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Article Article July 20th, 2022
Delivery • Innovation

Beyond the hype: exploring what transformation in government really means

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In this @CPI_foundation article, @theasnow & @piacandrews explore the differences & relationships between 'open and digital government' and 'reimagining government', and where they are most useful.

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What is the the role, purpose, and relationship between iteration, innovation, transformation, and imagination in government? Together, @theasnow & @piacandrews explore and come to a shared conclusion.

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"Whether you are iterating, innovating, or transforming, you need to build capacity into your planning, and adopt some ‘servant leadership’ into your senior executive to empower everyone in your organisation." @theasnow @piacandrews

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The word “transformation” is experiencing a zeitgeist in government at the moment. We hear people talking about “digital transformation”, “systems transformation”, “cultural transformation” and more. But what does the word transformation actually mean? And what happened to the term “innovation”’, which seemed to be the buzz word not all that long ago? 

With Pia's background in open and digital government, and Thea's focus on exploring what it means to reimagine government, we recently connected over a shared interest in exploring the differences and relationships between these terms -- as well as iteration and imagination -- and where these are most useful to people working in and around government. We were interested in better understanding:

  • Should we always be striving for transformation, or is iteration sometimes a desirable path?

  • If it is appropriate to pursue different approaches in different contexts, how might we know which approach to pursue?

  • What’s the relationship between these approaches?

What follows is a joint exploration between us about the role, purpose and relationship between iteration, innovation, transformation and imagination in government.

What is iteration?

“Iteration” can be a confusing term, because it is used in both positive and negative ways. On one hand, ‘iterative development’ is a characteristic of Agile. It refers to the idea that you build functional new features (stories) one at a time starting with a Minimum Viable Product. In this way, iteration is good because you can get your product/service out to your users early, and the iterative and continuous improvement of that service means it is continuously usable as new features are added, with testing every step making it more user-friendly. 

It refers to the idea that you build functional new features (stories) one at a time starting with a Minimum Viable Product.

Iteration as a development principle is wonderful because it avoids the common historical pitfall of trying to build everything up front and resulting in an untested or disfunctional system. But iterative development doesn’t make up the shape or start with the status quo. Iterative development is necessarily best complemented with service design, and it is in the design work where the shape is formed, through the development of a design blueprint and future state service you can iterate towards.

But iteration is not always seen as being universally positive. I often say if you only offer people two rocks, how will they ever choose a spoon? You could certainly iterate hundreds of rounds of A/B user testing to get there, as they choose the more spoon-ish rock each time, but it is quite an inefficient pathway to help them eat their soup. Herein lies the opportunity and challenge of iteration. Iteration improves the path you are already on, but doesn’t change the destination. When you start with an existing shape of something, then iteration will only get you a small deviation from that shape each time. So even with the continuous testing, development and delivery that iteration provides, how do you know you have the right shape?

What is innovation?

Apolitical defines government innovation as “the process of implementing new approaches to tackle old problems, with the goal of helping public services better serve citizens.” Seems neat, right? If only it were that easy.

The word “innovation” - particularly in a government context - can be varied and confusing. While many tend to associate innovation with digital technologies, digital government experts tend to stress that innovation rests not in the new technologies but in the cultural and organisational change that must accompany the new technologies

In addition, the Observatory of Public Sector Innovation resists a simple definition of innovation, instead offering four facets:

  • Enhancement-oriented innovation

  • Mission-oriented innovation

  • Anticipatory innovation

  • Adaptive innovation

However, while we could spend hours debating the nuances and subtleties of how to define innovation, we believe that innovation - at its core - describes a new way of doing things within the existing paradigm. Innovation is certainly about disruption and new ideas, but it is a “constrained disruption”, limited by the (often invisible) mindsets, frameworks and rules which shape the current system.

What is transformation (and what is it not)?

Transformation is choosing a new destination to work towards, and identifying the major changes required to get there.

If iteration is improving the way you’re navigating the current path, and innovation is developing a new mode of travel, transformation is choosing a new destination to work towards, and identifying the major changes required to get there.

If you don’t have a different target state, then what are you transforming into? A caterpillar doesn’t iterate its way to being a butterfly. At some critical point, and after plenty of preparation, the caterpillar creates a cocoon in which to fundamentally change itself, and it emerges as a completely new type of animal. It transforms into a butterfly, it doesn’t just strap wings on and hope to fly!

