Innovation can happen in the public sector

The public sector is facing constraints on program delivery mainly because of freezes in government expenditure. Nonetheless, there are increasing demands on the delivery of government programs in-spite of these budget freezes. There are numerous cries from inside and outside the public sector for workplace renewal. It is a call to arms to change how the work is accomplished.

There are those who argue that to change the way we work, we need new funding so that the old work can continue while new ways are developed. However, I believe in the old expression that “necessity is the mother of invention”. John Donahue who wrote Making Washington Work found that most innovations in government came from those who had extra pressures. Innovations came from organizations that had glaring gaps between the mission and its performance with no prospect of budget relief. He concludes that the pressures made the status quo sufficiently untenable and intolerable internally that leaders became “desperate enough to listen to the oddballs, liberate the misfits and try some long shots”.

So where are these people who can champion the innovations? It was found that fifty-five percent of Canadian and forty-five percent of U.S. middle manager and front-line worker career public servants were the most frequent initiators of innovation. It is because these are the people who know the issues implicitly, can explore the problems and arrive at solutions. In fact, in fifty percent of cases, the most frequent catalyst for innovation was internal problems such as resources and budget constraints.

When Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, wanted to renew his workplace, he called upon small groups of middle manager and front-line workers to find better ways of doing things. His Work-Out program was hugely successful because it built trust. It gave workers a channel through which they could talk about what concerned them at work and change the way things were done.

The times are right for innovation to happen in the public sector. In many countries, government budget are frozen or reduced leading to pressures for workplace renewal. Innovative approaches can emerge if the middle-managers and front-line workers are empowered to contribute to that effort.


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