‘Innovating the public sector’ – A report back on the OECD Conference

Australian public servants seeking to innovate are not alone – that was one message I took back from the OECD’s recent conference ‘Innovating the Public Sector: from Ideas to Impact’.

The conference had over 400 participants over the two days, with representatives from all over the world. It was a bringing together of likeminded innovators from the public service, academia and industry practitioners. It involved some leading innovation and public sector thinkers as well as senior leadership and political representatives from a number of countries.

While the specific contexts and situations varied, many of the problems or underlying issues were instantly recognisable. So too were the issues of innovation and the challenges in how to bring new ideas to fruition.

The following provides my overview of some the key takeaways from the conference (but by no means exhaustive – a lot was covered in the two days!).

Straddling two worlds




The conference had a strong emphasis on the changing landscape that government has to operate in. These sentiments included that:

  • Tried and tested does not result in the optimal

  • Old ways of doing aren’t working

  • We need new ways to engage with and address citizen needs

  • Yes, the public service and public servants already innovate, but we need to do better.


There was discussion of how we are in the midst of a digital revolution and a reminder that revolutions change all aspects of a system, not just the obvious ones. Just as seemingly unrelated areas like schools can be seen as having been influenced by the introduction of mass production and the industrial revolution, so too will the digital revolution change all that the public service does. This revolution may bring new rights, new expectations, and new obligations. Government will have to play a role in making sure that society has the necessary institutions for this new revolution. We will need to relearn how to innovate in a way that makes sense for the digital world. People need government to understand this new digital world.

So we will need to reconsider each step of the innovation process, to rethink how we design policy and services, how we prototype, test and introduce ideas, and how we engage with citizens in each of these stages.

Sometimes this process of adjustment will involve looking at doing things radically different. In those cases, how will we foster such a mindset when it does not fit well with public service cultures? Innovation is inherently subversive, attacking as it does the status quo, changing the rules and redefining the facts and accepted understanding. This is uncomfortable for public service organisations traditionally set up to deliver stability and reliability.

Other times we will need to recognise that improvement is a better option than innovation. Sometimes incremental will be better. We need to think through the costs and risks associated with innovation. There is plenty of demand and need for innovation, but it will not always be appropriate. One speaker phrased the decision point as “When fear of the known is worse than fear of the unknown – that’s the tipping point for innovation.”

In summary, as one of the other presenters identified (channelling Paul Newman) the public service is currently straddling two worlds, but is comfortable in neither. We are halfway between the end of the old world and a new and transformed public service. We are not moving from one solid state to another – we are moving from one solid state to one of constant change – and this is what we need to build structures and institutions for.

Changing dynamics and shifting cultures


Reflecting that notion of transformation, a number of the points raised in the conference were about the changing nature of our relationships (both with each other, and with the public and our partners), as well as some of the cultural aspects of innovation.

  • We need to have empathy with citizens, to understand their experience and motivations, but also we need to have empathy with those within the system/the public sector and understand why things work as they do

  • Many countries are exploring data and greater transparency. These and other shifts will empower citizens with the tools to understand and engage with the State. This will make new forms of cooperation possible

  • Governments will need to look at their internal working practices if they are going to use innovation processes involving citizens. Many of these practices are not set up for closer engagement with, or involvement of, citizens

  • We must consider how we work with our Ministers and these new tools and approaches – what do they mean for our relationship with the political side of things?

  • Many innovations are about having more trust in citizens, with less prior control from central administration. This is a big and not always comfortable shift for those in the centre

  • Public service cultures are also often bad at encouraging ideas from the bottom up or from within the system. We need to examine how we can make our organisations and managers comfortable with this as a normal practice. We need to make hierarchies more permeable to ideas

  • There is a growing maturity in digital thinking that is starting to change how we design services. What might it look like when that maturity reaches into the heart of the public service, when our leaders have been immersed in the digital world from a young age?

  • Working together with citizens and partners is crucial, because government does not have all the answers and cannot do this alone. If we are going to transform, we will need help and will have to work as part of a broader coalition of actors.


One example that I thought gave an interesting illustration of how government’s dynamic with citizens is changing was Turkey’s e-visa system. This system dramatically sped up the visa application process and also provided administrators with an easy overview of numbers and revenue. As a commemoration of its success, it had been decided to give the one millionth e-visa recipient a prize. That e-visa was granted in three minutes – but convincing the recipient that the prize was real and that she was actually being contacted by the Turkish Government took a week.

Preconditions for successful embedding of innovation


It was noted that public servants are already innovating, however there were some qualifications to this:

  • How strategic or systematic is this innovation?

  • Do the innovation processes engage the sceptics as well as the enthusiasts?

  • Are we doing enough to build the capacity for innovation?

  • To what extent are our innovative approaches being applied at the beginning of the policy development process rather than at the implementation phase (or even afterwards, as a remedy to flawed implementation)?


Making innovation systematic and strategic


The discussion noted that in order to be systematic in their approach to innovation we (the public service) need to ‘insource’ innovation skills, and we need to build our own capability for innovation, as well as working with those outside of our organisations. We need to invest in training and we need to invest in new places and spaces for innovation (but not in such a way that they are removed from the rest of the system – we need to avoid creating ‘lonely’ innovators).

