Innovation 101

Innovation 101

Close-up of the word innovate and innovation in a dictionary"Innovation is everywhere, and everyone is claiming it... 'Innovation' becomes a panacea for any problem because, in essence, it expresses that whatever the challenge is, it is being dealt with successfully. But like a wet bar of soap, ‘innovation’ somehow eludes a firm grip. Paradoxically, we want it, but can’t really express it." 1 Christian Bason, Director, Denmark's MindLab, 12 July 2010 What innovation is and what it is not is a subject of some debate. As the quote from Christian notes, the word innovation is used by a lot of people for a lot of different things. At times it can seem like the word innovation is overused and oversold. Yet innovation is essential for achieving better outcomes. This section looks to shed some light on the concept of innovation and why it is important to the public sector, the people who work in it, and the people it serves.

What is innovation?

Innovation is defined in Empowering Change: Fostering Innovation in the Australian Public Service as the generation and application of new ideas. This definition helps us remember that:

  • Innovation is not always a new product, service or process. A innovative idea may be stopping something (such as an out-moded or now unnecessary function) or it might be a new way of thinking about an issue
  • Innovation is not just about coming up with ideas, but also their application, integrating them with other systems and processes, and monitoring the results over the longer term
  • Innovation is a process. It involves people, resources and systems and it is something that can be managed and encouraged
  • Everyone has the capacity to be innovative, and many people actively want to innovate and bring creative and new ways to bear on the problems or issues faced in their work by their organisation or their clients and stakeholders.

Innovations are not automatically good – there are examples of innovations that have resulted in negative effects despite their intended outcomes. Likewise, there have been instances of ideas that were initially thought of as not providing additional value but in hindsight are seen as very beneficial. Some examples of public sector innovation can be seen on the Public Sector Innovation Showcase.

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Public sector innovation in 60 seconds

A brief overview of public sector innovation:

  • Like other sectors of society and the economy, the public sector faces pressures to innovate and do things differently in order to achieve better outcomes and meet the expectations of governments, stakeholders and citizens 
  • Innovation can be a difficult process but it can also be very rewarding and effective in achieving better results
  • The Australian Public Service has had a long history of innovating however there are opportunities to be more systematic and supportive of it
  • In 2010 the report Empowering Change: Fostering Innovation in the Australian Public Service was released. This framework document made a number of recommendations about how innovation could be further encouraged in the APS 
  • Further detailed guidance for APS agencies was provided to Secretaries and members of the APS 200 (the 200 most senior public servants in the APS) under an APS 200 project on public sector innovation 
  • The Secretaries Board (the heads of the Portfolio Departments in the APS) made a commitment to innovation in their agencies with the signing of the APS Innovation Action Plan 
  • The Department of Industry, Innovation and Science is supporting this innovation agenda through support of the Public Sector Innovation Network, through the Innovation Showcase demonstrating examples of innovation and Gov 2.0 initiatives in action in the public sector, and through the Public Sector Innovation blog and Toolkit which share information and guidance on how to apply innovative approaches to the work of the APS
  • Individual public servants, teams and agencies are encouraged to consider how they may use innovation to achieve better outcomes and to participate in the Network, share examples through the Showcase, and share experiences and insights through the blog and the Toolkit.

You can find out more about the context for public sector innovation in the context section.

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Are there different types of innovation?

Not all innovations are the same. Some are about what we do, others are about how we do things, how we work with others in what we do and some are about how we think about things. Empowering Change (using the work of Windrum, 2008) included six types of innovation in the public sector.

  1. Services innovation—a new or improved service.
  2. Service delivery innovation—a new or different way of providing a service.
  3. Administrative or organisational innovation—a new process.
  4. Conceptual innovation—a new way of looking at problems, challenging current assumptions, or both.
  5. Policy innovation—a change to policy thinking or behavioural intentions.
  6. Systemic innovation—a new or improved way for parts of the public sector to operate and interact with stakeholders.

These different types of innovation can also require different types of support or they may need to be introduced or implemented differently.

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Why do we need to innovate in the public sector?

