How to tell the story of innovation in government departments

By Ed Bernacki

July 1, 2022

Innovation skills and capacity are crucial. (REDPIXEL/Adobe)

Discussing the ‘Future of Work’ opens a door to new ways of working and solving the challenges of serving the public. It means more options; people can work at home or in an office. What does not change, however, is what our organisations need people to do; that is, to innovate while they solve problems, make decisions, deal with change, and collaborate for results.

I worked in the public service and then specialised in organisational innovation. I saw how innovation was introduced in different countries and departments. The most successful innovation started by defining a story of what their successful organisation will look like when it is highly innovative. The unsuccessful created no story.

It is a communication challenge to simplify this to its essence and then build on it.  I helped shape a story for New Zealand Post as part of its Total Quality Service Team in the 1990s.  A simple sketch led to a graphic that expressed our vision. It fuelled the creation of guides, training, facilitation, and internal advisory services.   

Let me tell you a story

The story creates a guide to navigate for managers and staff. It defines tomorrow’s “common sense”, the way things are done in the organisation.  Consider the different stories these basic definitions tell (they are actual statements from two different countries). 

  • “Innovation is more than improvement. Improvements are important but innovations are like a quantum improvement that breaks new ground to create value in new ways.”  
  • “The point of innovation is not to do something new or something cool, it’s about improvement.” 

It is obvious that the future of work in these governments will be driven by different principles. Later in my career, I wrote two innovation guides in Singapore that offer useful lessons today. The country’s Ministry of Defence launched an ideas program as a ‘R.A.C.E.’ to innovation:   

  • Roadmap to Innovation 
  • Acknowledgment  
  • Communication 
  • Enabling Excellence 

This page illustrated the key elements of each stage.  


The Prime Minister’s Office was launching an innovation skills framework to build the capacity of public servants to innovate. The guide was part of a strategy to shape a new story about the potential of the public service to innovate. It went to 20,000 staff. It sent a signal that public service is open to new ideas and new solutions. 

  1. It offered a “jargon-free” explanation of the key concepts staff needed to know. 
  2. It launched an innovation skills model, the “Hand of Innovation”, with each finger being a skill. The open hand is team collaboration. Staff could take two to three days of courses in each skill.  
  3. It showcased case studies with the lesson each offered.  
  4. It tackled four myths of innovation that came up in staff discussions.   

Part of every change programme is to provide insights into new ways of working. It is also important to dispel any organisational myths that can stop people from believing that change is possible. I suspect that some of these myths would still be believed by staff and managers in many government Departments. Twenty years after these were published, our technologies have changed, but the need to design organisations that use these principles has not. It is worth considering how these descriptions would apply today:

Innovation cannot live in a large organisation

A large, bureaucratic organisation, with chains of command and levels of authority, would seem like the last place in which innovation could thrive. However, many large organisations are innovative in the way they solve problems, create opportunities and deal with change. The spirit of creativity lives in every organisation. The emphasis is on shaping the culture to be open to new thinking. Any organisation that is open to new ideas, encourages its people to seek better solutions to its challenges, is confident to experiment, and encourages and rewards innovative ideas will be “innovative” in servicing its customers. 

Innovation cannot be managed   

Innovation can be managed. The very essence of all innovation is people using their creative potential to develop new ideas. The degree of motivation that drives people to want to innovate relates to their perception of the organizational climate around them. People know whether it’s safe to challenge the existing ways of doing things — it’s up to the organisation to create such a climate. Management must shape an environment that‘s open to new thinking and based on trust. They must protect those who raise new ideas because innovation takes a culture based on trust, not control. 

Innovation is not for everyone  

It is a myth that creativity is a gift that a few people have. The potential resides in every public officer. While an individual may not produce radical innovation every day, it is natural to think of better ways to do things. We can unleash this natural creative spirit to make innovation second nature in the public service. Training can enhance our creativity by giving us new tools to understand the innovation process and how to use it. Innovation is relevant and even crucial to the public sector.  The challenge is to focus innovation in the areas of services, processes, and policies.

Innovation cannot be measured   

It is said that innovation is the act of thinking outside of the box. If so, then a system of measurement is the box that limits its range and the lid that cuts off its creative oxygen. The problem is not with measurement, but with the effective communication of the measures. It’s not to penalise, but to enable through continual improvement of our means of facilitation. Innovation can be measured if the purpose is to remove the barriers that hinder it and nurture those factors that encourage it. We measure to understand our progress.

The future of work requires staff to feel empowered to solve the challenges of serving the public. Regardless of our technologies, people must solve problems, create new initiatives, and deal with change. To do so, we must build the skills and capacity of staff and organisations to solve these challenges and a culture that supports staff.

This article is reproduced from Apolitical.  


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