Creating a culture of innovation in the public sector

OPS_May17

by Wendy Cukier, Vice-President, Research & Innovation

The Ontario Public Service has said it’s ready to innovate.
On April 16th, during World Creativity and Innovation Week, I led a session on innovation and system change for the Ontario Public Service (OPS) staff. Steve Orsini, Secretary of Cabinet and head of the OPS, joined me at the workshop attended by nearly 100 public service staff to discuss some of the obstacles to innovation.

According to Orisini, Ontarians are ready and willing to get involved in consulting on how government services should be delivered. “They want to be involved in the co-creation and co-design of those services,” he said, adding that their expectations are high. “They expect government to offer the same level of service as the private sector.”

He talked about the “Red Tape Challenge” where the Government of Ontario is crowd-sourcing ideas (through ontario.ca/redtapechallenge) to reduce the amount of bureaucracy involved in pushing innovation forward.
Crowd-sourcing is a great way to get the ideas flowing, but in order to make changes, the paths to implementation need to be clear.

Undoubtedly, there are challenges to driving innovation in an environment that prides itself on the enforcement of rules and policies, and where budgets and frameworks need to be in place before proceeding. Governments are designed for stability. Bureaucracies have a bias toward analysis and structure. They start with resources in hand, work independently and autonomously, and focus on traditional metrics for results. This makes it a challenge to drive change. By contrast, entrepreneurs have a bias toward action. They make adjustments as they go, building teams and informal networks, and focusing on impact as a measure of success.

There are, however, global examples of new approaches to stimulating innovative creativity and change in government. Examples of this include policy incubators, alternative service delivery, and hackathons. The Red Tape Challenge is a perfect example. While organizational change requires attention to leadership, structures, reward systems, building a more risk-tolerant culture, and so on, at the end of the day, innovation is driven by individual changemakers.

Each member of OPS can start by adopting new strategies: building skills, using evidence to drive change, making time to dream and think (while focusing on doing), building a coalition of the willing and influencing peers, being accountable, and taking action.

The staff in attendance at the session came from all different sectors in the OPS, but the recurring theme was that there needed to be a change in the workplace culture to make innovation possible.

I challenged them all to reflect on how they could lead change. Simply by cutting the time they spent in meetings by 25 per cent, they free up the time to think about new ways to operate, read and reflect. Setting stretch targets, learning to take risks, and being resilient are key.

Encouraging the OPS to innovate means putting in place supports that encourage risk-taking and reward innovation. It means adopting an entrepreneurial approach that doesn’t strive for perfection but rather allows for quick adoption and the iteration of new strategies. Building flexibility into the OPS includes offering opportunities for creative thinking and allowing for constructs outside of the usual framework.

When we launched the Ryerson University Lifeline Syria, it happened because we had a fast-moving team that was willing to say “yes” when they could have said “no” within the usual constraints of university operations. Within months we had raised more than $4 million to help at least 90 Syrian refugee families settle in Southern Ontario. These successes can be replicated in government. Take, for example, the federal government’s approach to the Syrian refugee crisis. They set an ambitious goal without knowing how they were going to achieve it. They figured it out as they went along, missed their target by a couple of months, but the end result is that 25,000 Syrian refugees now call Canada home.

These are big examples, but sometimes change can be small. Implementing a change across the board can be difficult. Starting small and building toward a broader adoption can ease the transition. For instance, getting all hospitals to change protocols might be difficult, but choosing a select few to become the hospitals of the 21st century, and making them models for care that can be adopted throughout the province in stages could be a lot more effective.

Technology is creating an environment in which we have no choice but to innovate, but it’s not only the scientists and inventors who are making change happen. We might think that science, technology, engineering and math are the keys to driving innovation, but we cannot neglect the human side of things. Social sciences are necessary to support the adoption of innovation as they help us in changing how people think and in shaping organizational policies. And while there is an increasing focus on supporting small enterprises and fostering innovation in the private sector, I would argue that the scope needs to be broadened. Innovation in the public sector and in government is fundamental to Canada’s economic and social development.

At the end of the day, we only learn to innovate by doing. It’s not something that can be taught in a workshop. Giving the space and time for people to grow and be innovative, and creating a culture of doing, is crucial in our public sector if we want to move forward.