Innovation and the Public Sector – the Need to Work Differently

Innovation is an integral part of the private sector. Why does innovation seem so much harder in the public sector (or in places like the justice system where the public sector/government plays a major role)?

It doesn’t take much reflection to realize that there are quite a few reasons why innovation in the public sector is more challenging and, at the same time, potentially more fulfilling. It is important to identify these unique contextual factors in order to respond to them effectively.

In his 2004 article “System Failure: Why Governments Must Learn to Think Differently”, Jake Chapman observed that the traditional model of policy making involves reducing the problem into smaller pieces and applying expertise and logic to reach solutions. This approach is not effective to deal with what government faces in the context of “wicked” problems and complex adaptive social systems (think homelessness, hunger, poverty, climate change, family justice).

He uses the example of the difference between throwing a rock and a live bird. You can predict and control the trajectory and landing place of the rock; the bird adapts its path as it goes. One cannot use a linear, analysis-based, project planning approach when the system itself is constantly shifting, each of the many actors involved can influence the rest of the system and there is little agreement on an overall solution (let alone how to define the problem).

Chapman notes that the best way to improve the performance of such a system is to “take a range of actions, evaluate the results and subsequently learn what works best.” Today we call this a “learn as you go” approach.

However, he immediately identifies significant obstacles to learning within the process of government and policy making, including:

  1. An aversion to failure, exacerbated by the political process which uses failures to score points rather than learn lessons
  2. The pressure for uniformity in public services
  3. Shared assumptions between civil servants and ministers that command and control is the correct way to exercise power
  4. Lack of evaluation of previous policies
  5. Lack of time to do anything other than cope with events
  6. A tradition of secrecy used to stifle feedback and learning
  7. The dominance of turf wars and negotiations between departments, effectively making end-user performance secondary to other considerations
  8. The loss of professional integrity and autonomy under the knife of efficiency in policy making, and
  9. Resistance and protection of vested interests by some professional and intermediary bodies.

This is a long list. I would add two points: it is harder for a very large organization to shift itself than a smaller, nimble private sector entity; and government silos inhibit sharing of learning. I’m sure that many governments are aware of these challenges and many dedicated civil servants have taken steps to address them. For example, in Canada there is an increased emphasis on evaluation (evidence-based policy), the Australian government has published a “Public Sector Innovation Toolkit” and a group of talented and dedicated “service designers” work within the BC government focusing on user-centred innovations using ‘design thinking’ approaches.

At the same time, many of these barriers still ring true.

The first one listed, the aversion to failure, is a formidable barrier. It seems that to those in government, the downsides of failure often appear to disproportionately outweigh the potential benefits of innovation. As Chapman points out, that result is not surprising given the potential for political or media criticism if programs or policies are seen to fail. [Note 1] Risk aversion is also particularly common in the justice system given that legal training focuses on “black hat thinking” which identifies all of the possible risks and often doesn’t advise on ways of managing or minimizing those risks, or take into account the risk of not innovating. This may be why “experimentation” or “prototyping” is so common in the business world but so unfamiliar and terrifying in the justice system. Lawyers generally don’t like to take risks, be wrong or admit mistakes. We are taught not to ask questions if we don’t already know the answer. This attitude goes to the core of our identity as lawyers. So risk-taking is alien to both public sector culture and legal culture.

Trying new things is hard but it is essential to effective innovation:

“Public sector agencies are justifiably wary of discussing failed innovations, which could be held up as examples of waste and inept government, but it is through evaluation, learning from mistakes and iteration that ideas can be improved and mistakes avoided in the future. If failure is not discussed and analyzed, the lessons of failure are unlikely to be learned and the innovation process will remain riskier than it need be. Indeed in the private sector, a failure is a badge of honour for the entrepreneur because of the lessons learned through the innovative journey.” [Note 2]

How can we avoid or overcome the risk-aversion barrier and encourage learning as we go? Some suggestions include:

  • Show leadership which encourages exploration and learning from failure
  • Support and celebrate those within government who are innovating (through resources, recognition and rewards)
  • Refrain from punishing innovation failure but, instead, enforce ongoing learning from failures as well as successes
  • Engage and collaborate with others within and outside of government on innovations affecting the larger system; avoid silos
  • Ask for ideas; empower the workforce (and the public) to generate and submit proposals
  • Be open to learning from the “end users” – involve them in the design and implementation process
  • Avoid building a fully designed model and implementing all at once. Start small and iterate using cycles of designing, seeking user input and redesigning. Then scale up and out.
  • Use developmental evaluation which accommodates innovation and delivers empirical data on key outcomes.

A Lab approach is one way for the public sector to work collaboratively with others and to encourage innovation to address complex problems. The Alberta government is supporting a Family Justice Lab and the Winkler Institute’s Family Justice and Mental Health Social Lab is already working on some interesting prototypes. The BC Family Justice Innovation Lab is also underway. Shifting culture in the public sector and the justice sector to accepting a “learn as we go” approach will take time but it is time to recognize that the potential benefits of this approach do outweigh the short term costs on these critical social problems.


Note 1: Witness the recent coverage about “Major B.C. government IT projects go over budget or end up missing key features”.

Note 2: Australia’s Public Sector Innovation Toolkit

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