At its heart innovation in the public sector is about applying new ideas in order to solve problems. Not every problem will need an innovative response, but sometimes many approaches will have already been applied and it is a new idea that has the potential to resolve the issue. There are a number of forces or drivers that increase the likelihood that the response to a problem will need to be innovative:

  • Policy challenges – the public sector faces a number of complex problems (such as climate change) that require innovative policy, program and service responses
  • Changing citizen expectations – citizens are expecting more from public services, matching some of their experience with the private sector where innovation and innovative approaches have delivered new products and services
  • Global trends – as other governments around the world innovate with their services, it is expected in Australia as well
  • Fiscal pressure – governments around the world are under pressure to deliver services at lower cost, or think differently about how services are delivered or what they involve
  • Changes in how the public sector is managed and how it interacts with citizens and stakeholders – many of the issues faced by the public sector require different ways of working with citizens, stakeholders and clients. The public sector increasingly cannot simply dictate how a problem will be solved as it often needs to collaborate with a network of interest groups and help clients to help themselves. This can require different ways of working and managing projects, and innovative approaches can balance these new methods with the traditional processes, responsibilities and accountability of the public sector
  • Building a high-performing public service – many public servants want to innovate and apply new approaches to their work. If the public service wants to attract and retain high-performing public servants, then it increasingly needs to provide a working environment where such people can innovate to solve the problems faced in their work and to deliver better outcomes
  • Technological changes – as technology changes it facilitates the public service working in different and innovative ways

Usually there is not one single factor that spurs on innovation but a confluence of factors that enable innovation.

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If innovation is so important, why does it need to be encouraged?

Innovation is rarely easy. It is about changing how things are done and it can have unexpected consequences. People and organisations may resist change (sometimes for very good reasons). For example some clients or stakeholders, including public servants, may already be facing difficult circumstances and introducing an innovation may offer too much disruption to those in vulnerable situations. It is helpful to think about the following questions and consider some of the conflict or disagreements that may arise when an innovation is being introduced:

  • Is it clear to everyone involved what the objective of the innovation is?
  • Is there consensus amongst the relevant parties that an innovative response is needed?
  • Is there consensus that this is the particular innovation that should be introduced?
  • Is there consensus about how it is going to be implemented? Or evaluated?
  • Will the innovation disrupt existing services or processes?
  • Do all the relevant players have the necessary skills to make the innovation work?
  • Will the innovation affect how those delivering it relate to their clients/stakeholders? Will it have a positive or negative impact on that interaction?
  • What will happen if the innovation does not work?
  • Is the innovation initiative the only change that is occurring for the relevant parties? Or are their other changes occurring simultaneously?

As well, an innovation can require a diverse mix of skills and resources to succeed, some of which may not be readily available. Innovation is often part of improvement. Innovation can lead to remarkable achievements and real differences in the quality of life for members of the public. It can also be deeply rewarding and fulfilling for those doing the innovating. Therefore the APS is looking at how it can better foster and facilitate innovation. This Toolkit aims to provide guidance and assistance for public servants looking to apply innovation in order to achieve better outcomes.

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Are there times when innovation should not be used?

Innovation is not always the right response to a problem. Sometimes a more incremental or subtle adjustment may be better. Innovation can be disruptive and many organisations already have well developed systems and processes in place that may only need refinement. Trying a completely new approach can be expensive and risky. So how can you tell when you need an innovative response? This will depend on a range of factors, but some of the things to consider might include:

  • The nature of the problem – is it new to the agency?
  • The degree to which existing responses are failing to meet requirements. The more that existing approaches are failing to achieve the outcomes needed the more likely an innovative response is required.
  • Windows of opportunity. Are the right preconditions in place for the innovation to occur – for instance in terms of the budget/planning cycle?

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How does innovation happen?