We also need new governance models and new organisational forms that allow us to innovate in different ways. Our existing structures have worked for previous patterns of activity, but are struggling with some aspects of experimentation and closer engagement with citizens. Current innovation efforts are often too fragmented and detached from our underlying systems and processes.

While there is often commitment, there also needs to be some strategy and structure behind our innovation efforts. This can help mobilise the relevant actors, give a focus for attention to innovation, and connect the relevant initiatives. A strategy can also help ensure there is legitimacy to our innovation efforts – innovation is subversive but it can’t be rogue. It requires a mandate. A strategy can also help combat the inertia of the system, the tendency to stick with the status quo.

One of the biggest threats to making innovation systematic and strategic is impatience (it won’t happen overnight, but it will happen – if we give it sufficient time). If we see innovation as a quick fix, then it will not work. And for innovation to be sustainable, it has to involve everybody.

Building capacity


There were a number of points made about building capacity for innovation:

  • Consideration needs to be given to having the right skills and bringing the public service workforce along in the innovation process, to equip them with the new skills and understanding needed

  • We need to build resilience into our systems (but also manage that resilience so that it is adaptable to big shifts when they do need to occur)

  • If we want innovative organisations, then everything about the organisation has to change. A culture of innovation cannot be confined to one little cell. How we think about organisational culture, about how we see people, management practices, processes – all of this needs to change

  • An organisation that does not have initiatives that are failing, isn’t trying new things (but that doesn’t mean a failing initiative necessarily means the organisation is innovative)

  • We often have the myth of the broken system, but many of the barriers we see to innovation are self-inflicted – e.g. phantom regulations, unwritten rules, self-limited discretion of initiative, excuses.


Ultimately, as Geoff Mulgan pointed out, the capacity for innovation will relate to the ability to access the necessary elements of power, of money and of attention, with attention being the scarcest.

Integrating innovation (and design) into the beginning of the policy process


The discussion covered the issue of how to bring innovation and design into the beginning of the process rather than at the implementation phase.

Part of this shift will be about recognising that policy is now a much more fluid process than it has previously been. Policy is no longer something fixed to be implemented, but something that is continually adjusting and reacting to new evidence and responses.

Another part of the shift will be about recognising the value that innovation and design can offer at the early stages, as opposed to at the end of the process. Applying innovation and design approaches at the implementation stage may end up highlighting any flaws in the policy, or they may work as a Band-Aid to poorly designed policies.

Design then needs to shift from the designing of the artefacts produced by the public sector system, to designing the system that produces the artefacts (including policies and services).

Lessons about the innovation process


There were a number of presentations sharing some proven examples of innovation within the public sector. These examples included the zero licensing initiative in Portugal which radically changed the compliance burden for restaurants and cafés, the use of social media by Iceland police such that 49% of their contact is now via social media, and the use of tiered evidence programmes/innovation funds in the USA to help scale up promising ideas with reduced risk and increased evidence.

Some of the general lessons about the innovation process that came from these examples and other speakers included:

  • We need to help people understand the value from doing things differently, or otherwise it will not happen

  • Cultural change does not come from new technology, it comes from getting people to behave differently

  • Our job is not finished when the policy is implemented, it is when the end users are satisfied

  • Involvement and support from the top is very important – and champions need to be plural, as one is never enough

  • Innovation is unfair – you can be the best, have the best people and be truly innovative, and yet still ‘lose’. Therefore we should not think about design and innovation as being about winning, but about improving and getting closer to a better result

  • We need to see evidence building as a learning process, rather than being an up or down verdict of success or failure

  • An innovation is helped when you have a cool acronym and a compelling concept.


Summary points


My summary points from the conference then are that:

  • Innovation is not a nice to do, but a need to do

  • Government innovates and it always has. The whole point of state interventions is that they are to be transformative, and are intended to bring about change – so innovation is about the core business of government

  • France has an adaptability principle – the idea that government services need to be able to adapt to people’s needs. Public sector innovation is really about the needs and wishes of citizens. It is not about us (the public sector and public servants). It is essential to the legitimacy and trust given to us by citizens

  • There is a lot of innovation going on around the world, but still more needs to be done in understanding aspects of innovation, and in building a shared language and new vocabulary that matches the new world we are entering

  • There are a lot of challenges to innovating, but they are not always what we think they are. For instance Rt Hon Francis Maude MP, UK Minister for the Cabinet Office, noted that politicians are often accused of being risk averse, but he said this isn’t true, as there’s a lot of risk involved in being a politician. Politics is high risk. What politicians are is surprise averse

  • No matter the challenges, innovation is about getting our hands dirty. Minister Maude proclaimed himself a member of the “JFDI school” – just do it

  • This does not mean that doing it will be simple. As Ms. Marylise Lebranchu, Minister for Decentralisation and the Public Service in France said, public policy reform and innovation cannot be simple because life is not simple. Our society and life is complex, and the role of government is to internalise that complexity and make it simpler for citizens

  • We need a world where public servants are not only permitted to innovate, but are expected to.


Overall it was a great event and the OECD is to be congratulated for its efforts in pulling it together.