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Christian Bason

Public sector innovation must move from Strategy to action

By November 25th 2011

This blog has previously been published in the Danish newspaper “Monday Morning”.

Innovation strategies are currently being developed throughout the public sector – including in the government. This is encouraging and long overdue. But the challenge will be to create strategies that lead to innovation in practice. The following presents a little more than five examples of what this means.

 “Can you give me some concrete examples of innovation for our coming strategy process?” (city manager). “Can you give a presentation to provide inspiration to our strategic work with innovation, now that we are a free municipality?” (development director). “We are finalising our innovation strategy, but what can we do about the incentive structure?” (municipal development consultant). These are examples of enquiries I receive from the municipalities. At the moment, I hear them almost daily.

Right now, interest in innovation in the public sector – particularly in the municipalities ­– is rapidly growing. This topic has certainly been on the agenda for years. But it is no longer a matter of isolated projects or initiatives. Innovation is now a strategic agenda that has the undivided attention of top management – both in the municipalities and national government. After the election, the victorious parties have set a national innovation strategy in its programme.

It is nothing new that the government will propose initiatives to boost research, development, productivity and growth in Danish companies. But it is new that a national strategy for innovation also includes the public sector. And it’s good timing – not just in relation to developments in the municipalities, but also in relation to the world around us. Other countries are already in full swing. If the government establishes a strategy, it will place us in the current of countries such as Australia and Sweden, who in recent months have adopted ambitious action plans to promote innovation in the public sector. For example, Canberra passed an Australian Public Service Innovation Action Plan.

The need for a more strategic and systematic approach to public innovation has rarely been greater. The challenges are many, whether we are speaking of education, employment, health or even productivity in the public sector. As shown by the municipal leaders’ statements above, the question is not whether innovation is needed, but rather how we will choose to approach the task of innovation. So what key considerations must a public sector innovation strategy include if it is to make a difference? Here are five questions:

  1. What should the strategy be about? In my book, “Leading Public Sector Innovation” (Policy Press, 2010), I emphasise that a good public innovation strategy requires direction. What key challenges must the strategy specifically focus on? What significant national, regional or municipal initiatives will we invest in to increase the probability of finding truly radical, innovative solutions? What should comprise the strategy’s portfolio?
  2. How will we work with innovation? Which means, methods and processes should the strategy utilise? For example, will we emphasise new technology, research, employee-driven innovation, or strengthening the involvement of citizens and businesses? Or will we use a mix of these? Are we seeking incremental or radical innovation? Do we even have a clear idea of these different forms of innovation? Do we have the competences to use them?
  3. Who must be involved? Innovation is made possible from the top, but is executed from below. Should the strategy primarily involve stakeholders in the public sector, or should there be a collaboration between a range of state, regional and municipal organisations, private companies, NGOs, or citizens themselves? What activities can ensure that the involvement happens in practice and that it focuses on practical, effective solutions rather than special interests?
  4. How will we measure the success of the strategy? Public innovation occurs when new ideas are implemented and create value for society. The bottom line is completely different from that of the private sector. Or rather, bottom lines. There are four in all: Productivity, service experience, effects, and democracy. Are some of these dimensions to be prioritised more than others? How will we continually document that the strategy delivers results?
  5. Where will the strategy be rooted? Where will we embed the strategy in the organisation so that we both secure top management focus and a broad commitment? How and by whom is it to be executed and what governance structures will ensure that it happens?

In fact, there is a sixth question that may be the most difficult of them all. When the Australian government announced its new innovation strategy back in May, I received an e-mail from one of its key advisors. “They’ve even included ‘courage’!” he wrote. The Australians thereby point out that strong and courageous leadership is essential if we want to translate innovation to action. How will we choose to approach this challenge?

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