Different Types of Innovation in the Public Sector

[Originally published on the Australian Government Public Sector Innovation Network under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY AU licence]

A question that public servants often face is ‘What is the right response to this problem?’ In the public service there are frameworks, guides, tools, policies and previous experiences to help public servants answer that question.

Sometimes the answer will be ‘an innovative response’ – possibly a significant, ongoing shift in how the problem is dealt with.

Hopefully a public servant needing an innovative response would look to the report Empowering Change: Fostering Innovation in the Australian Public Service or one of the other resources we have identified on our website.

Obviously, we think that’s a good starting point. But as noted in the report itself, it does not have all the answers. One question that the report could perhaps have given more focus to is ‘what type of innovative response is best used when’? Are there different approaches to developing an innovative response?

The report does consider different categories of innovation. It identifies six broad groups for innovation – services, service delivery, administrative/organisational, conceptual, policy, and systemic. 1

The report also provides different tools that can be used at different stages of the innovation process, and notes that the tools have different strengths and will provide assistance for different things.

Yet there is still a question of whether there are different types of innovation approaches that may be more suited to particular situations. For instance, is a radical response needed? Or an incremental response?

In other words, are there instances when a certain style of innovation may be more suited or more useful? And if so, how are those different styles of innovation best supported?

A recent report from the UK, Beyond Light Bulbs and Pipelines: Leading and Nurturing Innovation in the Public Sectorprovides some possible answers. “Different types of innovation in different settings require different sources and forms of support.” 2

The Sunningdale Institute’s report outlines 7 innovation models for how innovation happens in the public sector. As the report notes the models are neither exhaustive nor exclusive.

    • R&D Led – a traditional view of innovation where specialists develop an idea. The paper suggests that this is useful for scientific and technology-based products but not suitable for innovation in areas of service where there are high levels of discretion or where a solution co-produced with users is needed.
    • High involvement – employees contribute to incremental problem solving/continuous improvement. The authors suggest that this assists in situations where there is a need for incremental process innovations and where there is little discretion.
    • Network – the development, adaptation and adoption of ideas comes from networks. The paper notes that this is most appropriate when there are high levels of discretion, as in certain professions.
    • Radical/discontinuous – where there is license to consider radical innovation. The authors propose this is best used where a dramatically different approach is required.
    • Entrepreneur driven – where individual ideas arise and compete at the small scale. The authors consider such innovation useful for organisations in a range of circumstances.
    • Recombinant – adapting and adopting ideas from other settings. The paper supports public sector organisations being continually open to this model.
    • User-led – innovation from users of services. The paper argues that this model of innovation is important all the time, but that for some problems solutions are best developed with or by users.

The report also suggests how each of these types of innovation can best be supported.

Why is this important? Innovation is not a one size fits all activity. We need to understand what type of innovation is better suited for a particular situation and, also, how we can support that type of innovation.

The report raises a number of interesting issues for how we can think about innovation in the public sector. Are there other models we should consider in the public sector? Do you think this framework is useful?

  1. Sourced from Paul Windrum “Innovation and entrepreneurship in public services” in Windrum & Koch Innovation in public sector services: entrepreneurship, creativity and management (2008) p.3-20.
  2. This quote is not covered by the Creative Commons licence or Commonwealth Copyright. Sourced from John Bessant, Tim Hughes, Sue Richards 2010 Beyond Light Bulbs and Pipelines: Leading and Nurturing Innovation in the Public Sector, Sunningdale Institute http://www.nationalschool.gov.uk/news_events/newsreleases/items/17-06-2010.asp.