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Public sector innovation: the end of a private love affair?

Very often we see the successful adoption of private sector innovations in the public sector (think data analytics, design-led innovation or the Government Digital Service’s lean startup approach). Other examples go further in applying a private sector logic to the public sector. In Start-Up City, Klein takes the private-sector skills and processes garnered through the course of a career with various startups, and lays them out as a blueprint for managing public innovation projects.

At Nesta we firmly believe that good ideas can be found anywhere - but is there a limit to the treatment of public and private sectors as one thing? And should the public sector be looking beyond the private sector for innovation inspiration?

This was something I was struck by while reading Sørensen and Torfing’s chapter in the recently published New Frontiers in Social Innovation Research. In it, they describe the distinctive innovation drivers of the public sector - and the distorting effects that can arise from assuming what works in the private sector must work in the public sector.

Hero innovators, competition, and other public innovation myths...

For one, they call into question the search for individual innovation ‘heroes’ in the public sector, and the idea that charismatic, visionary leaders could on their own generate sustainable and long-lasting transformation of public organisations. Public sector innovation is seldom the result of the efforts of a single actor. And a growing body of evidence is capturing the networked, multi-actor way in which innovation actually happens in the public sector.

Projecting the private sector’s innovation drivers onto the public sector - namely viewing competition and profitability as the only necessary drivers for innovation - also needs redress. In the absence of these private sector drivers, New Public Management approaches sought to incentivise innovation by creating competition and quasi-markets; assisted by private sector management tools and frameworks - such as performance management. In practice, however, this approach had the opposite effect: the distorting effects of performance management created a zero-error culture that thwarts innovation. And new ideas were transformed into business assets which were guarded carefully, rather than freely exchanged, to maintain competitive advantage.

The end of a private love affair?

The hangover of this private sector fetishisation still prevails, but new approaches are bubbling up which embrace the distinctiveness of the public sector’s innovation drivers. LabRats, a new prototype being tested by the Danish public lab, MindLab, is tinkering with collaborative, trust-based forms of management: having cohorts of public sector innovators from different government departments self-recruit for the LabRats network, thus transforming them into bridgeheads from which to propagate ‘a totally new institutional culture.’

The South Australian government’s Change@SA initiative aims to inspire public employees to tackle social challenges and generate innovative solutions themselves. Already it’s helped surface a range of innovations including allowing nurse-led hospital discharges and more joined up policy-making based on citizens’ needs.

A recent paper published by Science Europe Scientific Committee for the Humanities makes the case for leveraging arts and humanities research to spur radical social innovation. It highlights the ‘Microcab’ example - an inter-disciplinary research project to produce dual electric/hydrogen-powered vehicles to address urban pollution. Microcab has seen government, energy, automotive and academic experts collaborate at international levels to deliver production versions of small, economical hydrogen-fuelled cars several years ahead of larger manufacturers.

Whether explicitly (as is the case for The Australian Centre for Social Innovation) or implicitly, these initiatives are being powered by the principles of social innovation, and demonstrate that governments can draw on the useful innovations being developed in the private sector - but there’s wisdom in looking beyond it too.


Read Sorensen and Torfing’s chapter in full in New Frontiers in Social Innovation Research.

Photo Credit: Skley via Compfight cc


Sophie Reynolds

Sophie Reynolds

Sophie Reynolds

Former Senior Researcher - Public and Social Innovation

Sophie was a Senior Researcher in Nesta’s Policy and Research unit. She is now Director of Sophie Reynolds Research & Consultancy.

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