Example: At the edge of government is The Citizen Action Lab which elevates the citizenship of people with disabilities. Ben Weinlick leads Edmonton’s Citizen Action Lab and hosts the Systemic Design Exchange (SDX) with the Government of Alberta while modelling the future of social innovation in the public sector.
Originally published in July, 2016.

10 Innovative Ideas for Your Public Service

Innovation is the craft and sophisticated act of getting your organization to recognize diminishing returns, identify new ideas to do better, develop desirable ideas into viable and feasible solutions, and deploy and capture new value. Implicit is the need to adapt to disruption, face uncertainty head on and build trusted citizen experiences across the public sector’s portfolio of services. Frankly, if governments can’t figure innovation out, it will be sidelined or by-passed by alternatives.

There are signals of alternatives already — political parties arguing for a significantly smaller public sector, low overall trust and engagement with Western governments, and an appreciation on the left and right of a failure to integrate human scale needs and aspirations into the design of policy.

A missed opportunity? Governments, and specifically bureaucracies, understandably struggle with innovation because it’s counter to their operating system — which emphasizes stability, certainty, and predictability. Accordingly, unpredictable and emergent ideas are neutralized by the bureaucracy’s antigens, limiting innovation to those rare spaces where known solutions can be applied to known problems. This kind of risk management happens at all “decision points”, where ideas are filtered for viability and feasibility before they have been tested. There is little space for the development of indigenous or contextual innovations, so the public sector focuses efforts on optimizing existing services and programs. This is important efficiency work that helps government to be economical, but it doesn’t address fundamental value questions about effectiveness (the practice of doing the right things) and efficacy (achieving the desired effect). So we miss other forms of value like impact, outcome, citizen experience and long-range foresight. By generally viewing innovation through the lens of efficiency, we are self selecting to live on the downward slope of diminishing returns. Many, myself included, have argued for the public sector to adopt a less scientific approach to innovation with the application of design—the discipline of seeking out and integrating human scale value in the construction of goods, services and infrastructures.

For all the dark and nasty things I’ve just accused government of being— slow, resistant to change and innovation retardant — there are more reasons to love it! Government has the ability to socialize risk, invest in important but otherwise unviable projects, take on big complicated and technical problems like the provision of essential infrastructure and emergency services across wide spaces and it keeps us safe from the darker sides of humanity. In the context of innovation, these activities also need to be sustained — and, fortunately for us, government is exceptional at maintaining the status quo provision of services.

BUT… If you are in a leadership role and you aspire to help government to incubate, accelerate and derisk innovation, here are 10 Things you should do….

1. Open up to incremental and transformational ideas

Great ideas are everywhere — they can be found within the civil service, external agencies, delivery partners, vendors, lead innovators and regular citizens. Open innovation is the mindset that innovative solutions can be found in a lot of places, especially among high density nodes of user-to-service interactions. So if you’re serious about finding ideas and then acting on them, you’ll need to deploy some kind of an idea finding process. You may facilitate irregular ideation sessions, conduct simple open-ended surveys, post an interactive exhibit at the water cooler, host a competition, or curate a wiki. Your idea finding process can be digital and/or analog, internal and/or external, and open-ended or problem focused. Key elements: 1) promote constructive and hopeful interactions; 2) develop ideas from abstract to less abstract; 3) clarify what is valued; 4) identify human scale innovation opportunities; and 5) allow for emergent ideas to surface. Everyone is so excited about transformative innovations, but these are pretty rare — I can only think of a few examples in my career — there is nothing wrong with incremental ideas that bust open more exceptional innovation over the longer term or liberate resources to invest in new ideas. Lastly, be careful what you wish for. When you succeed, you will likely have more good and great ideas than you can possibly action. You will need to mobilize and leverage the whole organization to deliver.

