Four levels of public innovation maturity

Joeri van den Steenhoven is part of the States of Change faculty currently working with our Victorian cohort in Australia.

Here, he introduces four levels of innovation maturity - infancy, adolescence, adulthood and seniority - to demonstrate the readiness of government to successfully engage in innovation and offer guidance on practical action.

This story was originally published on Medium, view it here.

Is innovation in government the new normal? For some it is, for many alas still not.

But the real question here is how to make innovation in government the new normal. I was reflecting on that question when participating in the OECD Summit last December under that header. Over 500 public innovators from around the world convened in Paris to hear and discuss the latest trends and each other’s practices. There were presentations on transforming government, innovation methods and tools, digital services, innovation labs, behavioural economics and systems change. I myself was presenting our systems change work with the Canadian government. People were enthusiastically taking it all in, listening and learning, looking what they could bring home.

Yet, the thought that stuck in my mind was: no way one can introduce all of these innovations successfully all at once. For innovation to succeed, organisations need to have the capacity to receive and integrate new solutions or ways of working.

A government (or any other type of organisation for that matter) that has very little experience innovating should probably not start with a complex transformation initiative or invest in a multi-million dollar innovation infrastructure. Then there is the risk of innovation overload. Not every innovation tool is a fit to every government. Introducing them all could be a recipe for disaster. So, how to choose?

"For innovation to succeed, organisations need to have the capacity to receive and integrate new solutions or ways of working."

Governments are at different levels of experience when it comes to innovation. That also became visible in some of the panel discussions. During the summit, the always great Dave Snowden was warning about the intricacies of complexity and how we need to learn how to deal with them as government. The reply from another panelist was that if only we’d use design, we would be fine.

Simply put, they were having a conversation at two completely different levels. There is nothing wrong with that, it is just what it is. But we need to recognise that, because else we could bring more harm than good when promoting innovation.

Bringing innovation to government is no easy feat. It takes hard work overcoming resistance, deleveraging the status quo and getting the new accepted as the better alternative. And while experimenting you are inevitably failing sometimes along the way. Try to explain that to your superiors, the media or the politicians that rule you. It is not impossible though, as history has shown. Innovation just does not come naturally to government.

Rethinking the nature of bureaucracy

Much of that is because of the nature of bureaucracy as originally defined by German sociologist Max Weber. In his classic work from the 1920s he introduced bureaucracy as the most efficient form of organisation form for government. His goal was to make government more rational and rules-based. He defined its key characteristics like regulated continuity, functional specialisation and formalised documentation¹.

Many of these values still hold true today because they values help create transparency and trust in public institutions. Government needs to be a bureaucracy, because else it would be victim to fraud, corruption and out-of-control spending.

The problem however, as Jorrit de Jong also argues², is that we have translated these values into institutions and procedures, but over time lost sight of these values themselves. In doing so, we have done exactly the opposite what Weber was trying to achieve: government becomes less rational, less efficient and less effective.

This problem becomes even more pressing in a time where digitisation is disrupting organisations and transforming society. Government is forced to respond to these disruptions and transformation. Therefore, it needs to fundamentally re-think the way public value is being achieved and re-design the way government operates.

For that, innovation needs to become another key characteristic next to the original Weberian values. Although these values may seem at odds with innovation, they are not. Because the goals Weber formulated remain the same: Having a rational and trustworthy government capable of delivering public value efficiently and effectively.

"Government is forced to respond to disruptions and transformation. Therefore, it needs to fundamentally re-think the way public value is being achieved and re-design the way government operates."

The question thus indeed becomes how to integrate innovation in government, or in the words of the OECD, make it the new normal. This is no easy feat and will not happen overnight. It is an uphill battle that easily could turn into a labor of Sisyphus. It requires conviction, energy and above all stamina. And that is why it requires a staged approach.

As is the case with systems change, we cannot expect such transformation to happen in one stroke of the brush. It will be the result of many steps taken, many interventions implemented and many more attempts being made. And all the while we have to keep a good look where government is at along the way.

When re-designing public services innovation experts always say ‘start with looking at the end user’. Here, the advice for bringing innovation to government should probably be to constantly look where government is in terms of innovation capacity. Because in a sense, government is the end user of this transformation.

Introducing four levels of public innovation maturity

Thinking this through, I come to four levels of innovation maturity that governments can be in. These so-called Public Innovation Maturity Levels show the openness and readiness of government to successfully engage in innovation. I would say that every government has gone and/or is going through these stages, and they need to go through them to successfully make innovation the new normal.

Each of those levels come with their own requirements and conditions for success. Their own types of activities and ways innovation is being organised. Understanding this better is of utmost importance to those wanting to make innovation in government the new normal. They influence what strategies and actions public innovators and government leaders can and should do. Below is a description of these four levels and some advice what they could do.

Level 1: Innovation infancy

At this level, innovation still seems to be completely foreign to government. Its existence is being recognised, and others may say it is amazing and life-changing, but when engaging in it government has little idea what to do. Although a loud few might make some noise about innovation, it is in reality still very vulnerable. Most in government think that innovation will only end up in disaster with them having to clean up the mess.

The first instinct therefore is: Better to stay away from it. That said, there is a strange appeal to it and a growing realisation the future might even depend on it.

This level is when a government (or an agency or department within it) is first introduced to innovation. There might be a few small projects dispersed across government led by some pioneers. A single public service might be digitised, a pilot being run or a regulatory process redesigned.

Yet, most innovation takes place under the radar and is not the result of any conscious strategy. It is innovation by accident. Because the dominant thinking is that the way things have been is the way things should be. Risk-taking should be avoided. This means the success rate of innovation needs to be 100%, which makes that it is at most incremental.

