Innovation in the public service: The missing link


The individual employee and organizational levels of capability to develop, promote and harness innovative solutions have been ignored in many African public services despite a variety of reforms.

Aptly put, innovation has predominantly not been the language of public service. The hard-to-pin down concept of innovation is characterized by more scientific, research and technical connotations which align innovation to technology. Added to this is the portrayal of innovation as a monopoly of experts or a concern exclusively for competitive private sector.

Thus, innovation has often been viewed as a process of commercial exploitation or turning an idea, invention or discovery into a commercial product or service which consumers will purchase. Ultimately, this divorces innovation from the tool box for public service. It also fails to democratise or clarify that innovation beyond the commercial, technology world or domain of experts.


One is livid with this oblivion of public value derived from public service innovation (PSI)(for example, new and better ways of processing passport or driver`s license applications, new and mobile way of delivering eye care to rural citizens; speedy way of dealing with court cases, more effective ways of rehabilitating prisoners et cetera.). I am fully aware of many skeptics of public service innovation who remain adamant that this is just another fad.

They argue that public service cannot innovate. Conversely, I assert that a truly innovative public service is vitally important for citizens, government and public servants as demands are increasingly exceeding resources.

In a nutshell, the catalogue of impediments to any attempt to make PSI as a way of doing things include opposition of public sector to risk-taking and reluctance to upset traditions; anti-innovation due to indifference and also lack of enthusiasm on matters of innovation and unlearning; sacrosanct routines and a culture that is intolerant to questioning of the superiors by subordinates.


Often, one is also reminded of how public service is a unique, diverse, large and highly regulated environment where bureaucracy, task forces, procedures and hierarchy stifle innovations within and across departments, up and down the entire public service.

Some experienced public servants scare those people with intent to change things by warning them of how public service is a “politicized colossal structure”. In light of this, is it realistic to expect innovation to happen and flourish without deliberate effort and dedicated organization for innovation? Not at all.

Many people have simply given up on innovation or fixated on lamenting how the public sector environment is unsafe and disempowering for exploration of innovative alternatives. There is a huge need to find a way out to attain an innovative public service.David Smith in his book entitled, Exploring Innovation posits that the word innovation is traceable from Latin word “nova”, meaning new.

In essence, innovation is about bringing newness and significant improvement to operations or products, covering both content of the service and products, and the instruments to deliver them. In some instances, innovation may be about doing what we already do better; something completely new to the world; incremental improvement to a component or radical, system-level change.

Precisely, the Australian Public Service Innovation underscores that PSI is about the creation and implementation of new processes, products, services and methods of delivery which result in significant improvements in efficiency, effectiveness, or quality of outcomes of public service.

Focusing on ways of providing more quality public service with less resources, the Centre for Public Service Innovation in South Africa echoes that public service innovation is essentially about “new ideas or practices that work” and are adopted by others to make significant improvements towards meeting the needs of citizens and other key stakeholders. It is therefore important to ask: what is new; how new; to whom; whether it works; and ultimately, results in significant improvement.

However, any strategic effort to exploit the collectively innovative potential of our public service and its diverse stakeholders requires a systematic understanding of various components of an innovative organization.A rapid and holistic review of six building blocks of an innovative organization, namely values, behaviors, climate, resources, processes and success form a meaningful point of departureto inform what needs to be done to institutionalize public service innovation.

Arguably, values drive priorities and decisions in an organization. Generally, these are evident in how public sector spends its time, money and reward or punishes people. Truly innovative organizations spend generously on promoting exploration, creativity and encouraging continuous learning of new solutions. At the organizational and individual levels, it is important to ensure that values in Malawi public service purposely fuel identification and pursuit of opportunities to improve; creativity; and pursuit of novel solutions in a safe environment.Values such as tiweruke, meaning, lets steal big enough so that one will never seek employment again do not support innovation, are short-term and fundamentally unethical.

Behavior is much about how public service leaders act in the cause of innovation. In an innovative organization, leaders frequently energize, challenge, model the right innovative behaviors for others to follow, while devoting time to coach and provide feedback on innovative efforts of others.

This is difficult or impossible when many public servants and their leaders themselves are not trained on innovation. In innovative public service, leaders encourage and support followers at all levels or project teams to take initiative. This support is evident during success or failure.

Public service managers purposely help subordinates navigate around organizational obstacles and adversity. This underscores the value of innovation training for top and supervisory leaders throughout the public service. Thus, innovation excellence isthe new and prerequisite competence of every public service leader and employee, and also a key game changer.

With growing diversity and demand of needs against a thin envelope of resources, innovative ways of providing services are imperative. In the Civil Servant`s Senior Management Competency Framework of most African countries, innovation is excluded as a key competence expected of our people in public service. It is equally worrisome that training on innovation excellence or managing innovation is generally rare such that one wonders how innovation capabilities are being developed at various employee and organizational levels in the civil service.

Climate in the parlance of innovation refers to the mood of the workplace life. This constitutes safety, simplicity (minimum rules, rigidity, policies et cetera.) and collaboration.Essentially, collaboration requires acommunity with a common language about innovation. Diversity brings variety of perspectives and teamwork to diagnose problems and capture truly innovative solutions.

Leaders of public service need to demonstrate and also inculcate an open-minded, flexible and collaborative climate for innovation. How is our civil service doing on this aspect of innovative organization? Furthermore, resources as another building block of innovation refer to many aspects such as people and projects which are valuable to support and entrench innovative practices.

The notion of people as a resource is not just about committed leaders as champions of innovation. It is also about a community of well-organized, trained employeesas sources of innovation, innovation sponsors, adopters, and facilitators purposively engaged in innovation activities and innovation platforms in their respective workplaces.

Lack of this impedes how innovation can pervade and become a fabric of public service. In a nutshell, there is need for awhole communityof public servants and structures at various levels trained,challenged, engaged and supported to innovate. In terms of resource allocation or funding model, one may ask if the add-on or adjustment here or there type of budgeting process really provides room or adequate resources dedicated for innovation.

Is it not time that we change processes like these which do not accommodate innovation?Thus, how operating systems, strategy and structure support or impede people in the pursuit of innovation are all key elements of public service organizational capacity to innovate.

Interestingly, some governments (e.g. Australia, South Africa etc.) are increasingly forming and funding specialized public sector innovation agencies or structuresto provide dedicated, accountable, pragmaticsystem and resources; andorganizational support within the public service tobuild innovative capacity at different levels to engage in and to harness innovation.

Although it may not be in the same manner, it is sensible to purposely dedicate a structure, system and people to promote, champion, manage and develop innovative capacity for PSI in our country. I always wonder as which entity is responsible for scanning the environment, identifying and promoting public service innovations that are worth adopting in

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