2. Engage with frontline staff, lead users and the public

If you intend to improve the performance of your portfolio of programs, services and infrastructure then without exception you must engage with those providers, maven users and your various public user groups. These folks provide data points on where value is poor. Engagements should be structured to identify value opportunities and partners who can help in future redesign efforts. Innovation can’t be delegated off to some elite design team — you need allies with a deep understanding of the landscape, varied human experiences, and critical assumptions impacting the visible and invisible aspects of your public services. This practical approach gives you credible data points and allies with agency over the services and aids buy-in later on during implementation.

3. Create space for unconventional thinking

Some might say you need to build an “innovation lab” and hire some designers…I would say that you need to understand your context and create space where it’s ok to challenge assumptions, ideate, experiment, prototype and test alternatives. You need space for everyone in your organization to take a break from conventional thinking and all the assumptions and corporate culture that comes with that. This might look like a certain kind of space, but it could be as simple as a pop-up event or temporary reconfiguration. What’s important is that public servants are encouraged to apply unconventional thinking toward the innovation dilemmas that we are facing. Lastly, as the operating system of government gradually recodes towards greater openness, transparency, collaboration and accountability — consider your younger employees as invaluable ambassadors of unconventional thinking and a window into the future.

4. Redefine “value” beyond just cost containment

As I’ve suggested so far, value is not just about the cost and revenue structure of the service (programs or infrastructure). Value can be a lot of things — you should have a fairly sophisticated understanding of value as it relates to the mission of your Ministry, department, municipality or pubic body. In health care they talk about the “triple aim”: patient experience, cost of services and patient outcomes. In the context of patient centric care, these three value vectors become the backbone of improving health services with higher resolution value indicators associated with each vector. Whatever sector you work in — you need to map out a value framework and extend value to include the human experience. We don’t do this just so we can measure and report, we do this because decisions about redesign or improvement have value trade offs. As innovation leaders we need to hold multiple, diverse and seemingly conflicting perspectives in our agile minds — if we become obsessive about one value vector we may dilute overall value. Over time this can become deleterious to the sustainability of services. In health care, there is an (understandable) bias towards patient outcomes, so there is an inherent cost pressure to always find better and marginally more costly procedures. While outcomes incrementally improve the marginal cost of doing so diminishes, consuming scarce public dollars to improve patient experience or value for money. The impact of not getting value right is that citizens don’t see the value, lose faith and demand alternatives. Without exception every sector can benefit from redefining value from a human perspective.

5. Embrace the future with all its possibility and uncertainty

Let’s assume that the future is uncertain, unpredictable and our actions in the present have some effect on future landscapes. Let’s also assume that government should play a prominent role in co-creating hopeful and positive futures for all citizens. These ideas are probably appealing to you — that’s why we are public servants. Why is it, then, that we (collectively) do everything in our power to create the facade of predictability, certainty and confidence about the future? There are few things that are both complex and predictable (#emergence #self-organizing). Innovation leaders have many creative and agile thinking qualities — but first among them are systems-thinking, the practice of understanding individual parts and elements in relation to the big picture; and strategic foresight, the ability to anticipate future landscapes with high resolution imagination about changing societal, technological, environmental economic dynamics and evolving points of view. If you intend to lead innovation in our complex and uncertain landscape these two crafts must be cultivated in the innovation initiative and among leadership. The most innovative cultures know when to rely on strong logical evidence and when intuitive speculation is needed to reframe and reimagine. Innovative cultures also respect the wisdom of expertise knowledge while also learning from engagements with citizens.

6. Encourage human scale prototyping, rapid deployment and learning

The development of innovative solutions requires that you rethink how you make investment decisions. Let me tell you how I’ve seen investment decision-making work inside provincial/federal government — first, a problem is identified by politicians or some relevant interest. Then officials identify a range of desirable options. These are then evaluated for technical feasibility and viability given pre-identified constraints, such as budget and resources. Three-ish options are further developed into business cases with one option being selected by Minister. Incidentally, the final option has generally been proven elsewhere and requires a sizeable investment in full-scale deployment. There is no problem finding, user testing or functional prototyping. The process is designed to eliminate risk, increase perceived predictability and construct an aura of confidence about the future. This is an important and completely appropriate approach to delivering on the elected government’s program. Don’t stop doing that! But you also need to create space for unproven ideas that intuitively or rationally make sense but otherwise wouldn’t see the bureaucratic light of day.

Assuming that you’ve followed my advice up until now, you’ll have a wide range of promising ideas. These ideas should be further prototyped and tested at the human scale just so your organization can learn and refine these into actual innovations. Prototyping is the act of creating tangible models that demonstrate the intended concept with functionality in relation to users/citizens. Once you test and learn from prototyping — you can follow the aforementioned investment process — confirming the business case for desirability, feasibility and viability.

Keep in mind: the whole point about innovative ideas is that at some point in the near past, they were nothing but intuitively interesting, uncertain and likely to fail. Government needs to both protect the public purse and create a minimal space for the testing and development of new ideas — as a leader, you should create this nominal space within an innovation initiative where contextually relevant solutions can be developed — prototyped, deployed, tested and adapted.

7. Reframe communications with citizens and staff about risk and failure

This is probably the most difficult shift for governments and citizens — admitting when we got it wrong, failed or didn't achieve what we set out to do. The mindset that governments can predict and predetermine the future is one major flaw in our communications with the public and staff. The other is that government should eliminate, minimize or mitigate all risks. It’s just dumb, short sighted and counter to innovation — again aligning with that idea of stability. First, by feigning predictability and predetermination in our work, we apply viability and feasibility criteria too early in the innovation process and we eliminate a whole bunch of innovative ideas that no one else has tried. Second, by striving to eliminate risk we are equally striving to eliminate reward and opportunity for assuming risk. Good ideas get killed because of perceived risks. Don’t misunderstand me, risk management is important, but just for all other sustainment and operating activities, not innovation. In the same way that we create physical and cultural space, we need to create space for reasonable risk taking and failure as part of the innovation effort. This means conditioning citizens and staff that user research, prototyping, iteration, testing, failure, more testing, learning, and then succeeding is a normal part of the development process.

8. Begin your innovation journey with events rather than structures

Your investment in an innovation program can start small and grow based on results. You don’t necessarily need to make a major investment in building a lab or hiring a fancy team — consider bringing in a consultant or internally organizing a series of events to kick off your innovation adventure. Here’s a possible kick-off program — guest presentations about innovation with public sector examples, openly talk about areas where innovation is needed, hosts an idea generation event, volunteer teams develop ideas into prototypes, host an innovation challenge, and bring members of the public into the process where practical. During the start-up stage you’ll learn more than I can possibly write in this post!

9. Hire great people and crafty people

This work is tireless, culturally difficult and thankless. I’ve noticed that the most successful public sector innovators are patient, persistent and crafty interpreters of the ‘art of the possible’. You might consider bringing experienced professionals with a strong portfolio that demonstrates visual communication, academic grounding, practical and tangible craft skills — designers, architects, anthropologists, communicators, and technologists often cultivate these aptitudes.

10. Celebrate all the good stuff!

Innovation is already happening across the public sector, it’s just unseen and humbly growing where you least expect it. Make space to recognize innovative work and elevate those who model innovative cultures. From a very practical perspective — if you track it and recognize it, you might identify the secret recipe for innovation in your organization!

Thank-you to Janice Ngeno and Ksenia Benifand for their keen attention to detail and critical review in the drafting of this article.

Jonathan Veale is a design executive based out of Halifax, Nova Scotia. He has held leadership roles with Calgary’s Civic Innovation YYC Lab and previously led an in-house team at Alberta’s Ministry of Health specializing in the emerging field of public sector strategic design. Before that, Jonathan co-founded the Alberta CoLAB at the Department of Energy and served as in-house design strategist and futurist for Alberta’s Executive Council. Jonathan founded NEW PATTERN, a people-centred, futuristic, design agency that experiments with new and emerging approaches to collective problem solving.

*Opinions and content here are my own.