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How to motivate your staff to innovate: 5 tips for public sector managers

There is a clear and urgent need to innovate in the public sector. The public sector faces major challenges, such as an ageing population and dealing with long-term health conditions. Yet most innovation funding and attention has not been directed towards trying to address the most pressing social, economic and environmental problems. Demands and expectations of what public services can and should deliver are also rising.

But public sector innovation can be really hard and those trying to innovate within the public sector can face a number of barriers. Public services deal with complex problems, have contradictory demands, need to respond quickly whilst balancing the need for security and continuity, and must be transparent and accountable.

The good news is that protecting and promoting the wellbeing of other people is the most important value to the majority of people in the majority of the world’s cultures. The public service ethos that leads people to work in it in the first place is alive and well - we know that those working in the public sector want to provide a service to the community more than they want personal gain. So, how can public managers harness this intrinsic motivation of their employees to promote innovation?

  1. Change what you look for when recruiting

Firstly, change what you are looking for when recruiting. Managers should look for those driven by the desire to make a difference when recruiting. We need to recruit people with high empathy who can see things from the point of view of others, who have strong communication skills and are particularly good at listening, and are good at mobilising others and organising coalitions for change.  The competencies and mind-sets needed for innovation are not the same as those required for stable, daily operations and frontline service delivery.  

  1. Tackle the fear of failure

A fear of failure can quash innovation in the public sector. There are a number of different ways that fear can hold people back[1]:

  • fear of failure – of what happens if things go ‘wrong’
  • fear of departing from the norm – ‘best practice’ can discourage fresh thinking
  • fear of freedom – becoming too dependent on rules and procedures, and losing confidence in your own judgement
  • fear of the new – of not being able to cope in this situation
  • fear of friction with colleagues – that not everyone else is ‘up for this’
  • fear of ‘the other’ – being used to working with colleagues like oneself

Challenging these fears is key to creating an innovative public sector. Leaders need to take responsibility for failure so that employees feel safe to experiment and take (the right kind of) risks. They need to give greater training and emphasis on risk management, rather than on risk avoidance.

  1. Empower employees

Empowering frontline staff to exercise their judgement, giving them skills and resources to get the job done and holding them accountable for results, leads to employees working harder and trying to improve their performance by seeking out new and better ways of doing things[2]. Employees also need a role in organisational decision making.

  1. Connect staff with beneficiaries

Showing how everyday tasks connect to the larger organisational values and mission is important, but it’s not enough. A vision needs to be more than rhetoric. When employees have actual contact with the people they are there to serve, they can see and understand the tangible, meaningful consequences of their contributions for other people[3].

But public sector employees often lack opportunities to come face-to-face with how they make a positive difference to people’s lives. Those working in local council offices organising potholes to be filled in don’t get to meet the people whose cycle journeys to work have now hugely improved. Those fundraising for Universities to provide bursaries for students don’t get to meet the students that those bursaries help. Instead people working in public services are often exposed to extensive negative feedback.

People need actual exposure to the human beings affected by their contributions - this increases both performance and innovation in the public sector. More opportunities need to be given to connect staff with beneficiaries.

  1. Reward innovation

Reward and incentive systems, as well as targets and performance management processes, need to support innovation. Government promotions rarely reward innovative staff, public-sector cultures often reward people for turning the gears of bureaucracy rather than improving the overall machinery and there is often a lack of incentives for encouraging new thinking among employees[4]. Appropriate behaviours need to be valued within appraisals. Staff successes need to be recognised, even in project failures. People need to see the benefits of taking a risk and innovating.

Innovation awards encourage innovation. More time should be spent celebrating the achievements made by public servants – as done in the Civil Service Awards, which reward public servants ‘as they strive to lead, drive efficiency, think innovatively and help build a better government’.


This article is based on the Nesta paper Why motivation matters in public sector innovation.


[1] Hambleton and Howard 2012, cited in Casebourne, J (2014) Why motivation matters in public sector innovation. Nesta

[2] Fernandez and Moldogaziev (2012) cited in Casebourne, J (2014) Why motivation matters in public sector innovation. Nesta

[3] Grant (2008) and Grant (2012) cited in Casebourne, J (2014) Why motivation matters in public sector innovation. Nesta

[4] Kohli and Mulgan (2010) cited in Casebourne, J (2014) Why motivation matters in public sector innovation. Nesta


Jo Casebourne

Jo Casebourne

Jo Casebourne

Director, Public and Social Innovation

Jo led Nesta's Policy and Research work on public and social innovation, working closely with colleagues in the Innovation Lab and Investments.

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