Why government should innovate, and how to do it

Why government should innovate, and how to do it

Government is constantly on the backs of private sector organizations to innovate. We suggest government take a dose of its own medicine and embrace innovation.

The secret's out

In Working Paper 23, A place to grow, we showed that the Ontario government provides numerous supports to increase business investment. To some extent, this is a good thing. We all benefit when businesses invest money and try new things. Innovation can advance product quality and improve labour productivity. These factors make an economy more competitive and, ultimately, prosperous.

But we often shy away from making the same demands of the public sector.

Maybe we don’t think there are benefits of an innovative government. But that’s not true – innovation can boost policy design, strengthen the policy process, and refine policy implementation. 

For example, Ontario is applying behavioural insights into the design of public documents, such as the Gift of Life Consent Form, to align peoples’ beliefs with their behaviour. Companies like Google recognize that they will be world leaders only if they build internal capacity to innovate. Building bigger policy silos is becoming the new normal in places like Denmark, where ministerial bodies, private firms, institutional investors, and advocacy organizations are co-creating public services.

Live and let innovate

Innovation is not an end in itself – the overarching objective is to yield actionable options that improve public services.

Peoples' ability to access information alters their expectations and sparks a desire to be involved in policy-making. At the same time, fiscal austerity and “wicked” policy problems strain government budgets.

This is why government needs to create space for policy-makers, stakeholders, and delivery agencies to innovate.

Government needs a licence to innovate

Less than half of policy professionals in the Ontario Public Service feel innovation is valued in their work unit. This is likely due to a weak appetite for risk, lack of strong leadership, and minimal dedicated resources.

Failure to innovate carries its own costs. Governments that don’t innovate miss opportunities to deliver more effective and efficient public services.

Mission possible

Ontario has taken steps to enhance innovation. But more can be done.

We recommend that the government:

  • Integrate innovation to counter the risk-averse culture. Building innovation into core government activities signals that it is desirable and acceptable.
  • Revise funding frameworks and apply behavioural insights to boost policy design. Adopting a mission-driven approach and testing behavioural models fosters collaboration and enhances innovation.
  • Develop internal capacity and modify engagement to strengthen the policy process. Upgrading the human capital of the Ontario Public Service as well as genuine public engagement builds internal capacity and fosters a culture that is open to change.
  • Revitalize relations with delivery agencies and streamline services to refine policy implementation. Broadening service provider mandates and creating bigger policy silos incentivizes innovation and shares resources.
  • Monitor government innovation to advance accountability. Evaluating the context, inputs, outputs, and outcomes associated with innovation ensures responsible use of public resources. The Institute calls on the Auditor General and opposition parties to periodically assess government innovation.
Category: Innovation, Public Policy