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August 22, 2021

What is Government Innovation?

Innovation is a term that gets used quite often to mean various things. When talking about government innovation specifically, it is important to understand what it is, what it involves, and why it matters. Without this understanding, there is high likelihood of misalignment of expectations, intents, and actions, which will make introducing and applying new approaches even more challenging. 

What is Government Innovation?

Innovation is how new approaches, methods, ideas, or goods are implemented to achieve an impact. In the private sector, this could look like achieving a competitive advantage through a new business strategy or product. In the public sector, there are other, more complex values and systems at play. Innovation has three core areas:
    • Novelty. Innovation consists of either something completely new or applying existing approaches to new contexts. 
    • Implementation. Innovation must result in some change or outcome. Some examples include efficiency, effectiveness, better results, and increased satisfaction.
    • Impact. Innovation must result in some change or outcome. Some examples include efficiency, effectiveness, better results, and increased satisfaction.

The concept of innovation can result in many different types of changes including new products, services, and processes; new policies and systems; new ways of thinking and understanding; and new ways of acting, organizing and relating.

  • Innovation can be a big or a small change. Innovations can be almost certain to work, or experimentative in nature. Innovations can range from pilot programs to interventions that reach entire societies.
  • Innovation has many aspects, can involve very different things, and have various aims. Describing and distinguishing between these aspects can make it easier for those involved with government innovation to engage with it, support it, and implement it. 
  • In the public sector, governments need to be aware of the different facets of innovation, ,and also to appreciate that each facet needs to be managed and interacted with in different ways. Governments should think about why they are innovating and whether they are using the right combination of approaches to reach their goals.

Innovation is Diverse

Innovation can have many different forms. Some government examples include India, where there is the Aadhar Initiative. This provides a biometric ID to the entire population, which is linked to government service. In Estonia, there is a data embassy that protects the core elements of a digital state. In Norway, the framework of their welfare system was changed from providing services to an investment approach. Government innovation can look like many different things and involve many different processes, activities, and ways of working, organizing, and relating.

Government innovation should be tailored to the situation. Not all innovations can be handled in the same way. A new idea that challenges existing assumptions, power relations, and behaviors involves completely different steps and potential challenges, than modifying an existing system for a new context. Different approaches should be applied to different situations.

It is important to understand what structures, resources and processes are best suited to a context, in order to manage the variety of different strategies and approaches.

Innovation may not have a plan, but Always has a Purpose

Changing the status quo is not easy. Innovation rarely occurs without political will or demand in the public sector. It is usually a purposeful act. 

However, this purpose is not always clear. Sometimes the purpose can purely be for experimentation; to think about how things could be done differently. Sometimes innovation may seem like a messy process that lacks direction. When change happens, innovation cannot be directed to account for all possibilities, so it is important to allow space for undirected, but still purposeful, innovation.

Sometimes the innovation's purpose will be obvious. It could be completing a goal that requires creating new knowledge, relationships, structures, or activities. These sorts of efforts are known as mission-oriented innovations. Mission-oriented innovation has a clear direction; it is a policy, objective, or rallying cry that makes the intentions of the innovation clear, as well as what will likely be involved to make the idea a reality. 

Innovation's purpose can be an ambitious concrete goal or priority. Whether an innovation involves an explicit, tangible purpose, or an ambitious concrete goal, both approaches should be recognized, valued, and appreciated distinctly. They must also be managed and supported in different ways.

Surprises in Innovation

Innovation is inherently uncertain. Because it is dealing with something that hasn't been done before, the outcomes cannot be guaranteed. However, there are different levels of uncertainty- from having no idea or precedent for what may happen when the innovation is implemented t, to smaller levels of uncertainty where you may be able to guess what may happen. 

innovation can often mean that you will not have visibility into what is happening, what might happen, or what response to have. 

The different levels of uncertainty have implications for the innovation process. If a government faces a great deal of uncertainty, then the approach needed should be much more exploratory and tentative so that ramifications can be understood before too many commitments are made. Less uncertainty means the approach can take more advantage of the potential of the innovation. 

Government innovation will have different contexts and levels of uncertainty. These different contexts will require different strategies for success.

The Portfolio Approach to Innovation

The three key features we have learned about what innovation can have are:

  • a purpose such as a discovery, achieving a goal, improved working, or responding and adapting to outside changes.
  • Uncertainty on whether it is the correct solution, whether conditions could change that could affect your entire strategy (i.e., yo udon't know what might work or be most appropriate, or there is the potential for changes that will make existing strategies obsolete or untenable), 
  • A variety of strategies and forms, that involve different capabilities, competencies, and resources.

