Innovation under Populism

Populism has become a topic of great academic interest, particularly after the Brexit referendum and election of Donald Trump in 2016 (Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018, Norris and Inglehart 2019). As a long-time student of public sector innovation (Borins 1998, Borins 2014), I have become interested in the impact populism is having on it. I have therefore set a watching brief (Borins 2018), focusing for reasons of proximity on the Trump Administration and later on the Ford Government, elected in my home province of Ontario in June 2018. A broader focus would undoubtedly include populist governments in Hungary (Prime Minister Orban), Turkey (President Erdogan), Brazil (President Bolsonaro), and the Philippines (President Duterte).

For the purposes of this discussion, the two relevant characteristics of populism are xenophobia and anti-intellectualism (Borins 2018). Xenophobia is commonly expressed in opposition to immigration (restriction on the movement of people) and to economic globalization (restriction on the movement of goods and capital). Anti-intellectualism encompasses distrust in institutions of higher education and of their output, in particular scientific inquiry and research. In this view, the common sense of “the people” is of greater validity than the complex, evidence-based, and occasionally counterintuitive findings of experts.

My watching brief concerns both the impact of populism on innovations undertaken by career public servants and innovations initiated by populist leaders themselves. My title is deliberately ambiguous, as it refers to public sector innovation in the context of populism and to the possibility of populism suppressing or undermining public sector innovation (or, more colloquially, throwing it under the bus).

Research on public sector innovation has gathered considerable evidence to show that political support, discretionary resources, intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, and mitigation of risk all stimulate innovation on the part of public servants (Borins 2014, OECD 2017). In contrast, the Trump Administration has systematically undermined innovation by intentionally degrading organizational capacity through budget cuts, reduction in authorized staffing levels, and non-replacement of public servants who resign or retire, most notably in the State Department and Environmental Protection Administration. In addition, the President’s defamatory criticism of individual career public servants who were simply doing their jobs, such as former Ambassador to the Ukraine Marie Yovanovich, will discourage other public servants from taking the risks inherent in innovating. (In Westminster-style democracies such as Canada, members of parliament, which includes the prime minister, are protected from prosecution for defamation only for statements made in the legislature.)

Public sector innovation is intrinsically a scientific process because it involves doing something new or differently, and then uses the tools of policy analysis, including the “gold standard” of randomized clinical trials, to determine the impact of the innovation, and therefore whether it should be expanded or terminated. Doug Ford’s self-styled “government for the people” provides a chilling illustration of how a populist administration operationalizes its anti-intellectualism. The Ford Government fired its Chief Scientist, a distinguished professor of biomedical engineering, on its first day in office and never replaced her; quickly terminated a guaranteed income experiment that was using randomized clinical trials; reduced funding for some research programs; and forced others to close. Two of the most consequential closures were the unexpected shuttering of a university-based Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity, which supported the government’s economic agenda, and the entirely predictable termination of a research institute on gambling addiction, which would have offered evidence-based criticism of the government’s initiatives to deregulate gambling and build new casinos. Similarly, the Trump Administration is systematically eliminating the role of scientific expertise in government by reducing research funding, shutting down scientific advisory committees, and pressuring government researchers not to speak publicly (Plumer and Davenport 2019).

It is ironic that the only science populist governments embrace is political science because it is the parent discipline of public opinion polling, which is valuable in designing policies and messaging that will appeal to core supporters and is helpful in dark arts such as propaganda, voter suppression, and gerrymandering.

Consider the second component of my watching brief, namely innovations undertaken by populist governments. Advocates and students of public sector innovation, myself included, usually assume that it is beneficial to society. But if innovation is a means to an end, it ultimately must be judged by the value of that end. For example the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center embodied a classic innovation, taking two previously well-known terrorist tactics, airplane hijacking and suicide bombing, and combining them in an unexpected and devastating way. For al Qaeda, the attacks were a triumph, but for the rest of the world they were quintessentially evil.

Populist innovations include both governance and policy. In my view, the two major governance innovations of the Trump Administration have been the weaponization of Twitter and of tariffs. The New York Times (2019) recently published “The Twitter Presidency,” a special section analyzing Trump’s more than 11,000 presidential tweets. It revealed that over half are attacks and that the vast majority are sent in the early hours of the morning when he is alone and unconstrained by aides. Many of Trump’s tweets are outright lies, repetitions of his supporters’ lies, and defamatory attacks on his critics and opponents. These are intended to stir up the Republican Party’s voter base. Many other tweets, however, are tantamount to executive orders. Twitter gives the President an opportunity to issue an executive order without being delayed or dissuaded by aides and with the world as witness, which forces subordinates to implement the order. Trump’s use of Twitter is therefore an innovative expansion of the powers of the President.

