What are the skills and attitudes for successful public problem solving?
Nesta is currently working with leading innovation practitioners from around the world to define the key skills, attitudes and behaviours that public sector innovators combine in order to successfully solve public problems. In this blog we introduce a new competency framework that we are creating, and describe our plans for developing it further.
Finding the space and time to invest in the future while being responsible for delivering services that people rely on today is a well-known dilemma for governments around the world.
While we’ve seen an increasing number of interesting project pilots and inspiring innovation labs and teams, the larger-scale impact that could come from applying these promising new approaches strategically in government rarely happens. Governments are still struggling to embed innovation in their organisations and existing operational processes.
The big question is how we go beyond individual pilots, projects and labs? How best to apply and spread the approaches, skills and culture that increase the ability of governments to innovate? What will strengthen the innovation capacity of governments and enable a better use of innovation resources in order to deal more effectively with public problems?
Human resources as an enabler for public sector innovation?
One significant part of answering these questions lies within the domain of human resources (HR), and the relationship between public workforce skills and innovation. We see that governments are increasingly using competency management approaches to set up standards for professional behaviour and performance management, as well as to gain competitive advantage by integrating HR policies with business strategies.
But, beyond the broader and more established employee characteristics and behaviours for innovative working - such as motivation, openness to ideas, and change management - less is known about the unique attitudes, skills and competencies needed to support public sector innovation. How do they differ from, relate to or build on current core competencies of public officials? And, not least, how do public organisations succeed in practically implementing them in their core operations?
Developing a competency framework for experimental problem solving
To support this effort, there have been recent attempts to provide more clarity on the core competencies of public sector innovation – such as the OECD’s Core Skills for Public Sector Innovation, or Le Nuancier de Formation from La 27e Region.
While it’s helpful to gain more clarity on what characterises innovative activity, we also need to focus on what it actually takes to create impact from innovation approaches specifically in government settings. We believe that problem solving is at the heart of how governments operate, and so we need to demystify how innovation approaches can be useful and what the relevant skills and competencies are in relation to core problem solving activities.
This is core to our work on developing a new competency framework for experimental problem solving. By framing our competencies around experimental problem solving, we try to emphasise how core attitudes and characteristics, in combination with key skills and competencies, enable behaviours that increase the likelihood of successful problem solving activities and better improve capacity.
We also want to go beyond creative thinking techniques and brainstorming – which are useful for generating ideas – and highlight the competencies that are needed to systematically create, authorise, test and improve on ideas.
The framework presented here is an initial overview and the first step in our process to understand, reflect on and assess the key attitudes and skills that we consider crucial for public sector innovation. In order to ensure practical relevance, we have chosen to be guided by practice rather than theory and have used the following approaches to develop the framework:
- Firstly, we have used the experience of the Nesta Innovation Skills team (who have worked in and with multiple pioneering government innovation labs and teams for a considerable amount of years) as a starting point.
- Secondly, we used our insights from recent research on the experiences of 30+ leading public sector innovation practitioners from around the world.
- Thirdly, we have tested our research insights with selected governments and innovation experts to ensure accurate representation, relevance and usefulness.
- Fourthly, over the coming months, we will be continuously working with innovation practitioners to co-develop and refine concrete behavioural indicators and assessment criteria.
- Fifth, and most importantly, we will be working directly with ambitious governments to test and experiment with how the competency framework can be integrated into their innovation learning journey as part of systematic capacity-building activities.
Content principles for the framework
The framework identifies core skills needed by public servants in order to experiment and adopt a greater range of innovative practices for public problem solving. Some important content principles are:
The broader innovation skillset
The attitudes and skills outlined in the framework are the broader elements that, in combination, drive successful application of experimental problem solving activities. They are crucial for successfully creating impact with established innovation methods, such as human-centred design, behavioural insights, data-science, foresight, etc., which each require a set of more technical skillsets.
Creating and maintaining the mandate for innovation
We’ve found that the effort required to create the space and legitimacy for innovation in government is often significantly underestimated. Good ideas can’t flourish in a hostile environment. So in addition to the skills needed to simply apply innovation methods, our framework focuses on innovation craft. That is, how might we practically and effectively navigate, apply, embed and organise for innovation approaches in government and how to create an enabling environment to make innovation happen and ensure impact.
Team-focused skills framework
Teams are central to successful problem solving and so we start with the team, rather than the individual, as the unit of action. The framework presents a diverse palette of skills and attitudes that are rarely all found in one individual, but need to be present within the wider innovation team. The challenge (and opportunity) is to combine these skills and attitudes in ways that make the team greater than its individual members.
Framework of complex skills
Solving complex problems involves managing the intricate tensions and dynamics between opposing mindsets, skillsets and ways of acting. Such dynamics include: being disruptive and challenging the status quo, while being humble and integrative; making decisions in the face of uncertainty while being able to legitimise these decisions; having a clear plan of action, while adapting to and improvising for unforeseen situations; exploring new possible futures, while focusing on outcomes and committing to real-world effects; keeping the big picture in mind while also considering citizens' needs at an individual level; being reflective and critical while having a strong bias towards action.
All this requires ongoing judgement and the ability to combine multiple different attitudes and skills at the same time. For these reasons, it is important to recognise the elements presented in the framework as “complex skills”.
With these content principles in mind, we have attempted to describe key attitudes and skills that provide a combined view on what it takes to set up and run explorative innovation processes, while also creating an enabling environment for innovation within an administrative and political context. The framework describes three core categories that - according to our experience and research - are crucial to form the basis of successful experimental problem solving:
- Accelerating learning: Exploring and experimenting to identify knowledge gaps, create new understanding and inform decision-making in new ways
- Working together: Engaging with citizens and multiple stakeholders to ensure co-creation and collaborative ownership of new solutions
- Leading change: Creating space for innovation and driving change processes to mobilise people, inspire action and ensure strategic outcomes
Download this diagram as a PDF.
How we plan to use it and next steps
As with many competency frameworks focused on change and innovation, there is a risk of it becoming a static, aspirational artefact rather than a practical tool for shifting practice. In this light, we see our research so far and this synthesis as only a starting point. In its current version, the framework mainly serves the purpose of bringing some clarity to the core elements and as a point of reference to enable further dialogue within the community of practice.
Going forwards, we will be focusing on a number of activities to operationalise, test and further develop the framework into concrete activities, tasks, roles and incentive structures that can support real behaviour change. Our aim is to create:
- Tools for setting (un)learning objectives. We will develop context-sensitive and customisable behaviour indicators to support capacity development and assess the impact of innovation learning.
- Team and organisational assessment tools. We will generate tools that can help you assess the readiness and capability of your team, organisation and wider ecosystem.
- Team roles. We will develop a set of innovation team roles to help break down the tasks and functions of an innovation team and support governments in team design and management.
- Learning support and reflection tools. We will develop a set of practical frames for practitioners to use as systematic reflection for professional development and collective sense making.
- Rethinking HR strategy. We will apply the framework to explore how to develop more effective HR strategies focused on behaviour change, enabling better performance and recruitment for successful problem solving.
All of these will be tested and developed further in practice with ambitious government partners.
Growing the innovation skillsets and capabilities of the public workforce requires informing hiring practices, career development and training opportunities. It also requires creating the right incentives, processes and structures for public sector innovation. Governments are often aware of all this, and yet struggle with knowing where to start.
This framework is meant to be a first step in supporting these efforts and enabling innovation approaches to become strategic drivers of successful experimental problem solving activities. We welcome your feedback. We are especially keen to engage with governments, organisations and people that are doing interesting work in this area and/or want to explore possibilities for transforming their organisations for the better.