Why (and How) public organisations should embrace innovation
The need for innovation
Nowadays, public organisations are expected to react quickly and adequately to social, economic and technological developments. At the same time, people working in public organisations are not allowed to make mistakes because they are under scrutiny, they have to follow strict regulations and are held accountable for their actions. In a time of rapid (technological) changes, with difficult challenges in almost all policy areas - ecology, health and social care, transport, and education being the most prominent - this two-way claim is becoming increasingly difficult. Worse still, these challenges exceed traditional ‘policy silos,’ and citizens, businesses and institutions also demand their role in the policy process. Add to this that budgets for government are decreasing, and the need for public organisations to come up with innovative solutions becomes evident.
The thing about innovation, however, is that you cannot know in advance what you will gain from it. Insecurity and risk are unavoidable. An innovation can be defined as something new that is being developed, something that does not yet exist, be it a product, a service or a process. Innovation as a process itself, cannot be directed or imposed, regardless of political will, regardless of any stake official management or societal groups may have in the outcome. Innovations can only come about if you create the right conditions and guide the process step by step.
Another aspect of innovation is that in this process seemingly conflicting competences are needed. Innovation starts with creation, but also requires administrative agility and stubborn tenacity, to keep initiatives alive. It takes skill and experience to guide the innovation process by recognising which competences are required in each phase.
An important aspect of any innovation process is the extent to which ‘responsible risk’ is taken. A well-organised innovation process will be accompanied by intermittent stop/go decisions, so that any risk will be reduced from the initial phase on, or be addressed in a responsible manner in a next phase.
Learning to structure the proces
Public organisations must learn to guide the process of innovation in a structured way. Broadly speaking, this process starts by setting up ‘nurseries ’ with the right mix of diverse people, often at the interface between disciplines, knowledge areas, policy domains or in grey areas between the public and private spheres. Initiatives created there are taken up by the ‘regular’ organisation if they prove workable. This is followed by putting the innovation into practice and then scaling it up.
At the moment, public organisations have not structured their innovation process in this way, or any other way. When incidents occur, solutions are hurriedly being brought forward: the so-called ‘garbage can model’ in which solutions and problems find each other in unfavourable circumstances. In the public domain, this situation is given the fancy name of ‘policy window.’
By contrast, working with nurseries to create new strategies or services, and a follow-up process of testing, improving, implementing and scaling these innovations, is a secure, effective way to prepare innovations in time and to introduce them in a responsible manner, with knowledge and expertise.
A handbook for innovation
With From containment to free flow I present a handbook for setting up innovation in public organisations.
The book features 16 case studies from Dutch national government, a province, municipalities and water boards. The Netherlands has a public sector that ranks highly in international indices. As a country that largely lies below sea level, the Netherlands depends greatly on its innovation capacity to survive. Collaboration across organisational boundaries is deeply ingrained in the culture. I studied the cases with an expert panel, and compared them with cases in which the innovation failed, taking in scientific literature on the nature and effectiveness of innovative processes.
"A gem of practical wisdom amidst the hyped up recipes offered up by so many other writings on the subject"
- Paul 't Hart about 'From containment to free flow'
The 16 cases cover a variety of projects, from multi-year infrastructure planning, to self-managing teams, from improving the spatial quality of the Dutch river delta, to a 3D map, to organising civic participation. However, their success factors were uniform: the people involved saw opportunities and were able to use them, they had the audacity to start a project without knowing the outcome in advance, and management gave room for professionals’ views and rewarded the right behaviour. The people involved were quick to take innovations in and out of the core process as needed, deadly politics were circumvented, and organisational boundaries were temporarily lifted. An ecosystem conducive to trial and error, cooperation and the willingness to learn from failure was created and kept alive.
Well-suited to innovation
Again, innovation cannot be directed but it does not emerge by chance either. It is possible, however, to guide the ‘innovation flow,’ to monitor the course of innovations and to link investment decisions (of time and money) to the various phases of innovation. Public organisations do not have to be overwhelmed by the rate of change in society. They can join in early on new technological, societal developments to ensure that these benefit all members of society, not just a few companies.
Public organisations are value-driven at heart, and do not have to be ruled by short-term profitability. They are therefore perfectly suited to become a playing ground for new products, services and processes. This is a beautiful and exciting position to be in, helping to defy social challenges, energising people who contribute to public goals, and increasing the innovative capacity of the country’s economy.
With thanks to Mathieu Weggeman (professor of Organisational Science) who was the inspiration for my book.