Multiple options should be available when considering innovations. Having multiple options mitigates risk that a particular option may not work. This is especially valuable should something unexpected occur to disrupt your existing strategies.

Portfolio approaches are advisable for effective innovations. Portfolios help to provide a viable solution when circumstances change.

Government Innovation is Varied

Thus, organizations within the public sector need to be able to:

  • Differentiate management strategies for innovation
  • Link needs and issues to the appropriate forms of innovation, as well as connected skillsets and capabilities
  • Deal with differing levels of uncertainty and build your efforts of innovation accordingly.
  • Develop a portfolio of innovation efforts with enough options to make sure there will be results regardless of diverging purposes, especially in uncertain situations.

Governments should appreciate multiple facets or features of innovation. The most important features of innovation are built upon two factors:

  • Is the innovation directed or undirected? Is the purpose of the innovation to achieve a clear intent or objective or about discovery and response to outside changes?
  • Does the innovation deal with high uncertainty? Is the innovation's context well understood or is it covering new territories?

Many other factors can offer insight into innovation, but these are the most relevant to helping individuals, agencies, and governments to maintain and manage a diverse portfolio of innovative projects and government organizations to not only achieve their missions, but to adapt to a quickly changing world.

Innovation's Four Types

Based on the two identified factors, there are 4 types of innovation to consider.

  • Innovation that enhances
    • Innovation that builds upon existing structures to upgrade processes, make things more efficient, and achieve better results.
    • It usually builds upon knowledge that already exists, and applies existing innovations to contexts in order to achieve greater efficiency and effectiveness than existing processes
    • These innovations are not revolutionary or disruptive, but often involve a changed perspective or engaging in a different way
    • Traditionally this is how most of the public sector innovates

  • Innovation that has a mission
    • Innovation with a mission has a clear overarching objective, even if how the objective will be achieved is unknown.
    • This kind of innovation often fits within existing paradigms, but can consist of incremental or radical change.
    • Going to the moon is an example. The clear objective was a guiding force for a variety of experimentation and different kinds of innovations, but there was still a clear goal. 
    • This type of innovation is very often important to achieving societal goals. Government bureaucracies often work with this type of innovation if there is enough political desire.
  • Innovation that adapts to changes
    • In this case, the innovation's purpose may be the discovery process. If the environment, or external factors change, then it can necessitate innovation that helps adjust to the change or because it is something new that has become possible. 
    • Sometimes this kind of innovation is incremental, but it can also be radical. Radical adaptive innovation often needs endorsement from a leadership level to move forward, or the government may seek to suppress it or have the change occur outside of their organization. 
    • Social media began with bottom-up initiatives, which has changed how governments interact with their citizens. People and organization have driven much of this kind of innovation by trying to react to a changing operating environment where traditional communication channels had become less effective.
    • Adaptive innovation can help match external change to internal practices. Developing needs can't be known, so it often follows a bottom-up approach driven by citizens and services who see the need for change.
  • Innovation that anticipates the future
    • Anticipatory innovation is about exploration and engagement based on emergent issues so that organizations can prepare for future priorities and commitments.
    • This type of innovation could change existing paradigms as it is about completely new ideas rather than ones that fit within existing constructs because how the idea will work still needs to be tested. This type of innovation usually needs to be separate from core business so that it an function autonomously.
    • An example of this type of innovation is when a government funds investigation into AI. It has a high degree of uncertainty as there is no knowledge on what is possible, how fast the change can happen, how people will react to it, and it will likely not fit into existing workflows.
    • Anticipatory innovation is important because big changes are often easiest (and cheapest) to engage with and shape when they are still emergent and not locked-in.

The Government Needs Dexterity and Agility

Often in private sector innovation you may hear of an organization being “ambidextrous.” This refers to the idea that organization can find new business opportunities while executing upon existing business. Ambidextrous organizations manage the tensions between what is needed now and what will be needed in the future.

However, government needs multi-dexterity to engage with all four types of innovation in order to successfully serve its constituents.

Cautions with Innovation Features

Innovation requires a degree of “readiness” in order to undertake novelty to begin with. Innovation is highly dependent upon existing knowledge, skills, systems, and learning. There needs to be an ecosystem developed and significant investment by the organization to make the change a reality. Many innovations require room for experimentation and lessons learned.

Decision Lens helps Government Innovation

Decision Lens helps government organizations to prioritize their portfolios, forecast potential scenarios, and identify trade-offs. We help the public sector to not only free up time through automation to spend more time on innovative projects, but to help them plan and prioritize those projects so that they can become a reality. Contact us to request a demo!

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