In a room filled with current and former federal public servants, many of whom have occupied the highest ranks of the federal government, and all of whom could rattle off a list of war stories that illustrate the need to modernize the public service, it was an audience comment from a Trudeau Scholar that underscored why public sector innovation — the topic that kicked off the last day of the 2015 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation conference — is worthy of our attention.

An alumna of the youth-in-care system herself and now a PhD student in social work at McGill University, Melanie Doucet raised the tragic case of the New Brunswick teen Ashley Smith, who eventually committed suicide in a federal prison in 2007 after spending five years within an uncoordinated and underresourced system of provincial and federal youth, mental health and corrections programs.

As Doucet spoke, the distracted put down their smartphones, and when she finished, the room sat in silence. For those audience members who were not themselves involved in the public service (a group who, if we’re being honest, were likely not immediately intrigued at the prospect of a panel talk on public sector innovation), the reference to Ashley Smith made abundantly clear why the effectiveness of our public sector institutions matters. More accurately, this case reminded us that when the public sector fails, these failures amount to more than the stereotype of inefficient paper pushing, red tape and hierarchy (although they’re an important part of the problem). Rather, these failures matter because they can directly impact the quality of life of our most vulnerable citizens.

This theme of failure or, more precisely, governments’ fear of failure dominated the discussion that preceded Doucet’s intervention. The Mowat Centre’s Mark Jarvis, now with the federal government, quoted a former adviser to a Canadian prime minister, who explained bluntly that historically the political leaders under whom the public service has operated have had zero tolerance for failure.  This is partially fuelled by 24/7 “gotcha” journalism, but also by the perception that the public itself will be out for blood should any government failure be exposed. At the same time, the failure to innovate has never been a hot-button issue on which governments’ political success hinges. In this context, the incentives suggest governments should “stay the course,” no matter how fraught that course might be. And therein lies the essence of the public sector innovation paradox: experimentation and a willingness to divert from the status quo are at once the innovation-enabling conditions that can prevent failures before they arise, and also the very characteristics absent among failure-fearing public sector bureaucracies.

This is the paradox with which the federal government is grappling as it seeks to implement its new policy innovation initiative, instigated by the work of the Deputy Minister Committee on Policy Innovation and supported by the government’s current modernization effort, Blueprint 2020, along with a series of departmental innovation labs. Drawing on their experiences in organizations that are globally renowned for their innovative approaches to public policy and services, the two imports on the panel — Kit Lykketoft of MindLab, a Danish cross-government innovation unit, and Tiina Likki of the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team — had much advice to share with those in Ottawa currently tasked with implementing the policy innovation agenda across the federal government.

Lykketoft and Likki suggested that rather than pursuing the vague and ambitious goal of generating an “innovative culture” in government (a goal that has either explicitly or implicitly been at play in the numerous modernization efforts that the Canadian government has undertaken since the 1960s), innovative approaches to policy and services are best pursued initially through small projects that focus on well-defined problems. “Agile” is a current buzzword in public sector innovation circles, and with good reason — by working incrementally, adjusting approaches as you learn from what works (and what doesn’t) and then scaling successful approaches more broadly, you can avoid the costly failures that come with large, multiyear projects lacking appropriate feedback mechanisms and the potential for on-the-fly course corrections. Here, you create a safe space for bureaucrats fearing the potential failures that accompany diversions from the status quo by experimenting in ways that minimize the reach and long-term impact of failures. With time, pockets of innovation in the bureaucracy will produce the success stories that both legitimize unconventional approaches and provide the scalable solutions that other units can adopt.

More fundamentally, however, the experience at MindLab and the Behavioural Insights Team suggests that a capacity for innovation within the public service hinges in large part on support for innovation from outside the public service. Lykketoft noted that MindLab’s success is a function of the Danish people’s trust in government; this trust allows for a more open and frank discussion about the need for, and challenges of, innovation in the public service, a discussion that legitimizes MindLab’s work among citizens and politicians alike. Likewise, Likki observed that the Behavioural Insights Team benefits from strong prime ministerial support for its unconventional approaches to policy and services, but also that it earns this support by clearly demonstrating how these approaches reduce costs while improving government’s effectiveness.

Mandate letters recently issued by newly minted Prime Minister Trudeau encourage cabinet ministers to foster innovation and experimentation in their departments, and explicitly state not only that the public service is allowed to make mistakes, but that Canadians will be tolerant of mistakes as long as they are acknowledged transparently. This provides the political leadership that can fuel innovation, but this top-level direction nonetheless remains largely rhetorical. In practical terms, these ambitions will be achieved only if the new federal ministers give their managers unequivocal orders to support innovative initiatives in their departments, and make clear that they are open to the risks that can accompany diversions from the status quo. Perhaps more importantly, ministers must ensure that managers are held to account if status quo approaches endure without good justification, and that efforts to foster innovation are appropriately rewarded. In other words, ministers should recognize that the current cadre of leaders in the federal public service — bred as they have been in a risk-averse culture that inhibits innovation — must be offered a new set of incentives if they are to support innovation as they go forward.

Finally, citizens will need to do their part if we are to cultivate a more innovative federal government. As voters, we need to put public sector innovation on the radar of our political leaders and political parties; if reform efforts promising innovation failed in the past, perhaps it was partially because the political cost for failure was so low. We also need to demand improvements when we come face to face with inefficient and ineffective public services or flawed policies.  If we can’t find a way to communicate this feedback to government, then we need to demand those feedback loops as well.

More tricky will be creating a thoughtful tolerance among the public for the kinds of trial and error approaches that will accompany innovation in the public sector, tricky because the public should still rightfully scrutinize governments when significant errors do arise, such as those at play in the case of Ashley Smith. Here, the bureaucracy has an important role to play. Efforts to support innovation need not happen behind closed doors. Both MindLab and the Behavioural Insights Team openly and frankly discuss their work in blogs that are authored by their staff, using their real names and photos. These blogs invite the public to better understand the goals of innovation, to appreciate the constraints that public servants face when they attempt to integrate new approaches into their work and to recognize the steps public servants take to identify and manage the risks that accompany diversions from tried and tested methods. Having thrust innovation into a public discussion, citizens will be better equipped to distinguish the small-scale failures that may arise in the process of innovation from the large-scale failures that governments should always avoid, and for which citizens should remain highly critical.

Ultimately, then, fostering public sector innovation will demand more than simply bureaucratic reforms and political leadership. It also demands a more empathetic, open relationship between citizens and government. Given its ambitious commitment to public sector innovation, building this relationship should be an early priority for our new federal government.


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