be challenged: “In times of considerable change and uncertainty, the greatest risk is refusing to take chances and try new things.”
I have often written how confusing it is to equate innovation with taking chances. Gambling is about taking chances. Innovation is not about taking chances. It’s is about using the skills we develop to define problems in new ways and generating and developing solutions to solve these challenges. When people use robust problem-solving disciplines, our solutions offer obvious benefits. Telling staff to take chances can have an unintended consequence to stop people from creating better solutions.
You can argue that it is a just a word, but true innovators rarely take chances. Their options are well conceived to solve old problems in new ways.
Executives need a common language for innovation, beginning with a clear understanding of what innovation means to staff in their Department. This should lead to common tactics used in all Departments. While Labs have been adopted by most, there should be an equal use of common innovation tactics (some listed below). This is harder than it seems. The Australian Public Sector Commission’s 2015 staff research found, despite Departments having innovation programs, most had not defined the core “knowledge and skills all staff should have”.
2. Management programs
Managers need to be facilitators and catalysts to prompt staff to have an ‘opportunity mindset’. Management programs create a foundation of skills and knowledge, and more importantly, a source of confidence for staff to solve their challenges in new ways. Trust is crucial. Staff must feel safe to come forward with new ideas. Managers are crucial as they shape the climate for their staff and teams. Some Departments use a ‘rule of thumb’ to train 1 in 50 staff to have specialized training to lead efforts in their area of responsibility.
Recommendations for all Departments
The OECD research suggests there is a great need to translate this vision of innovation into quality innovation programs. There are many examples internationally of support programs that build knowledge and a culture for innovation. Most common are:
3. Innovation skills programs
Many Governments deliver innovation skills training. These skills create a platform for co-creation and collaboration. Skills underpin problem solving processes such as design thinking. The Singapore innovation guide introduced the opportunity for public servants the idea of skills this way:
“To build our innovation capacity we must focus on creating a culture that supports new thinking. For the individual public officers, we can provide essential training to enhance their capability to innovate.
“Our fundamental belief is that everyone is creative. Our challenge is to unleash the creative spirit inside each of us. More importantly, we have to pay attention to an officer’s training needs across the entire innovation process.”
Training should include skills for generating, developing, judging, communicating, and turning ideas into actions, and collaboration. At the time of the launch, staff could take two to three days of courses in each of these skills. These analogue skills are crucial for those designing digital services. Link: an overview of innovation skills. Innovation skills can also be defined to match the needs of staff. Lab staff must have specialized skills for problem-solving. Design thinking and Behavioral Insights are very common today in Labs. The challenging issue is to design training programs for all levels of staffs, not just the specialists.
4. Innovation communication programs
Most governments have communication strategies to make innovation meaningful to staff. This is important as most ideas flow from everyday staff working on everyday challenges. As staff grow in confidence, their ideas also grow in scope. Tactics to make innovation meaningful can include idea journals, team briefs, innovation guides, toolkits, blogs, and staff websites. For examples of innovation guides, link to innovation communication case studies. Australia created blogs and an innovation community of practice https://innovation.govspace.gov.au/ Also link to South African Centre for Public Sector Innovation
The public sector has a long history of innovating solutions. Key decision makers must expand their knowledge of the strategies and tactics that can make this happen. The latest OECD paper on “Embracing Innovation in Government: Global Trends 2018” offered this conclusion:
“Around the world, the majority of government innovation agendas are built on loosely defined concepts and inconsistent implementation strategies. Most governments do not incorporate innovation into competency frameworks that prepare civil servants to meet challenges, and close to half have not allocated dedicated funding for innovation.
Perhaps, most importantly, innovation too often occurs in pockets and silos – an age-old challenge of government – such as hubs and Labs. As long as this is the case, innovation may at best burn like a series of bright matches, but will never ignite a fire across government.”
Innovation always involves change. Change must become a natural element of our daily work. Canada started the process of building this capacity later than other countries. There seems little excuse for its strategy to be labelled by the OECD as “relatively immature”. Today’s public servants and the public who need public services deserve a better approach. It will take a major rethink of strategies and tactics to bring the picture of an innovative public sector to life.
*The final OECD OPSI report on Canada will be published shortly.
Ed Bernacki has had a long international career working in and with Governments in various countries. His particular interest in shaping processes, tools and idea journals to build skills to innovate. www.PSIdeaFactory.com