Trump’s second governance innovation, also an expansion of presidential power, is his frequent imposition of tariffs on grounds of national security under section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962. This dovetails with the first innovation, because he announces the tariffs with tweets, often broadcast without consultation within the Administration. Many observers have criticized these tariffs as literally “trumped up” since most of the countries on which they have been imposed are America’s strongest allies and pose absolutely no threat to its security. While the suspect tariffs can be implemented immediately, redress through challenges in the World Trade Organization (which the Trump Administration is working to destroy) and the US courts take much longer. Tariffs have thus served as an innovative economic lever against other nations to extract concessions or force them to renegotiate trade agreements with the US.

There are many areas in which populist governments may claim that their policies are innovative. The Trump Administration argues that it is freeing industry from unnecessary and counter-productive environmental regulations in areas such as carbon emissions, automobile pollution and fuel economy, and the release of effluent in water or soil. Similarly, it boasts that drone-implemented targeted killings of enemy military leaders represent an innovative way of achieving military objectives with minimal direct risk to the lives of American soldiers. Analogously, the Bolsonaro Government in Brazil claims that extra-judicial executions of presumed criminals by militias consisting of off-duty and retired officers is an effective and efficient way of fighting crimes such as drug trafficking (Ahmed 2019).

 Towards a Research Agenda

In my view, scholars of public sector innovation should go beyond watching briefs to develop a full-scale research program on innovation under populism. In the area of innovations by populist leaders, I think it extremely unlikely that the Trump Administration would submit its innovations such as weaponizing Twitter and tariffs, removing environmental constraints on industry, and drone-based targeted killing to the scrutiny of public sector innovation awards, even one as prestigious as the Harvard Kennedy School’s. Measuring the immediate and longer-time impacts and possible replication of these innovations will require the expertise of scholars in relevant fields, such as governance for the weaponization of Twitter, international economics for the weaponization of tariffs, environmental studies for deregulation, and strategic studies for drone-based targeted killings. An initiative such as The New York Times’s study scoping President Trump’s use of Twitter is a good starting point.

Studying the impact of populist government on innovation by public servants is also challenging. One could imagine a new cross-national study modelled on the European Commission (2011) interview-based study of public sector innovation in the 28 EU countries. A new study would enable researchers to identify differences between countries with strongly populist governments and other countries. The European Commission study required the authorization of member governments to permit their public servants to participate in interviews. I cannot imagine that populist governments that have tried to suppress dissent on the part of their own public servants would provide such authorization, let alone contribute funding, for a study undertaken by an international organization or inter-governmental consortium.

An alternative model would involve research by scholars operating outside the scope of official government organizations. Assuming they receive research support from a granting council or foundation, they could establish a web-based survey of public sector innovation and use social media to invite public servants to participate in it. The survey would be open to public servants from both populist and non-populist governments to explore similarities and differences between the two. The survey would have to provide foolproof and unhackable protection for participants. It would strongly encourage them to use private, rather than governmental, email accounts on non-governmental servers and networks. Data would have to be anonymized and the results published would have to protect the identity of participants.

Populism has thrown into question many long-held and well-established values, not the least of which are democracy and the rule of law, and scholars such as Levitsky and Ziblatt (2018) are exploring the implications. The independence, expertise, and innovativeness of the public service are also important values that are being challenged by populism. Students of public administration should be responding by gathering evidence and making judgments. It is urgent that researchers of public sector innovation, as a sub-discipline within public administration, study what is happening to innovation under populism.


Ahmed, Azam. 2019. “Where the Police Wear Masks, and the Bodies Pile Up Fast.” The New York Times. December 20.

Borins, Sandford. 1998. Innovating with Integrity; How Local Heroes are Transforming American Government. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

____________. 2014. The Persistence of Innovation in Government. Washington, DC: Brookings.

____________. 2018. “Public Sector Innovation in a Context of Radical Populism.” Public Management Review 20, no. 12: 1859-71. Doi: 10.1080/14719037.2018.1441430

European Commission. 2011. Innobarometer 2010. Analytical Report: Innovation in Public Administration.

Levitsky, Steven and Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown Publishing.

The New York Times. 2019. “The Twitter Presidency: A Special Section.” November 3.

Norris, Pippa and Ronald Inglehart. 2019. Cultural Backlash; Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. 2017. Fostering Innovation in the Public Sector.

Plumer, Brad and Coral Davenport. 2019. “Science under Attack: How Trump is Sidelining Researchers and Their Work.” The New York Times. December 28.

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