Learning from Innovation in Public Sector Environments


1 december 2015 - Wouter van Acker (PhD candidate, KU Leuven)

Blog: Stability and Innovation: a balancing act

This blog is about how many of us want an innovative public sector that doesn’t get stuck in the past but which rides the waves of modernization. As we become more accustomed to digital and mobile services, we expect the public sector to change as well. So, we need and we want our government to change.

However…we also need and want public service provision to be stable, reliable and predictable. Constant changes in tax systems, health care provisions and the way we educate our kids can also be problematic and frustrating.

These two requests, stability and innovation, seem to be contradictory. But a predictable, innovative government is not necessarily a paradox in terms. In order to reconcile these goals, we need one thing: sustainable innovation. Sustainable innovations are those that can stand the test of time and provide reliable, state of the art services to citizens, without the uncertainty of whether next year will be completely different.

So how do we get there?

As anyone who has ever been involved in innovative projects will know, many factors can influence the sustainability of innovations. One of the most important factors according to our research is knowledge management.

As part of our research for the LIPSE project, we studied 246 awarded innovations throughout Europe and asked the participants what had happened to these innovations since their initial implementation. While we expected many to have failed since then, interestingly, only 22 of the organizations answered that the innovation had been terminated. Of these cases, the most often cited reason for why innovations were dropped was personnel turnover.

We know from past research that in order to get innovations to see the light of day, we need champions. Innovation champions are people in the organization who believe in the idea and will fight to see it implemented. However, this is apparently not where their role ends. What we have found in our research is that many innovations are abandoned when this champion leaves the organizations. When an innovation is abandoned simply because one person decides to leave the team, department or organization then the project has failed.

Organizations that innovate successfully and sustainably are those that have developed systems for sharing knowledge among the staff and for redistributing responsibilities when there is staff turnover. One way of doing this is by documenting the lessons learned from each project or communicating them during post-project meetings. This helps ensure the stability of innovations.

It is also important to identify and support the innovation champions. Personnel turnover can of course be disruptive and this is especially important in the case of innovations, which need additional effort to stay off the ground. Innovation champions, who are typically people that are constantly looking for new opportunities and challenges, should be supported so that they maintain the motivation to innovate.

Other best practices of the organizations we interviewed were 1) making sure that lessons learned were passed on to new employees and b) encouraging these new employees to contact their predecessors and ask questions from them. This might add some work but if an organization wants to achieve that stable, modern, reliable and innovative public sector citizens are asking for, it might just be one of the most important practices to adopt.


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