How to Make Public Servants Innovate? Teach Them at University

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This piece was originally published on Apolitical.

Governments across the globe are grappling with an innovation problem — how to remake themselves as agile, responsive and proactive actors in a rapidly changing and increasingly complex operating environment. How to encourage Public Sector Innovation (PSI) is seemingly on the top of every government’s to-do list.

Part of the answer lies in ensuring that government workers possess the skills required to foster innovation, a route championed recently by the OECD’s Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (OPSI), among others. And it’s not enough simply to establish which skills are needed: the more important question is how those skills can be communicated and developed through training and education, pre- and post-recruitment.

In fact, the key to developing government innovation capacity rests outside of government. While governments can define the skills they need, it’s universities that define the labour supply: co-development of curricula between the two sectors is critical.

Though few would argue that governments need to be more innovative, some might ask how PSI in 2018 differs from past efforts at public sector reform, like New Public Management (NPM) in the 1980s. The underlying drivers for innovation are similar, in particular fiscal pressure to be more efficient stewards of public resources. Echoes of NPM’s focus on leadership, entrepreneurship and change management skills are evident in the core PSI skills that have been proposed by the OECD and NESTA, among others.

But one critical lesson can be drawn to help PSI succeed where NPM fell short: the need for governments to shape the graduates’ skills through partnerships with universities.

One of the main failures of NPM’s implementation was that even at its height, governments were still recruiting on the basis of credentialed technical knowledge — like degrees in law, economics or engineering — and took onto themselves the responsibility of training new recruits with the skills they practically needed.

But government’s capacity to mould individuals to its needs will always be limited, particularly given systemic constraints like job descriptions and collective bargaining agreements. Once hired it was too late to “reprogram” new recruits with the interpersonal and relational skills NPM required.

Given the level of attention devoted to PSI, one would think that governments would be being proactive in encouraging universities to better align their programs to the skills required to drive such reform. This does not seem to be happening.

In 2017, I conducted a review of Canadian university programs in public administration — programs from which governments frequently draw new recruits in policy and program management — and compared their curriculum to the five PSI priority areas of Canada’s federal and provincial governments. I found no single program that aligned. International colleagues agreed that similar results were likely to be found in their countries. This is problematic for both sectors.

With the exception of countries with degree-granting national government training institutions, such as The Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG), governments are notoriously bad at working with the university sector to shape curricula to meet their skills requirements.

Governments could start by borrowing a page from several industry-university partnerships for innovation that aim to close the skills gap and prepare more students for the challenges of careers like technology. Such relationships would have advantages for all parties. Graduates will emerge better prepared for the labour market; universities can develop relationships that can be extended to other areas like research; and governments gain skilled recruits and, possibly, economise by spending less on post-recruitment training.

As noted by the OECD and others, it is crucial for governments to become more innovative if they are to meet today’s public policy challenges. But the experience of NPM suggests that governments need to think and be more strategic about building innovation capacity and skills development by influencing and shaping labour supply. Universities need clearer signals about what is needed of graduates.

Alignment between PSI skills and university programs will not happen overnight, and will be always be ephemeral and in need of regular adjustment. This will be a work in progress, a practical demonstration of iteration. There is no downside.

And, isn’t partnership itself an innovative practice? — Michael O’Neill

This piece is based on research presented at the April 2018 meeting of the International Research Society for Public Management. It was partially funded by a grant received from the University of Ottawa’s Professional and Academic Development Fund.

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Michael O’Neill

Michael O’Neill

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