Empowering Change identified a five stage process for innovation including the following:

  • Idea generation
  • Idea selection
  • Idea implementation
  • Sustaining ideas
  • Idea diffusion

These phases are not always distinct or separate. The value of this framework is that it reinforces that the innovation process does have different stages, and that it is likely that different skills and methodologies will be needed at each stage. Five circles with arrows between each circle pointing to the next circle. The five circles contain idea generation, idea selectino, idea implementation, sustaining ideas, and idea diffusion. Source: Adapted from WD Eggers and SK Singh (2009) The Public Innovator's Playbook: Nurturing bold ideas in Government, Deloitte Research.

For instance idea generation is about creativity, whereas idea selection needs to be informed by careful analysis, understanding of the problems at hand and the strategy and constraints facing the owning organisation. Idea implementation requires project management skills, though often different skill sets to those needed for more routine and well-defined projects. Sustaining ideas requires the idea to be integrated into the systems already in place and making it part of a new status quo. Successfully diffusing ideas depends on being able to distil the core attributes of the innovation, how and why it worked, and understanding what key aspects need to be replicated for it to succeed in different contexts.

For most innovations, particularly if they are large and affect multiple people, it will be rare that the person who came up with the idea will have all of the requisite skills, all of the relevant knowledge, and all of the right networks and abilities to successfully lead an idea through all stages of the innovation process.

The model also helps organisations to think about the innovation process, the capabilities needed and how it can support innovation through the different stages. Does the organisation have a process for idea selection and linking it with the formal decision making processes? How does the organisation embed innovations so that they become part of business as usual? Are there processes for identifying lessons from innovation and sharing them inside the organisation and with other like-minded agencies?

Another way to think about the innovation process is to consider it within the context of a specific innovation project. In 2009 the Australian National Audit Office produced a better practice guide for public sector innovation which outlined a different model for the innovation process. ANAO innovation model with four overlapping circles labelled develop, implement, check and adjust, with the common area named innovation. The image also identifies the essential preconditions for innovation including leadership (culture, corporate strategy and human capital), leadership at all levels, knowing your business, focussing on the important, organisational capability and agility, incentives and rewards This model focused on ‘develop, implement, check and adjust’ and can assist when a specific innovation is being implemented.

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How does innovation fit with business improvement/continuous improvement?

Many organisations have continuous improvement programs in place, and may question why they need to focus on innovation as well. There is some overlap between innovation and continuous improvement. However there are also some differences.

  • Innovations may involve completely different ways of doing things, rather than incremental adjustments
  • These different ways of doing things can require different performance indicators and reporting frameworks to what has been used before
  • New approaches can also require different skills and different support
  • Changes to the status quo involve new risks. These risks may need different responses than those encountered in routine initiatives
  • Disruption is less likely to be welcomed than subtler shifts to how things are currently done. This can require more explicit leadership, support, encouragement and change management.

Given such differences, it is important that the frameworks in place for innovation deliberately consider how disruptive ideas can be managed as well as those for more incremental adjustments and refinements.

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I’ve already got a great idea – but I can’t get my agency to implement it

Everyone has ideas. At the same time agencies have lots of issues to deal with and existing responsibilities to manage. It can be hard to line up the right idea with the right problem, the right people, the right resources, and at the right time. Even then the innovation process has different stages and not everyone will be able to personally carry an idea from the beginning to end. We are trying to help agencies and individuals identify the tools to help them carry their ideas through these stages and to consider and overcome the different barriers to innovation that they might encounter. But that does not mean that every idea will make it through the process. Most innovation efforts involve a lot of failed ideas for every successful one. A key capability is being able to try and test many ideas quickly and cheaply to narrow down the most promising ones and focus the most effort on those remaining ideas.

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But I think innovation is different to what you’ve said…

While innovation has always been happening in the public sector, public sector innovation is still a relatively new field of research. There are many different definitions and conceptions of innovation. There are also many different models of the innovation process. The definition and models presented have been chosen because of their value in highlighting key aspects of the innovation process. The application of innovation can differ between organisations and contexts, so different agencies may find different definitions to be more appropriate to their situation.

[1] This quote is not covered by the Creative Commons licence or Commonwealth Copyright. From Christain Bason, "Why is innovation a terrible word?" 12 July 2010 accessed at

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