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Why motivation matters in public sector innovation

There is a clear imperative to innovate in the public sector. This provocation argues that staff will determine the success or failure of getting innovation to the heart of the next generation of public services.

There is a clear imperative to innovate in the public sector. This provocation argues that staff will determine the success or failure of getting innovation to the heart of the next generation of public services - that harnessing their motivation will be a critical component of a new model of public sector innovation.

Key findings

The last decade has seen the rise of behavioural economics and a growing interest in using it, together with behavioural psychology, to understand how behaviour influences everything from day-to-day life, to work, to how the economy functions.

Yet public sector innovation has not caught up with these developments, which have transformed our understanding of what motivates individuals and how to harness that motivation. We need to better understand how to motivate public servants to innovate and what enabling conditions, cultures and incentives are needed to do so.

  • Public servants draw on intrinsic motivations in their work, and that what drives them is a mix of altruism and more self-interested motives.
  • Innovation is linked more to intrinsic than to extrinsic motivations.
  • The New Public Management model does not work in harnessing the motivation of public servants, as it chiefly promotes and rewards extrinsic motivation.
  • Appealing to public service norms, empowering employees, using incentives and performance appraisals, celebrating innovation through awards, and being careful with the use of extrinsic motivations are all sensible and evidenced approaches to harnessing individual motivation to innovate.
  • Harnessing prosocial motivation, for instance showing public sector employees the prosocial impact of their work by enabling them to meet the beneficiaries of their work, can increase both performance and innovation in the public sector.

There are some big gaps in our knowledge about what works in particular circumstances. We don’t know enough about how to harness the motivation of public servants to innovate.

This provocation argues that there is a need to get more granular in our understanding of how to harness motivation for innovation in different parts of the public sector, for different types of staff, for different kinds of innovations, from incremental to radical, and at different stages of the public sector innovation process.

Author
Jo Casebourne

Authors

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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