Can the public sector innovate when it doesn’t have to?

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

As discussed in my previous post, one of the findings of the recent European Innobarometer survey was that budget decreases may be an important driver for public sector innovation. In this post I’d like to look at some of the other findings and what they might mean for innovation in the public sector – namely, can the public sector innovate when it does not have to?

I ask this question because the survey found that it was not only budget decreases that helped drive innovation, it was also new obligations on agencies.1

“The single most important driver of innovation in the public sector was the introduction of new laws and regulations: 48% of respondents at the EU level indicated that this was a very important factor. 39% of innovators said new policy priorities were very important. 40% of respondents said E-government initiatives they had to implement new solutions related to a mandated implementation of an online service provision.” 2

One interpretation of these findings is that the most direct way to get innovation to occur in the public sector might be to force it.

Such an interpretation fits somewhat with the findings of the APS report Empowering ChangeIt noted that innovation in the public sector is being driven by changing expectations from citizens, global competition, fiscal pressures, and changes to public sector management – innovation driven by, and in reaction to, external pressures.

Yet the European Innobarometer survey finds that the top two sources of information supporting innovation for European agencies were ideas from staff, and ideas from management. It also found that leading innovator organisations were driven by an active management role in innovation development.

Again, this also fits with the findings of Empowering Change – many public servants want to innovate and actively look for and implement better ways of doing things.

So it would seem that for innovating organisations, internal advocates and supporters are important. 3

There is clearly internal capacity and drive for innovation in public organisations. So why might it be that the biggest factors for driving innovation are those that are imposed?

It could be the need for public organisations to ensure that not only do their innovations work, but that they align with strategic goals. Failure to align innovations with strategic goals may have significant consequences for the agency, the agency’s management, and/or for the agency’s clients/stakeholders as well as the wider public.

Given limited resources, it is logical that organisations will concentrate on solving the problems at hand. If an agency only has a certain amount of resources and attention to spare, innovations that address external pressures and strategic demands are surely going to be favoured over those that might have ancillary benefits.

Another issue at play is suggested by this finding:

“Frequent innovators (large organisations and leading service innovators) were most likely to be confronted with user resistance or dissatisfaction.” 4

One explanation for this might be that frequent innovators could experience user (or even internal) fatigue with innovation – the more innovations that are attempted, the more that key groups might resist or react to these changes.

This again would support an innovation focus on key problems. If there is limited appetite for change from stakeholders or inside an organisation, agencies will surely want to concentrate their efforts on those ideas that will respond to external pressures and strategic priorities.

So despite public agencies clearly having the capabilities and internal motivation to innovate, there are a number of factors (such as the above) that might explain why innovation in agencies is heavily driven by external pressures.

Does this suggest that public servants should not try to initiate innovation in other areas? Can the public sector innovate when it doesn’t have to?

I would suggest that it means agencies need to be clear about what external pressures they face (and think about what any future pressures might be) and identify where they think any innovation efforts can best be directed. I propose it also means that agencies might need to work to build their innovation capability and the level of internal tolerance for change so that they can enact multiple innovations at once.

But I suggest it also means that individual public servants need to consider this when putting forward ideas and prepare them accordingly. An innovative idea is more likely to be taken up if it fits with an agency’s strategic direction and will assist with cost reductions.

Otherwise for an idea to proceed it will likely need to be:

    • something that can be easily trialled on a small scale
    • easy to evaluate
    • within the agency’s existing capabilities (or stretch rather than exceed them), and
    • supported by a number of people in the agency.

So I think the public sector can innovate when it doesn’t have to – but it is harder and such ideas will need more preparation and support. Is my interpretation of the findings fair?

  1. It should be noted that this Innobarometer was a pilot survey and that its results should be interpreted with great caution, and this discussion should not be taken as definitive. 
  2. This quote is not covered by the Creative Commons licence or Commonwealth Copyright. From Innobarometer 2010: Summary, Eurobarometer, European Commission, January 2011, accessed at 
  3. Though of course it could also be interpreted that agencies are less willing to look at external sources, but the point still remains – there are internal sources. 
  4. This quote is not covered by the Creative Commons licence or Commonwealth Copyright. From Innobarometer 2010: Summary, Eurobarometer, European Commission, January 2011, accessed at