Practitioner Perspectives on Encouraging Public Sector Innovation

Last Friday I spoke at a public sector innovation conference in Minneapolis sponsored by the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. The conference attracted a large and enthusiastic crowd of 200 participants from state, county, and local governments.

I will report on an executive seminar that I led for a group of 25 agency heads and politicians representing governments of all sizes.To stimulate discussion among that group I presented a list of 13 ways to build an innovative public sector organization, which built on the OECD’s recent Call to Action ( Here’s the list:

1. Leaders must encourage and support innovation

2. Creativity training for public servants

3. Sponsor an innovation award

4. Gather and publish performance data both within the organization and publicly

5. Make government data bases available to the public

6. Use social media to engage the public

7. Establish an innovation lab

8. Establish an innovation fund

9. Allow departments to keep at least part of cost-savings resulting from innovation

10. Seek external (foundation) funding to support innovation

11. Run explicit experiments and pilot projects

12. Protect public servants associated with “failed” innovations from being blamed and shamed

13. Change rules that prevent innovation.

Here are some of the views that caught my attention. They are expressions of what has or hasn’t worked or might or might not work for the individuals who participated in this discussion.

Leadership: There was strong agreement that leaders should encourage and support innovation. But one participant admitted it might hurt his chances of reelection.

Innovation Awards: One participant said that applying for innovation awards is one more administrative task and that it is necessary to pick and choose which awards to apply for. Innovation happens even if innovators are not recognized.

Government Data (points 4 and 5): Some Minnesota governments are already producing and making public a great deal of data. Sometimes choosing different time periods for presenting the data can lead to different conclusions. Participants would like to see data that focuses on results and outcomes, that is up-to-date, and that is analyzed so as to lead to public conversations about the policy problem, rather than about the data alone.

Social Media: There was recognition that social media could be an effective way to tell a government’s story, especially regarding successful initiatives, but the challenge is to develop skill in doing it.

Innovation Funds: One financial manager thought it would be difficult to develop criteria to choose from the projects applying to such a fund, and that departments should fund innovations internally. On the other hand, a local government manager described how that government used a revenue stream from a particular fee as a de facto innovation fund.

Foundation Support: One manager described foundations as the venture capitalists of the public sector, mentioning that it was important for the public sector to provide foundations with a menu of choices of smaller projects that could be piloted with foundation support. Local foundations as well as larger nationally-prominent foundations can play this role.

Experimenting: There was strong agreement on the value of experimenting. The challenge is how to communicate that government is undertaking an experiment and to show the rationale for the experiment. One participant from the educational sector noted that every adult considers him or herself to be an expert on the public school system and parents often say that they don’t want their children to be part of an experiment.

These were observations from a discussion about public sector innovation by a sample of public officials in one state in one country. Hopefully the OECD’s Call to Action will stimulate widespread discussion – and action – to advance public sector innovation.


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