Why and how does collaboration drive innovation in the public sector?

Innovation is so often linked to technical inventions and discoveries. But should we be focussing less on technological developments, and more on multi-sector collaboration as a source of innovation?

At Nesta, as an innovation foundation, we are constantly thinking about, practicing and teaching people about innovation. Across our teams, we develop different innovation methods and approaches; we travel the world teaching innovation skills; we engage in projects such as innovation mapping; and we think deeply about what we can do to make innovation more inclusive.

In short, innovation is at the core of who we are as an organisation, which is why a book called “Collaborative Innovation in the Public Sector” by Jacob Torfing caught our eye, despite not having yet made it on to the bestseller list!

What is Collaborative Innovation in the Public Sector about?

The book argues that many innovation enthusiasts rely too heavily (or even exclusively) on technical inventions and scientific discoveries to drive change. Torfing argues that new technologies themselves do not drive innovation; rather, innovation happens when people choose to use these technologies to develop, test, and ultimately implement new ideas that work. Nesta’s Eddie Copeland has made a similar argument here.

Torfing suggests that we should focus less on innovations triggered by technological developments, and focus more attention on multi-actor collaboration to promote innovation in the public sector.

Five reasons why collaboration drives public innovation

Torfing suggests that collaboration drives innovation for the following five reasons:

  1. Problems and challenges can be better defined and understood when actors from different backgrounds - with unique resources and skill sets - work together.
  2. Bringing together people with different ideas, views and life experiences spurs new and creative ideas and creates a joint momentum for change.
  3. The prototyping, selection and testing of new innovations is improved when they are subjected to assessment by people from a range of sectors and disciplines. In addition, collaborative interaction facilitates compromise and helps to prevent stalemates and mitigate the influence of the most powerful players.
  4. Collaboration enhances the implementation of innovative ideas and solutions by creating joint ownership, and spreading the risks to a larger group of actors.
  5. The dissemination of innovative practices is propelled by collaboration and knowledge sharing across social and professional networks.

Torfing also highlights that effective collaboration does not require complete harmony. In fact - to the contrary - he argues that collaborative arrangements often lead to innovation precisely because of the constructive friction which emerges when actors from different sectors work together.

Unsplash: creative

Bringing together people with different ideas, views and life experiences spurs new and creative ideas and creates a joint momentum for change

The Inclusive Economy Partnership as a case study

The Inclusive Economy Partnership (IEP) is a case study in collaborative innovation. Announced just over a year ago, it is a new initiative being run by HM Government, in partnership with Nesta, which brings government, business and civil society together to work collaboratively to tackle three challenge areas: financial inclusion and capability; transition to work for young people; and mental health.

The IEP fosters collaboration in two ways:

  1. Nesta’s Partnership Accelerator Programme supports 18 grant winners to scale their businesses - thereby increasing their impact - by facilitating meaningful partnerships with business, civil society and government.
  2. Government is working closely with businesses and civil society organisations to facilitate collaborative projects developing new solutions to the three challenge areas. Known as The Big Ideas, through this stream of work, government brings together coalitions of partners to lead and deliver on these ambitious projects.

At the core of the IEP is the belief that when government collaborates with social entrepreneurs, big business and civil society, we see more robust, creative and innovative solutions emerging, for the reasons that Torfing outlines. And it is not just government and academia who share this belief. The corporate sector and civil society appear to be recognising the power of multi-actor collaboration as a way of driving social innovation too.

While it is still early days, here are some of the innovations that we’ve seen emerging as a result of IEP partnerships:

  • Grant winners have been redesigning their services to accommodate the preferences and advice of the business and civil society partners they have met through the IEP, resulting in innovation in their business design and service offerings. For example, Talk for Health have developed variations on their training methods, including tailored approaches for different audiences, directly as a result of discussions with IEP partners. Similarly, Psyt have made variations to their app based on experiments and trials with IEP partners.
  • Through the Big Ideas stream, IEP members including Accenture, Movement to Work, UnLtd, o2, Youth Employment UK and the West Midlands Combined Authority have joined forces to deliver the West Midlands Pilot - a project focussed on connecting young people who have been out of work for a long time with support and job opportunities in the region.
  • Grant winners have been sharing skills and expertise across the cohort, resulting in innovations for some. For example, MyKindaFuture - who have significant skill and expertise in technology platforms - is working with Exceptional Individuals to support them to develop their technology offering, while Exceptional Individuals offers MyKindaFuture its insights about dyslexic job-seekers.

We are excited to see what other innovations might emerge as a result of these collaborations and hope that the IEP can contribute to the learning around how and why collaboration leads to innovation in the public sector, and beyond.


Thea Snow

Thea Snow

Thea Snow

Senior Programme Manager, Government Innovation

Thea was a Senior Programme Manager in the Government Innovation team.

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