Talking the Talk: Turning the Language of Innovation into Practical Action

5 minute read

Governments around the world are now investing in strategies to build innovation skills and capacity of public servants to innovate solutions for the challenges of servicing citizens. Since 2000, Governments in Singapore, South Africa, Denmark, New Zealand, Australia and others have created specific programs to nurture a culture of innovation by crafting national strategies that build the skills of public servants and the capacity of government departments to innovate. Jocelyne Bourgon, former Clerk of Privy Council wrote, “Governments around the world are inventing solutions to society’s problems. The difficulty is preparing Government to improve its capacity to generate interventions.”

To resolve this, Bourgon suggests that governments develop two areas of expertise:

  • Innovation in public services: creating innovative solutions to solve challenges, improving systems, practices and service delivery functions.
  • Building capacity for public service innovation: the capacity of government to invent solutions to the current and future challenges facing society.

Each area of expertise requires strategy to identify and deliver innovation skills, knowledge and insight staff need to shape innovative solutions. The second engages change management and organizational development strategies to shape cultures open to new ideas and new ways of thinking. Currently, there is much talk of digital transformation, yet is this talk matched with strategies to build capacity for public sector innovation? As but one example, Passport Canada continues to fumble the delivery of an online passport renewal service, while peer countries like New Zealand have already done so as early as in 2013.

Enhancing Public Sector Innovation

Canada launched Blueprint 2020 as a major effort to enhance innovation in the federal public service. Five years later many departments have innovation labs and some type of internal programs for doing so. In 2017, the OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (OPSI) reviewed our strategies and its conclusions highlight that the current programs are failing to deliver results. Its final report released in November of 2018 highlighted several major weaknesses noting that although there is considerable activity being undertaken by passionate public servants seeking better outcomes for Canadians that nonetheless,

“…the overall picture of the public sector innovation system shows that it is still relatively fragmented... There is a lack of consistency in how innovation is understood as a concept, a process and an outcome. While there has been a notable rise in the sophistication and co-ordination of activity, this has yet to broadly penetrate the core operations of government.”

It is clear that the goal of innovation is hindered by weak programs to build the capacity of all public servants to innovate. The term “relatively fragmented” is better than the OECD OPSI preliminary report in which our system was labelled “relatively immature”. Of greater concern is the failure to communicate a consistent understanding of innovation.

Public Sector Innovation and Wider Innovation policy

This is one of several substantial definitional challenges that exist in the innovation space. Not only are their challenges in giving a meaningful operational definition to innovation, but also to the terms related to innovation. Often it is assumed that start-ups focus on innovation. The reality is that many start-ups replicate existing business models, and services and products. Yet, for example, the terms entrepreneurship and innovation are often used interchangeably which fails to recognize the value of two very different concepts.

Entrepreneurship in particular is challenging since its conceptualization in policy does little to distinguish between small business, start-ups, scale-ups, gig-workers, ‘seniorpreneurs’ or even just summer jobs. Without proper distinctions being made and conceptual differences getting resolved at the higher levels of political machinery, there is little chance that policy will be manifest in nuanced, targeted and otherwise bespoke program execution. In this sense, high-level conceptual errors are permitted to trickle down through other policy errors and programs, allowing systemic misconceptions to perpetuate.

Public servants and program delivery

It’s not just about getting innovation policy right; there is little conciliation in saying that failure stemmed from a good policy that was poorly executed. When it comes to bringing innovation strategies to Canadian businesses, there remain a few kinks in the pipe. Administrative requirements for assessing the eligibility for government programs are often onerous and can present a major obstacle for lean enterprises. The high costs of administrative interaction with the government of Canada cannot reasonably be overcome by the small businesses and micro-entrepreneurs that increasingly comprise the Canadian economy. They have less ability administrative capacity and ability to “eat” the costs associated with applications for government programs.

Small business represents nearly 98% of all enterprises in Canada. This is a core constituency for the Trudeau government and a target of any successful strategy to promote innovation. There is no reasonable expectation that a meaningful share of these 1.1 million organizations is being reached by programming in a meaningful way. Innovation Canada was created in part out of a desire to rectify this by creating a portal that would make these programs more accessible to (would be) entrepreneurs. Programs which support innovation intermediaries also offer support in this vein but these initiatives only represent a good first step. Continuous research, validation and process improvements are necessary to keep up with the rapid pace of change and the advantages of our competitor countries.

The broader goal should include conceptual frameworks and the communication programs to match that will build a culture of ideas and innovation in all businesses. The foundation for innovation in countries like Singapore and New Zealand is staff engagement driven by internal communication strategies. To launch a national public service innovation skills program, Singapore provided an innovation guide to 20,000 staff (Ed Bernacki wrote this guide). If a public servant in Canada wants to understand what it means to be innovative in the public service, they are forced to look for overseas sources. There is little evidence that Departments communicate effectively in print, digital or other formats to give staff the sense of what it means to be innovative on the job.

Canada has the people and resources to design and delivery world class services and products. We need policy and strategies to nudge businesses to take the leap toward greater innovation. A highly innovative public sector, which shapes innovative policy, and delivers this vision, will create the foundation for greater innovation as a nation.

About the authors

Ed Bernacki

Ed Bernacki

Director, The Idea Factory

Ed Bernacki is a problem finder and problem solver who can turn solutions into innovations. He brings new perspectives to every role or project having vast innovation experience living in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and working internationally. He drives innovative solutions, leads others to create solutions, or helps people develop a capacity to innovate. He is a source of ideas and inspires others to develop their skills.

Mark Robbins

Mark Robbins

Senior Researcher

Mark's work principally addresses impact of the digital revolution on government, governance and public administration as well as how government itself impacts technological development through its actions for governing the ICT sector. Mark can be found working on a range of projects related to 21st century policy areas including digital transformation, innovation, digital government and artificial intelligence. When not writing research, Mark also organizes the IOG's Policy Crunch speaker series and annual Future Forum conference.

Prior to joining the IOG, he held various research positions on economic and political affairs, including at the Munk School at the University of Toronto, the Conference Board of Canada, UN-ESCAP, the Canadian Transportation Agency and the Parliament of Canada. Mark holds a Bachelor of Social Science in Political Science from the University of Ottawa, an M.A. in Political Economy from Carleton University and a certificate in commerce from Mohawk College.

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