Can public sector organisations be innovative?

In many public sector organisations, the tune of the moment is the same – innovation, innovation, innovation – but sadly it’s difficult to pin down exactly what this is about, and majority of those singing to the tune don’t really understand what they are singing about. In many cases, employees are turned off at the sound of the word ‘innovation’, because to them it’s yet another ‘corporate initiative’ that is out of touch with reality.

So what exactly is ‘innovation’? 

I like to define innovation as ‘creativity that yields results, adds value and is in sync with the times’. Although innovation means different things to different organisations and may seem difficult to pin down, it is crucial for the survival of any serious business operator.

Innovation is mostly associated with companies like Google, Microsoft, Apple, 3M and Samsung who churn out new products with great technological features every year, but this need not be. Every organisation can be innovative by first of all assessing what works well and what doesn’t,  establishing what can be done differently to improve things and then identifying creative and cost-effective ways of implementing these.

The problem faced by many public sector organisations is that the work environment and culture does not allow innovation. Many managers don’t work as enablers, but operate as controllers thus stifling creativity in their team members. Employees are rarely allowed to work on projects on their own or come up with great ideas that can be developed into projects. Senior leaders in these organisations have a great vision which is often far from reality.

The strict regulatory and statutory environment, and the constant reminder of being financed by tax payers is a fundamental reason for the ‘overly-cautious’ approach when making decisions, which no doubt results in the loss of great ideas and sometimes great talent. In most of these organisations after presenting a business case, it’s analyse, analyse, analyse, report, report, report.

With all these issues, is it possible for public sector organisations to be innovative? The answer is YES. Now let me try and make this a bit more practical. Let’s take the example of a local authority’s organisational development team that wants to become innovative. A good place to start would be to review its annual delivery plan, identify the current themes and assess the performance metrics for each theme. Once an area for improvement has been established, one of the team members or a group of team members can be given the responsibility of identifying innovative approaches. In this case it could be something as simple as the corporate induction event that needs to be improved. The vital thing to note is that employees should not be limited to dreaming up new ideas themselves, but should also be given the opportunity to scan the marketplace to see what works.

Here are some vital ingredients for organisations who want innovation to be a way of life:

Before you run off to commission that classroom course on innovation, take a step back and assess whether your organisation has these things in place.

Innovation can only be innovation when a problem is solved and real value is added.