Still Learning about Innovation in Government

(Professor Sandford Borins is one of the leading thinkers in public sector innovation globally, and was a keynote speaker at the first APS Innovation Week in 2012. Professor Borins’ latest publication in the public sector innovation area is The Persistence of Innovation in Government which will be published on June 2 – though you can read the monograph The Persistence of Innovation in Government: A Guide for Innovative Public Servants now. We asked Professor Borins if he could update us on his latest work and developments in the field of public sector innovation. He has kindly taken the time to draft this blog post.)

My latest book, The Persistence of Innovation in Government, published by the Brookings Institution, a well-known Washington think tank, discusses both shifts and continuities in public sector innovation over the last two decades, using applications to the Harvard Kennedy School’s Innovations in American Government Awards Program as well as data from several other countries. It also reviews the burgeoning literature on public sector innovation, discusses the latest thematic trends in public sector innovation in various policy areas, and presents an econometric explanation of the determinants of recognition for public sector innovations.

The monograph The Persistence of Innovation in Government: A Guide for Innovative Public Servants just released by the Washington-based IBM Center for the Business of Government, summarizes the book’s major conclusions and provides implications for practitioners.

Both the book and the monograph represent the latest instances of an approach I’ve pursued for two decades in my research on innovation. I’ve attempted to take public sector innovation research, particularly using applications to innovation awards, in a quantitative direction, moving from individual or sample-sample case studies, to larger bodies of data than can initially be counted and then analyzed statistically. Other researchers have also taken this quantitative turn. My colleagues and I haven’t gone quantitative only to release our inner geek, but rather because data allows us to see whether elements of folk-wisdom about public sector innovation are actually true.

Though the book and monograph focus public sector innovation in the US, they have a strong Australian connection. While working on this research two years ago, I was invited to Australia to present my work during Innovation Week 2012 at the then Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education, the Victorian Government, the Institute of Public Administration Australia, and the ANU. (It was a very busy week!). My research assistant and I were then half-way through coding the 127 semifinalist applications to the 2010 Innovations in American Government Awards Program that comprised the book’s primary data base. The invitation presented an opportunity to do a preliminary tally of the data. In the months prior to the visit, I made sure to choose the applications to code randomly. I had only 78 of 127 coded at that point but, because they were chosen randomly, the results I presented in Australia turned out to be very close to the results for the entire sample. That was a lesson for me in the value of random selection.

I did not spend my entire visit in “transmit” mode and much of the time I was functioning in “receive.” I was impressed that a Commonwealth government department that put the word innovation in its title was hosting an Innovation Week (now, I understand, a month) and a GovHack as well as establishing an Innovation Network and blog (both of which were then in the formative stages). I heard about the Australian Public Service Innovation Indicators Survey, which was then in the field. While its methodology – surveying senior public servants about innovations their departments had launched – is different from my own, its results turned out to be similar to my own.  Getting similar results using different methodologies dramatically increases confidence in those results.

I also became more aware of the rich body of research about public sector innovation being conducted in Australia, and in some cases put faces to names: Anthony Arundel and Dorothea Huber, Mark Considine and Jenny Lewis, Jason Potts and Tim Kastelle, and Jeremy Nolan, whose dissertation committee I was privileged to serve on.

Adding up organizations, initiatives, studies, and individuals the total level of activity is very impressive. Australia has made and continues to make an enormous contribution to the practice and study of public sector innovation.

Australia, I should add, is not alone in paying greater attention to public sector innovation. The European Commission’s 2010 Innobarometer Report surveyed 4000 public sector organizations in 27 European Union countries about their achievements in, attitudes towards, and support for innovation. I cite these results in several places in my book and show their consistency with US experience.

On November 12-13, 2013, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development will be hosting a major international conference in Paris on public sector innovation that will include presentations of many important innovations and discussions about how governments can enhance the climate for innovation. That the OECD has chosen to convene such a conference is clear evidence of the recognition of governments all over the world of the importance, and potential, of public sector innovation.

As a key national player in the field of public sector innovation, I hope Australia will have a lot to say at the OECD and in other international forums. I’m glad to have had the chance to hear much of this inspiring story two years ago and I look forward to hearing the next chapter.

Sandford Borins,

Professor of Public Management, University of Toronto

Research Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School