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Article Article February 15th, 2018

12 Top Tips: How to strengthen innovation in government

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Innovation often occurs in "an actual space where people walk into it and feel different, this encourages something new," says @StephAWade

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Innovation is about "people’s ability to think on the spot, think of new ideas and create an environment for innovation" says @TonyFernandes

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"Organisations should start with the question 'how do you want to work?'" and not rely on technology, says @EddieCopeland of @Nesta_UK

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Innovation. Rarely does one word resonate so strongly across different sectors and yet still mean different things to different people and organisations. What's clearer, though, is that governments have been striving to improve how they innovate and try new ideas - to varying degrees of success. To help improve their innovative impact, we present 12 Top Tips from leaders we have previously spoken to from around the world.

1. User first and always

Nicholas Gruen, CEO of Lateral Economics and chair of the Open Knowledge Foundation

"The world is very different when you look at it from the users' perspective, rather than that of the professionals. Every social policy issue should be tackled with this question in mind: ‘Where is the perspective of the people who we are trying to help being missed out?'"

2. Be responsive

Phaedra Chrousos, former chief customer officer and commissioner of the Technology Transformation Service at the General Services Administration

"In the end, innovation is just responsiveness - responsiveness to your environment or to changing technology or to your customer base."

3. Sell the successes

Sonal Shah, former director of the director of the US Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation 

"Once we find successes, we need to learn why they succeeded and then be more vocal - spread the knowledge.  If we can sell more toothpaste, why can't we sell good outcomes! We need to be able to tell those stories more effectively. This means not only spotlighting what happened, but also how they achieved success."

4. It's all about people

Tony Fernandes, group CEO of Air Asia

"Innovation comes in many different shapes and forms, but I think what is key is to allow people to innovate and to encourage great ideas. When people think of innovation they tend to think of new technologies, but, really, innovation is people, and people's ability to think on the spot, think of new ideas and create an environment for innovation."

5. Manage outcomes, not activities

Shelley Metzenbaum, former director of performance and personnel management at the US Office of Management and Budget

"It is easier to manage what government does - such as the number of permits issued, inspections conducted, students taught, miles of road repaired, and number of contracts, grants, or regulations completed - than what it seeks to accomplish. Over-emphasising activities inhibits the inclination to innovate. People will do what they already know how to do rather than continually searching for the right kind and mix of activities to accomplish more mission for the money and adapt to different situations."

6. Steer clear of compromise

Alenka Bonnard, director and co-founder of Staatslabor

"A culture that encourages compromise is very beneficial in some ways, but it can also prevent radical proposals from emerging, because ideas get diluted very easily."

7. Think creatively

Alan Iny, senior global specialist for creativity and scenarios, The Boston Consulting Group

"Policymakers need to start from a clear understanding of the problem they are trying to solve and of their existing ‘boxes' - assumptions, constraints and perspectives. Only then can creativity techniques like brainstorming prove useful."

8. Listen to the practitioners

Pierre Schoonraad, head of research and development at South Africa's Centre for Public Service Innovation 

"I can't tell a medical doctor how to innovate - the best way is to get the practitioners themselves to do the innovating. So we need to build and facilitate a culture and environment for them to be able to do so. We do this through knowledge-sharing and facilitating processes and people - bringing them together to identify best practices and help create new solutions."

9. Use neutral third parties

Alexandra Conliffe, director, of the Policy Innovation Platform at The Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship

"Innovation is really about experimenting and finding new ways of developing policy, bringing unusual experts to the table and thinking of new ways to conduct the traditional policymaking process. This is already happening in many ways in governments of all levels across Canada and globally. But what neutral third parties like ours can do is help take on some of that risk and reach out to people that governments can't sometimes access. We have a little more flexibility - we can move faster and more nimbly, because when we experiment, it doesn't have to go up and down a hierarchy of approval."

10. Don't start with technology

Eddie Copeland, head of government innovation at NESTA

"Technology is an amazing enabler of new things, but organisations should start with the question ‘how do you want to work?' and not think that this is something that can be outsourced or delegated to some IT experts. You can't get yourself off the hook like that. What they need is to ask whether a fundamentally better operating model for delivering a particular service can be enabled by technology - rather than being driven by it."

11. Change your surroundings

Stephanie Wade, former director of the Innovation Lab at the US Office of Personnel and Management

"A physical space communicates something different to an employee. This is more powerful than just simply sending an email asking people to be more innovative. That kind of thing doesn't really signal change with much intent behind it. But when you create an actual space where people walk into it and feel different, this encourages people to try something new. We want them to believe that anything is possible and that no idea is a bad idea."

12. Work against a risk-averse culture

Virginia Hill, former President of Young Government Leaders

"We can pilot programmes and work with citizens to come up with unique solutions, but what impedes our effectiveness is that even a small failure can hit the front page and draw a lot of negative attention to both people and programmes. This makes for a very risk-averse culture. Government is afraid of failing publicly - and rightfully so, after what has been said about public servants in the media. It will take a lot of work to improve this culture of risk aversion."

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