Here’s the backdrop: Alexander Bezzina, the deputy minister at Ontario’s Ministry of Children and Youth Services (MCYS), was talking to staff a couple of years ago as part of a staff engagement process. Alex heard a message that there were lots of good ideas percolating in the lower ranks of the organization but with no clear outlet. The result was a ministry-wide “Deputy’s Den” innovation challenge with a commitment (from the DM) that the winning proposals would be supported for implementation.
In 2016, the competition was extended to the Ministry of Community and Social Services (MCSS) with the same level of enthusiasm from MCSS deputy minister Janet Menard. If you know about the Region of Peel’s successful integration of human services you’ve likely heard about Janet already, as she led that integration in a former job.
In mid-June I sat on the 2016 Deputy’s Den selection panel charged with choosing a winning public service innovation proposal from among five finalists selected from a field of 24 entrants. The two DM’s had challenged their organizations to propose improvements and solutions across a broad range of human services program areas.
The “Dragon’s Den”- styled showcase was a high-octane event with a live audience and was webcast across the province. The finalists were all impressive – and any one of the five could emerge as the winner. Here’s what struck me:
- Three of the five final proposals were from new professionals (one from a student)
- All were client focused and client sensitive – with a majority targeted at highly vulnerable young people
- 3 of the five involved digital tools and solutions responsive to pressing client issues
- And all of the finalists incorporated human resources aspects of the initiatives as part of comprehensive implementation plans
This was a terrific process which demonstrated what can be achieved when senior executives invite and encourage creativity and innovation from all levels of the organization. Innovation is now central in the discourse of public service reform. Public servants are innovating already and the task is to grow this more broadly across public sector organizations. In doing this we need to unleash fresh ideas throughout the organization and see more encouraging leadership from executives and middle managers.
Continuing on the innovation theme, here's an update on the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity’s terrific work on “License to Innovate: How Government Can Reward Risk.” I wrote about this report in a post in March this year but it has since been expanded by incorporating perspectives from practitioners within and outside of government. These voices include Karen Pitre, Special Advisor to Premier Wynne on Community Hubs; Greg Orencsak Deputy Minister, at Ontario’s Treasury Board Secretariat and Sheldon Levy, Deputy Minister at the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development.
There is loads of innovation occurring in Canada’s public sector but we have not been spotlighting it as part of the discourse on innovation. This is changing in a hurry at all levels of public sector organizations. The revised report highlights 18 significant Canadian and international examples of innovation in the public sector, including several from Ontario (Community Hubs, Service Ontario Centres, the Local Poverty Reduction Fund and the City of Toronto’s Participatory Budget initiative.) We need to highlight these home-grown innovations in order to demonstrate what innovation looks like in our own context – and to tackle the myth that public service organizations are paralyzed by risk aversion. In reality pockets of innovation co-exist with pockets of risk aversion in most public sector organizations.
The report also highlights success factors for innovation, some of which I’ve raised in my book: a focus on service users, the importance of building a culture of collaboration, moving away from stove-piped funding, building capacity for human resource management; and the critical role of executive leadership (which was also touched on in a previous post).
In my next post I will report on a major project being led by Ontario’s Ministry of Children and Youth Services: one that is bringing a broad and sophisticated collective impact approach to a pressing social and economic issue affecting young people. This initiative is on the leading edge in terms of transforming approaches to the delivery of human services. I’m looking forward to telling the story.