Have your say: OECD group drafts commitments to public sector innovation

By Stephen Easton

Friday February 8, 2019

An OECD body is working on a declaration that would see signatories commit to public sector innovation, and improve the common understanding of what it actually means.

A draft declaration has been prepared by the Observatory of Public Sector Innovation, a subsidiary of the international body, and is open to contributions from public servants for two more weeks.

If adopted unchanged, it would have ministers from member nations pledge to “embrace and enhance” innovation in government agencies, and agree it is every public servant’s responsibility to play a role.

That doesn’t mean every public servant should be an innovator; their role could be to receive, support or even resist novel approaches in public policy and implementation.

Ministers from OECD states would promise to support the development of the necessary skills, capabilities, structures and processes for their bureaucrats to innovate, to “cultivate new partnerships and involve diverse voices” and produce a wider range of policy options by exploring the unknown through testing and iteration.

Signatories would also commit to sharing the “lessons, experiences and outcomes” of public sector innovation in communities of practice — and with the general public — in an effort to create “feedback loops” of continuous learning between government agencies and society at large.

Comments and suggestions on the proposed commitments from anyone are welcome until February 22, and the Australian Public Service Commission encourages federal bureaucrats to have their say: “This is an opportunity for you to shape the principles, ensure they reflect our views and are relevant to the Australian context.”

OECD declarations are legal instruments whereby member states commit to general principles or long-term goals rather than specific actions.

The draft includes an eight-point rationale for having a declaration, which runs far longer than the proposed commitments themselves, but serves to explain a series of nine statements in a preamble to the declaration that signatories would “recognise” officially.

“The public sector cannot be a stranger to innovation,” the OPSI researchers argue, on the basis that “today, governments operate in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous contexts” while citizens have new expectations and want to be more closely involved in decision-making.

While governments are already latching on to innovation, an OECD declaration would help them “deepen their understanding of what innovation is and cultivate a more considered, deliberate approach toward it,” according to the rationale.

The OECD’s innovation boffins suggest governments struggle to “embed” innovation because their agencies don’t feel the same pressure as private-sector organisations, and since novel approaches are often disruptive while continuous, incremental improvement is more common in public policy.

Innovation is not just doing something better, but doing it in a different way, which leads to “tension with current values, processes or shared notions of what is ‘acceptable’ or ‘best’ practice” and therefore, the need for a different management approach, the OPSI suggests.

The proposed principle that every public servant should be prepared for innovation is based on the idea that “it is not possible to know with confidence where innovation will or should happen, or how it will unfold.”

The rationale notes that in the public sector, various forces push against innovation — “existing structures and processes, vested interests, the simple default of the status quo” — while other influences like a change of government or a sudden crisis can create an abrupt and powerful need to think outside the box.

The argument for an OECD declaration includes having a more deliberate, systematic approach that reflects contemporary challenges and aims to harness innovation in four ways: to improve and upgrade existing programs; to find new ways of fulfilling existing missions; to adapt to changing circumstances; and to engage with what is coming over the horizon, which often involves the most radical change.

The OECD’s innovation subsidiary favours a “portfolio approach” maintained by ongoing investment and support for specific work towards reinforcing and maintaining an innovation system. This requires collaborative governance:

“Becoming ‘innovation ready’ may threaten traditional hierarchies where control is centralised, as innovation readiness relies on empowerment throughout the system.”

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