Innovation… we get it… but…

Aleeya Velji
Dec 18, 2018 · 4 min read

My experience in government has spanned across municipal, provincial and now federal jurisdictions. It is obvious that the public sector across levels has been experiencing an organizational identity shift. Meaning that society is changing and governments are beginning to see the need to adapt to hold their influence and place in Canadian society. As the organization is required to shift, the term ‘innovation’ is seeping into the policy and everyday dialogue of policy and public servants. Within government, there is policy in place to support innovation and a declaration that supports innovation across all provinces and territories in Canada. Yet, for some reason policy alone is not enough. There are varied conceptualizations of what innovation means and how it is applied; it signals a noticeable cognitive misunderstanding, and a deep lack of skills sets or competencies within public servants to work in innovative ways.

In order to make innovation a part of the core business of any organization, there is a requirement for platforms, business processes and practices that create space to build up the internal competencies and disciplined experiments that foster innovative practice. Small pockets appear to be forming across various levels of government, with platforms such as GC_talent and GC_Collab, Alberta CoLab, Studio 44, SDXCoP, NuLab, and the Recover Project Edmonton popping up in recent years. As I take a deep dive into looking at innovation, I am finding that academic literature around is more often than not critical of public sector innovation. So I continue to ask why…

Why… because:

● Bureaucratic structure creates processes that requires public servants to obtain permission to do just about anything. This limits the ability to try;

● innovation is not a part of the core business;

● and most innovations that do thrive tend to be situated within small groups of people who have great ideas, and who have figured out how to work around the system. This way of innovating has a high level of risk to individuals’ careers, and does not create institutional memory for sustainable and system wide innovation.

Naturally, innovation in government is fragmented.

From the perspective of a federal public servant, when it comes to innovation, the federal government operates without a systems view; we often act like mini, distributed organizations working on individual projects.

For example, I notice several teams working on digital change work. Digital change is promising for Canadians Digital future because it can support how Canadians engage and build trust with government, yet may I ask, are all the groups working on digital operating with a shared purpose?

What if the concept of design networks was activated?

As described by Manzini (2015), Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation: A designing network refers to a group of people distributed over multiple connected teams and organizations from different parts of society who collectively address complex social issues.”

This model requires more than just collaboration; it needs shared purpose. A designing network functions as groups of people designing and implementing initiatives to shift a complex system towards a shared purpose.

It is different from a ‘learning network’ such as a community of practice, which is aimed at shared learning from one another but does not necessarily have a shared purpose. See graphic below (Buré & van der Bijl-Brouwer)

@GC_talent, and the Recover project Edmonton are key examples of innovative projects that have worked like design networks. These projects have this ability to work inside and outside leveraging what is around them. They see the power of integrating the capacities across sectors and across departments within governments to work together and solve complex challenges. They show us there is power that generates from shared purpose across networks. This approach to problem solving seeks to actively listen to others, acknowledge differences, find commonalities, and design with the ability to integrate the distributed capacities of external organizations and the people in government around a shared purpose.

When it comes to innovation the federal government is operating like mini, distributed teams (or sectors) with some of the heaviest challenges in the areas of HR, procurement, and the way in which grants and funding is distributed and managed.

What if we could consider thinking about a design network as a fundamental building block for our innovation future? Mobilizing this could support how the organization can re imagine how the public sector looks at combating the siloed innovation pods within a connected network and the development of disciplined innovation platforms, business processes and practices.


We have some collaborative components that are coming together. The redesign within the School of Public Service has the potential to foster design networks. The leadership is open to ideas and is providing the space to rethink our collective future. With this runway, there is a chance to scale up more collaborative ways of working that align people, practice and purpose for the public good. In order to actually do this we as public servants have to humbly share our

Wisdom to break down the distributed silos, learn about each other, and share the successes and failures of working in new ways so that we can improve as we go forward.

Additional Actions:

● Think with a growth mindset

● Engage with the other

● Act from a lens of social innovation

● Recruit unconventional talent with unconventional recruitment platforms

● Close generational gaps around digital change and leadership by considering reverse mentorship

I want to continue this conversation…. If you are interested in starting this up… get in touch and add to this conversation.

References[1] [2] :

Manzini (2015). Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation. MIT Press Books.

Growth Mindset:

Buré & van der Bijl-Brouwer (2018). Designing in teams to designing in networks.

Policy Documents:

Blueprint 2020:

Innovation Declaration:

Written by

public servant exploring policy and social innovation

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade