Innovation as an ethical dilemma

By Rainer Kattel | @rainerkattel

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

In 1681 an anonymous English commentator lamented that all innovations in government are dangerous. Today, we cannot get enough innovations in governments as well as by governments. Most governments have innovation strategies that target technological advances as well as social and policy innovations.

Innovations are, by definition, unpredictable. They stem from creativity and serendipity. The machinery of governments — bureaucracy — should be apolitical. Civil servants should critically implement political will but also speak truth to power. It is upon them to make sure that governments are predictable and efficient. Uncertainty, on the other hand, is by nature wasteful, at least initially. Innovations are heretics to the orthodoxy of efficiency. Until they become the new orthodoxy.

…the need to be predictable and creative at the same time is also a conflict of ethics

Herein rests the paradox of innovation for today’s civil servants: machinery that, by its nature, is set out to be a predictable and stabilising factor amid political whirlwind is expected to welcome and push for the unpredictable. Such conflict can be a source of inspiration, but mostly it puts civil servants in an untenable position: the need to be predictable and creative at the same time is also a conflict of ethics.

Civil servants serve two masters: political will of the day, and their own political consciousness. Hannah Arendt argued that as political beings we wear masks: as we step into the public arena of opinion and discussion, we are playing a role. And roles, like our views, can evolve and change. And of course, innovation has a lot in common with play, its joy and unpredictability, and constant change. Innovating in public sector strengthens the citizen in the civil servant, it invites opinions and discussions. Innovation is anything but apolitical. (That’s why it was deemed dangerous in 1681.) Innovation in the public sector is, thus, a moral dilemma. This should be an explicit topic of discussion: what values are specific innovations promoting or hindering, and why.

Yet, so much of the current debate around innovations in the public sector is still captured in the language of managerialism and the efficiency paradigm of the 1980s and 1990s. In trying to replicate private sector best practices, public organisations became financialised during the past decades in their own way. Management by financial targets empties public sector of almost any other purpose, the citizen in civil servant becomes overridden by the accountant.

Today, public organisations should embrace innovation as a way to bring back a sense of purpose and mission to civil service. Innovation agenda should be explicitly discussed as a moral agenda. This becomes more important as trust in democratic governments is under threat.

Walter Benjamin famously argued that capitalism is a religion and a unique one at that: it has made debt, and not forgiveness, its currency. Hence capitalism needs countervailing powers in order not to veer into a spiral of debt and inequality (a point forcefully made by John Kenneth Galbraith). There are few more powerful actors in society than civil service. It should define itself through its potential as a countervailing power in service of society at large. Striving for innovations in government opens the space for civil service to speak about itself as the countervailing power.

Being a countervailing power requires skills and capabilities. As capitalism around us evolves, so should bureaucracy. And as capitalism around us is increasingly about user experience, so should public services. Hence we see an increasing need for civil servants to add to a standard toolkit of policy making and analysis (e.g. cost-benefit analysis), new methods from service design, agile development and so forth. This focus on individual users, and various techniques from ethnography to data analytics, can be used to aggregate knowledge.

Many governments install new organisations, such as policy labs, to bring new skills into the civil service. But we should go further than that: we should equip civil servants with a new mindset and thinking framework that does not shy away from difficult moral choices and discussions surrounding innovations, and does not hide behind performance targets. For civil servants to support innovation, for the bureaucracy to be creative, we need both new skills and a new sense of purpose and pride. This means developing new curricula and other learning platforms for civil servants and indeed encourage communities of practice.

Rainer Kattel is Deputy Director at the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP).

Our MPA in Innovation, Public Purpose and Public Value focuses on developing an in-depth understanding of the economics of innovation, technological, social and institutional innovations, alongside cutting-edge thinking and practice around public administration and governance, strategic design and digital transformation. Click here to learn more.

A version of this article was originally published on the Open Innovation blog by The Cabinet Office.

Sign up to the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose’s mailing list to hear about our latest research, news and events. You can follow us on Twitter: @IIPP_UCL.


The official blog of the UCL Institute for Innovation and…


The official blog of the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose | Rethinking how public value is created, nurtured and evaluated | Director @MazzucatoM |

UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

Written by

Changing how public value is imagined, practiced and evaluated to tackle societal challenges | Director: Mariana Mazzucato | Deputy Director: Rainer Kattel


The official blog of the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose | Rethinking how public value is created, nurtured and evaluated | Director @MazzucatoM |

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store