By Dimis Michaelides
THE WORLD has embraced innovation. More and more people are imagining and implementing new and valuable things at a relentlessly accelerating pace. Can governments, given the absence of competition, be creative too?
Of course they can! Governments have put man on the moon, invented the worldwide web, astonishing education and health care systems and services and highly creative ways of taxing their citizens. The role of innovation in the public sector is potentially immense, for the governments and people that actively embrace it.
Here are two broad ways by which public innovation can add immense value:
- Supporting innovation in the forms of Entrepreneurship, Research and Development, and through NGOs and private business.
- Actively innovating in the Civil Service and state owned enterprises. Health, Education, Social policy, and indeed all units, departments, divisions, every nook and cranny of government is a potential innovation powerhouse.
The objectives and operations of government departments are widely different. Although the type of innovation is likely to be different in every case, the things that drive innovation are quite similar: understanding and developing creativity (people’s talent, energy and creative method), setting up structures for innovation (targets, system that involve individuals in creative teamwork) and nourishing cultures that will sustain innovation (offering support for ideas, freedom, engagement, humour and coming to terms with risk).
In Cyprus the public sector has been changing and most people today do not work in the same way as they did thirty years ago. The pace of change though has been slow. Public employees will be the first to admit that the factors hindering innovation far outweigh those promoting it. This does not have to be so.
The starting point has to be a leadership mindset which values innovation and actively champions change. Does Cyprus have what it takes?
Resistance to innovation can be particularly tough in government. Here are the main obstacles to innovation as expressed by about 500 senior government employees who attended my seminars over the last 12 months.
- Innovation is not valued by politicians or civil servants
- There is a strong fear of change at all levels
- There is little understanding of what innovation means and how it fits in departments’ deliverables and people’s work
- Lack of trust and lack of fairness make any collaboration difficult
- The people with most power are close to retirement and have no reason to embrace innovation
- Excessive bureaucracy impedes or delays implementation of anything significantly new
- Risk taking is discouraged and strong blame is attached to mistakes and failures
These are not very different from obstacles to innovation cited in private companies. However some of these may be overwhelming in government. Unlike private organisations who, menaced by extinction, are obliged to innovate or die, governments do not have the same incentive to embrace innovation. In Cyprus the stimulus for change in the civil service has been slow and often external – conditions for EU entry, EU regulations, conditions set by international lenders. Without such stimuli innovation will be slower, though one hopes that people will complain about poor public services, parents about poor education etc and, after a certain point, their voices may actually begin to matter.
All of the above obstacles can be addressed and resolved. Many a company and many a government have done so. But unless both politicians and civil servants appreciate the value of innovation in government and open their mind to deep change, innovation will be a hard call for all. The troika (our lenders in crisis) can spark the process, but it cannot do all our work for us.
Workshops with senior public employees have shown me that amidst the cynicism there is hope too, and that a momentum is indeed beginning to build. Amidst a few cries of despair (“all change is impossible, the establishment had created an unjust and ineffective system that they will always want to preserve” – everyone has his pet peeve to support this) there are also people who are taking personal responsibility for leading for change.
Let’s imagine a possible way of putting this momentum to best use with a Public Innovation Drive a simple top down approach which makes everyone accountable for delivering innovation. Here’s how it might unfold.
The President of the Republic asks all ministers to innovate so as to rapidly improve service to the public and society and to keep doing so on a continuous basis. He asks for a progress report every quarter and sets up a (very small) Innovation Squad with experts to support the innovation process, including the Academy for Public Administration. The first innovation targets and metrics are defined. Some ministers whine but the President wins them over.
Each minister asks the permanent secretary and all department heads to have intelligent conversations on the meaning of innovation for each ministry and each of its departments. The Innovation Squad offers key know how on creativity and innovation as well as expert facilitative support. Each Department sets its own innovation goals and reports on progress every quarter. Innovative teams are set up to confront specific innovation challenges. Serious procedural and legal obstacles to innovation are tackled with the support of the Innovation Squad. There are prizes for the most innovative plans and the most innovative results. Ministers are unafraid to take controversial or provocative change decisions proposed by their people. More public employees are won over to the cause.
President and ministers have a bragging session every quarter to show off innovation results in their ministries. Big, concerted efforts are made to overcome common obstacles. Results, big and small are openly publicised. The Innovation Squad creates a buzz, perhaps with a dedicated newsletter on PIP – Public Innovation in Practice. It also helps keep track of progress with good metrics and follow up.
To avoid cronyism or sterile politics, trust is measured in every department and ministry by independent professionals every six months. Unions are invited to generate employee driven innovation themselves. Where appropriate, ideas are gathered from citizens, companies and NGOs too. Innovation momentum grows.
Innovation targets are redefined from time to time along with operational and strategic targets. Systems to collect, evaluate and implement new ideas are established. There will be occasional mistakes and failures. These should be openly acknowledged and celebrated. Systems are modified and improved. Every public servant understands perfectly well that innovation is expected from him/her.
And so the Cyprus civil service becomes an innovative, learning organisation in which everybody is accountable for innovation, seriously.
Utopia? I don’t think so, but the truth can only be found in action. Is the newly appointed Commissioner for Civil Service Reform ready to play the role of Innovation Squad? Mr President dear ministers and commissioners, are you ready to begin?
Dimis Michaelides is Managing Director of Performa Consulting – a consulting and training company whose work is centered around creativity and innovation. He is also a member of the Board of Trustees of the Creative Education Foundation (USA) and author of The Art of Innovation – Integrating Creativity in Organizations, hailed as a “Bible for 21st Century CEOs”