Innovative organisations: how do you get there?

[Originally published by the OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (OPSI) under a Creative Commons Attribution – ShareAlike 3.0 IGO (CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO).]

Innovation is essential. Now more than ever, that is clear, with the coronavirus crisis bluntly hammering home the need for the public sector to do things differently. All of a sudden, things that were unthinkable have become demanded. And as my colleague Sam has outlined and we have been tracking and observing, governments are already innovating in response, working with partners to quickly try new things for one of the most important reasons – in order to ultimately protect the lives of so many.

If there’s something I have learnt from being a public servant, it’s that governments are quite often good at innovating in a crisis or when there is sufficient political will. I don’t know that I could count the many number of times I have been told something was impossible, only for it to occur at another time because priorities had changed. Through our work with countries, we can see that this is because the fundamental determinants of innovation, the factors that shape whether and to what extent innovation occurs, become a lot stronger or more pronounced in a crisis. Innovation will happen more easily and to a greater extent, particularly in a bureaucratic system with its inbuilt default settings that can inhibit innovative activity, when:

  • there is an overriding message that change is necessary
  • existing solutions are revealed as clearly insufficient
  • new ways of working and thinking are invested in, supported and leveraged
  • there is a strong expectation from stakeholders and staff that novel responses are a necessary and normal part of the work of the public sector.

Yet we cannot responsibly rely on crises (or other exceptional circumstances) alone to drive innovation. For, as the coronavirus crisis has also viscerally illustrated, while crises are often unexpected they nonetheless demand quick, and hopefully, effective responses.

And while a crisis creates a context in which the public sector to innovate more easily, it unfortunately does not follow that the innovation that occurs in response will be sufficient to meet the needs at hand. In a crisis it can be easy for a political leader to introduce a novel idea – but that does not mean it will be easy for the public sector to realise and deliver on the idea. A crisis can provide the incentive and even the resources to try new things, but rarely does it also provide the time and care that might be needed to test and implement wide-scale changes.

This is because, as with anything in life, you are more likely to be able to do something well in an exceptional circumstance if you are already practiced at it. People and organisations take time to build up their innovation ‘muscles’. Innovation requires learning, testing and experimentation – not just in developing and delivering a solution, but in getting comfortable with the innovation process itself, in building up the capability to shift mindsets, to think about things in different ways, to work with different methods, to build confidence and comfort in trying things that may fail even when the stakes are high. Everyone can do extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances, but when lives (and jobs and economies) are on the line, should we really be relying on everyone being, and continuing to be, exceptional? In such a context, we are implicitly expecting people to not only respond to a crisis, but to challenge and change their own work practices, and indeed potentially their own beliefs and identity, while they do it. We should ask ourselves, would it not be better, and be more responsible, if that innovative capacity was ready and waiting when and as it is needed?

The public sector has an obligation, then, to be ready to innovate. It cannot know when it might be called upon to respond in radically different ways, and so it must be ready for if and when such situations arise. Innovative capacity is thus not a ‘nice to have’, but an essential obligation of good government.

Learning from those who are leading the way

It makes sense, then, to look to those who have demonstrated, outside of specific crises, that innovation can occur not just in response to exceptional circumstances, but that it can be a sustained, consistent, deliberate and strategic approach, integrated into organisational practices.

We at OPSI are therefore looking for partners to help us explore what such a consistent and deliberate approach looks like in practice in the public sector, and to support us in profiling innovative public sector organisations. We want to do deep-dive studies of some public sector agencies, departments and ministries where there has been a serious and sustained effort to build innovation capacity and performance – organisations that can provide experiences, lessons and insights that we can use to develop some more rigorous guidance about how others can do likewise, but adapted to their own specific contexts.

We want to try and move beyond the readily apparent (e.g. leadership is important, people need to be trained and supported in doing things in new and different ways, organisations need to invest in new capabilities), and dive deeper. This means exploring what is involved in building a more innovative organisation and sustaining that capability over time (and over leadership and political cycles), as well as exploring the steps that organisations can take to strengthen their ongoing capacity for innovation. While learning from the extremes (such as crises) can teach us a lot about innovation, there is also an opportunity to learn from organisations where innovation has become part of the day-to-day.

An example case study: IP Australia

To help make sense of what this work might involve, we have done an initial in-depth case write-up to explore how this research might work and what it would involve and look like. From our previous research and previous interaction, we were familiar with a public sector organisation that has made significant sustained effort in its innovation journey – IP Australia, the intellectual property agency within the Australian Government.

IP Australia has a number of qualities to recommend it as an exemplar case:

  • It has been recognised in a number of awards (and in our own trends work) for its innovative projects and initiatives
  • It has undergone a significant digital transformation over the last few years, becoming one of the first government agencies to fully digitise its transactions with customers
  • It has attempted things that are at the cutting edge globally
  • It has innovated while maintaining the confidence of its stakeholders and delivering upon its core obligations
  • It has had a multi-year commitment to innovation that has been overseen by more than one head of agency
  • It has done all of this while not under an immediate external pressure/crisis – but because the organisation and its leadership recognised the necessity and opportunity for change.

From interviews with a number of former and current employees of IP Australia, and using OPSI’s experience and frameworks, we have developed an initial case study write-up. This should be seen as an initial piece of research rather than a polished piece – it is data to gather information rather than an attempt to provide all the answers – as we need to explore more cases to validate and make sense of the insights. Nonetheless, some important observations can be made:

  • There are a range of factors that seem to have played a role: leadership, giving people space and opportunity, making resources available, being conscious and appreciative of the broader ecosystem, but it from the perspective of one context it is difficult to know which were most important or the order in which things matter.
  • It is difficult to integrate innovation in an organisation even with favourable conditions: IP Australia’s experience demonstrates that building innovation capability is a constant effort, and not a ‘set and forget’ exercise.
  • Managing an explicit and varied portfolio of innovation efforts and projects can greatly assist in managing and responding to a changing context
  • It can be difficult to manage the varying rates of speed of change within a single organisation, with different parts experiencing the innovation journey quite differently
  • Structural ‘counterweights’ are needed to balance out the inertia that supports the status quo that often exists within the public sector: these can provide a force to push for innovation.
  • Innovation is about people, processes and structures.

The full case provides a lot more detail about the processes and steps the agency has taken to support innovation, but also the innovative initiatives that they have undertaken.

I’d like to give a special thanks to those at IP Australia who shared their time and experiences and for being willing to be open about their innovation journey – a journey that is never smooth or easy. We hope that others find the telling of their story useful and interesting, and that in turn they can help us further this research, so that more public sector organisations can build their innovation capability without having to rely on the impetus of a crisis, which can often depart as suddenly as it arises. Innovation must become a sustained activity if it is to be ready and able to respond to this or the next crisis, whatever form that might take.

Next steps

The lessons and insights from the IP Australia example, while hopefully solid, are very much still preliminary. We cannot and should not draw conclusions from one case study – we need more data, we need to test the insights against a range of cases and their associated circumstances to see if they hold or if other issues are more relevant. Ideally, we would like to do an in-depth investigation of eight or more relevant public agencies to get a full sense of the fundamentals of what a public sector organisation needs to do to sustainably build up their innovative practice.

To that end, we are looking for public sector organisations who see themselves as having built up more of a sustained and consistent approach to innovation and who have a track record of innovative practice that they can point to (knowing that everyone is still learning, and no one has this mastered). If you are in such a public sector organisation, or know of one, we’d love to hear from you.

We are also looking for partners who might be interested in helping support this work.

If that describes you, or you if you are interested in this work, you can get in contact with us by email, talk to us on Twitter, comment below or on our LinkedIn group.