Public sector innovation – not a new issue

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

On a recent trip to Washington DC I had the chance to visit some of the memorials, including that of Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, the 3rd President of the United States of America and, by many accounts, a very impressive individual – with achievements including among them lawyer, politician, diplomat and inventor.

Of the five quotes from Thomas Jefferson displayed in the memorial, there was one in particular that caught my eye.

“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as a civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” Thomas Jefferson, 1818

My reaction on reading this was ‘there’s a man who understood public sector innovation’.

Government, the public service and institutions are there in order to provide some degree of stability and routine – there is that tendency to avoid “frequent changes in laws and constitutions”. At the same time, there is the ever present tension with those “new discoveries”, those “new truths” that mean that our “institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times”.

Of course there have been a few changes in the past 200 years, and the public service operates in a much more complex and uncertain environment than that of the early 19th Century (not that there weren’t some significant upheavals then!).

Yet I thought it was a nice reminder that public sector innovation has been around as an issue for quite some time…

Hopefully we’re a bit more sophisticated in our understanding of innovation now (and we no longer “wear still the coat which fitted” from our childhood). Still – perhaps we should also occasionally look back at where the public service has been and remember how it advanced “to keep pace with the times” previously.