Transformation can be characterised as having a clear future state model which is fundamentally different from the current model (ideally this vision is created with staff, stakeholders and citizens), with a clear plan on how to get there from today. You can certainly then iterate towards this future state, but iteration without a different future state can never be transformative. Digitisation of an existing process may make it more efficient, more productive, more accurate etc, but it hasn’t fundamentally changed the outcome; just the delivery.

What are the differences between iteration, innovation, and transformation?

A shorthand way to differentiate between these three forms of change is:

  • Iteration is usually described as faster, better, cheaper, more, less, with unilateral value. Change is measured in degrees.

  • Transformation is described in the context of a different end state, or a systemic solution, or a different way of achieving the purpose or mandate, with multilateral value. Change is measured in factors.

  • Innovation is the toolkit of techniques, frameworks, culture, ways of working and planning approaches that help us move from where we are to where we want to be. Examples like design thinking, servant leadership, building thinking/innovation time into the business as usual resource plan, and engaging the public in policy co-design.

Pia Andrews’ scaling innovation and transformation Pia Andrews’ scaling innovation and transformation

What is the relationship between iteration, innovation and transformation?

Bill Sharpe’s Three Horizons model offers a helpful framework for understanding the relationship between iteration, innovation and transformation. This framework describes three possible types of change:

  • Horizon 1 (H1): Business as usual (i.e. no change)

  • Horizon 2 (H2): Disruption/modifications to existing processes

  • Horizon 3 (H3): A radical rethinking and reshaping of existing processes and paradigms

Within H2, there are two different types of change:

  • H2 minus disruptions - those that disrupt the status quo, but then result in a reversion to business as usual (i.e. back to H1)

H2 plus disruptions - those that disrupt the status quo in a way which catalyses fundamental systems shifts.

Image from the International Training Centre Foresight Toolkit Image from the International Training Centre Foresight Toolkit

Using this model, we can see the relationship between iteration (H2 minus); innovation (H2 plus) and transformation (H3).

The first thing required in a change program is analysis of, or development of, the future state target model. Only when you can see clearly the destination can you decide whether iteration on the existing path is sufficient, or whether you need to change direction or build something completely new. Every change program should be able to clearly articulate where iteration is sufficient, and where transformation is necessary.

What about imagination?

At CPI, we talk about “reimagining government”, so it is also interesting to think about where imagination fits into this model.

It feels like imagination and transformation are tightly interlinked. Creating new “visions for the future state”, which Pia describes above, requires both individual and collective imagination. However, as Geoff Mulgan has recently argued, we are experiencing a profound deficit of social imagination.

In order to envision new futures, we need to release ourselves from the constraints of what has come before. In order to shape new paradigms, we need to think audaciously and creatively; we need to apply new patterns of thinking. As Gloria Steinem offered, “Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning.”


Do you always need transformation? No, of course not. Is iteration sufficient to position the public sector to respond to the complex challenges of our times? Also no. You ideally need both, which means purposefully creating space for both in your programs, projects and resource planning.

And where does innovation come in? Innovation provides new techniques, methods, mindsets and ways of working in order to achieve both iteration and transformation. Using the same tools will result in the same outcome, we need to explore and try new tools to get new outcomes.

Perhaps our biggest barrier is the reality of everyone working 100% on the latest urgent thing? All the intention in the world will not deal with the two key barriers to innovation: capacity and authority. If you don’t create capacity, make some actual time to innovate, then you are asking people to innovate on their own time and under duress. If you don’t have time to think, how can you have time to change? On authority, if you don’t empower people to make decisions and take ownership, then you will collectively only work as fast and as brave as the person at the top. So delegating authority, empowering and encouraging your people is critical to supporting a bottom up innovative culture that is more capable, productive and confident to change, whether for iteration OR transformation. So whether you are iterating, innovating or transforming, you need to build some capacity into your programme and project planning, and you need to adopt some ‘servant leadership’ into your senior executive to empower everyone in your organisation.

Delegating authority, empowering and encouraging your people is critical to supporting a bottom up innovative culture that is more capable, productive and confident to change, whether for iteration OR transformation.

Arguably, most government organisations are still operating roughly in the shape they were originally built, with all the levers and agility of an industrial era, but without a genuine future vision for how might they meet their mandate in a digital world. Technology has been used to shift from paper to online forms (iteration), and to create new forms of engagement via online channels (innovation), but it is interesting to consider how much has the vision or operating model changed? Many departments are the caterpillar who realise they urgently need to fly, but rather than transforming into a flying creature, they desperately attach wings to a shape unfit for flight. In other words, they are largely stuck on a path, and in a shape that is not fit for purpose.

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