We talk a lot about innovation in government but it's often dominated by what this means in particular contexts, how risk can be managed, and how much permission we actually have to innovate in the public sector. In spite of all that there is lots of innovation occurring at levels of government in Canada but this still co-exists with vast untapped opportunities to make government more effective. So I was pleased last week to attend the launch of a very practical discussion paper which goes to the heart of these questions - License to Innovate published by The Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity at the University of Toronto's Rotman School.
I'm impressed by the report because it's accessible to public servants at every level and fills some large gaps in the discourse on public sector innovation.
I was reminded in Ottawa recently that the Prime Minister's interest in delivery and results offers federal public servants s an opportunity to break through this fog of accountability. Doing that requires somewhat of a change in mindset -- part of which involves going into policy and delivery projects with an acknowledgement that we will not get any complex initiative right the first time, or even the second time (something that most open-minded people will understand). The point is to be honest about this and find ways to quickly get projects back on track. The fact is that we get things wrong (or not quite right) very often but we move ahead anyway - perhaps to avoid blame or through an assumption that a half-baked program is better than none. More often than not the government has already declared victory on the sound of the Starter's gun and we feel there is little choice but to carry on. Innovation - which is based on experimentation and trial and error -- just can't work in this way.
I was also struck by the report’s notion that we consider engaging opposition politicians in the theatre of innovation -- perhaps, as I have suggested in my book, through the creation of a parliamentary committee on public administration - with a mandate to review and report on innovations in government and governance.
In summary, the report moves us forward by offering clearer sense of how public servants can understand and implement innovation in their own particular context. It makes innovation practical.
It is also important to building on the innovation already occurring in government by pulling successful cases studies out from the shadows and shining a bright light on them.
It's also way past time for senior levels of government to revitalize relationships with delivery partners, particularly in the high-cost and high-impact field of human service delivery. This should include open discussions with municipal governments about how senior governments can remove tough obstacles standing in the way of public service improvements. These conversations are often not about money. They tend to focus instead on how existing funding could be spent more effectively if accountability rules and rules governing eligibility for different forms of social assistance could be streamlined; and how privacy rules inhibiting the sharing of client data between delivery organizations are inhibiting more integrated approaches to caring for vulnerable clients. These conversations can't occur quickly enough - and will need to be followed-up with the appointment of empowered public service executives to act as champions of change, and champions of clients, in clearing the path towards better public services.
Boosting innovation in government goes hand-in-hand with acknowledging failure, and learning from it