So let’s be honest, for many of us, whether we work in the public sector or simply use the services of the public sector, we wonder if innovation exists anywhere within the Public Sector.
Innovation can be defined as a new idea, method or product.
For many of us our public sector experience is event- based: drivers license renewal, birth registration, garbage pickup and the list goes on. When we have to stand in long lineups, wait on the phone, or worse, navigate a difficult website to secure a service, you have to admit it is frustrating. We typically compare these experiences with similar experiences in non public sector service providers, which for the most part are faster, easier and more innovative.
Why are some of our public sector experiences new and why are some from the past ?
From my perspective, having spent a couple of decades leading technology based departments in government, the answer is more about people and less about technology. To be clear, technology has a place, typically related to the delivery of a new and innovative service, but it really isn’t the driver of innovation. Innovation in the public sector comes from thoughtful, passionate people, elected officials, senior leaders, middle managers and front-line staff.
Here’s my formula for public sector innovation:
Elected officials that ask the probing questions multiplied by senior leaders who provide resources and the proper corporate culture (attitudes and behaviours) plus middle managers who get it and support it, plus front-line individual contributors who are part of the design, delivery and support of the solutions.
When elected officials don’t ask the probing questions they may be communicating that status quo is acceptable. When an elected official asks a question that leads to an innovation discussion, this signals to the administration that the issue is important and worth considering. Senior leaders should be challenging their organization to pursue new ideas and not necessarily waiting for the question from the elected official. Senior leaders need to create a culture of experimentation, a safe place to try new ideas and explore new ways of accomplishing the goals and objectives of the organization. A culture of fear will disable an organization; it puts people into low risk mode. A culture that rewards new ideas and protects people from punishment for failures from new ideas is a culture that is developing courage.
If there is one thing I would focus on as a public sector leader, it is the development of an attitude of courage. We need to fight the fear to succeed.
In my mind, the tipping point for innovation is clearly the middle managers; the people between the front-line staff and the leaders/elected officials. These are clearly the people who can make or break innovation. These are the people who the staff look to to understand the ‘why’ of innovation. Staff need to hear the middle managers support of the innovation and how the outcomes of innovation connect with the day to day work and how innovation ties into the corporate strategic plan.
Innovation can live within the public sector, and does in many organizations already. It is key in organizations that want to continue to evolve to the best they can be. In the innovation space there will be leaders and laggards, it’s not a race, it is a journey. If you are in a public sector organization that is a leader, then support and celebrate this. However, if you are with a laggard then ask yourself what your role is in developing a culture of innovation.
Remember innovation in the public sector is all about people, process, and the journey.