Cyprus Mail

Does innovation in the public sector have to be slow?

Biz Dimis Queuing Up At The Tax Office In Nicosia
File photo

by Dimis Michaelides

It has been said that technology moves at 1,000 kph, private companies at 100 kph and public administrations at 10 kph.

The myth that innovation is only for the private sector persists in many people’s minds. They forget who put man on the moon, invented the internet, designed some of the world’s finest health systems and who is still funding some of the world’s most ground-breaking research.

Transformation in the way governments work does not have to be slow, but here are some reasons why it may be so:

  • Archaic dogma: public administrations were created to give a sense of continuity and they have grown as the role of the state has grown. In the minds of their creators they were not supposed to change even as governments may change. This myth is still strong in many people’s minds.
  • Archaic legal frameworks: sometimes the establishment and existence of public bodies are embedded in national constitutions which are legally horrendously difficult to modify
  • Archaic structures: they are often bureaucracies run by silos within silos, which was fine, until the last century
  • Archaic contracts: in many countries civil servants are for life unless they are caught stealing something
  • Seniority cultures: instead of the best and brightest, the ones with most years of service get the promotions. And so, the top brass that is supposed to lead change is too close to retirement to care. Worse still, there is little recruitment from the private sector in senior positions
  • Conniving cultures: malfunctions become endemic when parties in power appoint and promote their own people. Any bureaucrat worth his salt will stall controversial change for fear that the next government will attack those who helped the present government make changes
  • No competition: there is no other large organisation, no tech-savvy agile start-up to threaten their survival.
  • Archaic know-how: public servants are recruited based on their education and specialised exams. These are clearly inadequate tools for the future. Citizens and organisations are better served by civil servants who embrace new learning that helps their mindsets evolve

Of course not all countries are alike and all the above can be confronted with inspiring leadership and imagination. I attended the Creative Problem-solving Institute (an annual weeklong teaching conference) for about a dozen consecutive years in the US and there were always people from the Municipality of Amsterdam. No wonder it is such a well-managed modern city.

Acceleration in public sector learning is a better starting point than waiting for a crisis to force change. Such learning must involve digitalisation, artificial intelligence, innovation, environmental sensitivity as well as leadership, communication, collaboration, creativity and learning about change itself. There should be much more of it and it should be continuous, for life.

Other instigators of change in public administrations might come from emulation of other countries and from pressures from citizens whose own personal lives have been made easier by private technologies which are widely available such as online banking, payments and commerce.

The pace of 50 kph is surely possible and more desirable than 10 kph.


Dimis Michaelides is a keynote speaker, consultant, author and trainer on leadership creativity and innovation. See or contact [email protected]

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