"This level is when a government (or an agency or department within it) is first introduced to innovation. There might be a few small projects dispersed across government led by some pioneers."

In short, government at this stage is not very innovation-friendly and has little capacity to engage in it. In this environment, it does not make sense to be overly ambitious or start large innovations that require lots of resources. The chance of that happening is little anyway. Focus needs to be on building capacity for innovation through smaller projects and learning activities. Trust needs to grow that innovation can work.

What public innovators can do

The key at this stage is to do two things: to show the urgency for innovation and to inspire to get involved. Do not try to convince the entire organisation, but start building a coalition of the willing. Find support with each other, look for a few champions among senior leaders. Carefully select small innovation projects with a high probability for success and little investment. Show what other governments are doing. Organise inspiring events, invite speakers or publish a report.

What government leader can do

Find the innovators in your organisations and cherish them, because they are having a hard time. Create a safe space to do small projects with them on strategically chosen topics. Topics that are best not high on the government’s radar but at the fringe of political attention. Start reading and publishing about innovation, and thus slowly build your reputation as a forward-looking leader. Do not overthink or micromanage, focus on concrete action and just let the innovators experiment on a small scale.

Level 2: Innovation adolescence

When reaching the next level of Innovation Adolescence, the fire is on. After a long struggle, government has jumped to the next level. All of sudden, everyone is energised and wants to be in. Innovation ideas and projects are rampant across the organisation. Innovation buzz words are going around like crazy.

In a typical youthful way, the positive effects of innovation are being overstated, while the negative (and unintended) consequences are being overlooked. Innovation at this level is, as the great Canadian social innovator Al Etmanski once posed, like teenage sex. Everyone is talking about it, but few have done it. And no one is particularly good at it yet. The only way to learn is by doing it though.

"Innovation at this level is, as the great Canadian social innovator Al Etmanski once posed, like teenage sex. Everyone is talking about it, but few have done it."

At this level innovation activity is going up rapidly, but so is the failure rate. It looks like every week a new project is being started. More people get involved, especially younger staff. Teams and units are being formed. Over time, length and size of innovation projects is also increasing because there is growing recognition for the need to innovate.

However, all is still largely uncoordinated and not very strategic. Innovation happens mostly because of personal drive and leadership, not out of organisational needs. Innovation thinking is growing, there is a lot of learning both from practice and publications. Although the latter might create a danger of innovation being driven by the latest hypes. The number of events, workshops and meetups about innovation is exploding, HR likely notices a rise in demand for innovation training. Innovation is clearly on the rise, but government does not really know what to do with it.

What public innovators can do

If you are new to the game, look around and learn from others. Do not try everything on your own and reinvent the wheel. If you have been into innovation since infancy, do not judge newcomers but welcome them. Create learning networks where you can share experiences. Build coalitions to achieve greater impact. Stay sharp on what to accomplish through innovation, start collecting data and evaluate. You are going to need it later.

What government leaders can do

The organisation is having a growth sprint, both in terms of action and learning. Do not criticise, but provide support and guidance. But keep your staff focused on the purpose of innovation. And help them distinguish between the real and the hype. Encourage innovation, but make staff understand why government operates in certain ways and why it is not smart to throw away everything. Ask for data and evaluations, as you push their learning curve as much as you can. But above all, do not get left behind.

Level 3: Innovation adulthood

The innovation hormones are starting to wear off, government is onto the next level of Innovation Adulthood. It is time to get serious. The realisation arrives this is not about playing around, there are real stakes involved. Learning continues albeit on a deeper level, there is room for specialisation. The first disappointments have occurred and the relationship is no longer as rosy as it was. But when things go well, it deepens and becomes more stable. Innovation starts be a normal part of government’s life.

This level means government starts thinking how to organise innovation, and how to make it part of its normal operations. Innovation infrastructures are being put in place. Central office is getting involved, as there now is political support from the highest levels. One or more innovation labs or units are being established, and innovation is becoming part of the planning process.

"This level means government starts thinking how to organise innovation, and how to make it part of its normal operations."

Government starts investing in innovation, and also expecting outcomes. The focus though is still largely internal on issues like re-designing policies and public services, reforming processes or re-structuring the government organisation.

What public innovators can do

For long you have defined yourself as an outsider, standing on your own, perhaps even fighting the system. Now, that adversarial attitude no longer works. You need to change your strategy. Organise yourself, and work to become part of the planning process. Based on your experiences, show the organisation what works. Develop clear impact metrics, do not be afraid of them. Make choices. The time of ‘let thousands of flowers bloom’ is over. Innovation means things can fail, but in the end, it needs to deliver.

What government leaders can do

Create space for innovation in government. And that does not mean just a physical one. It means a budget line, reporting on it, make it part of professional development. Build an infrastructure with specialised staff or units. Push the innovators to get serious, demand sound strategies and proposals from them. Ask for metrics and outcomes, but also provide back up when things fail. Turn up the heat on those still coming up with false arguments against innovation.

Level 4: Innovation seniority

Government had its wins and losses when it comes to innovation. Yet, it now has been fully accepted as being part of the household. Government has arrived at the level of Innovation Seniority.

Innovation activity is more thoughtful and can span across longer timelines. Hypes have come and gone, but government has found its way and even developed its own signature. The organisation is able to reflect, and at times might even be somewhat philosophical or spiritual. Innovation has become less competitive and about proving yourself. Collaboration and long-term success have become more important drivers.

Innovation at this level is now a normal part of government, and there is an innovation system. After some re-organisations, the innovation infrastructure has settled. Internal processes are working, and government is innovating on a continuous basis.

However, government also realises innovation is not just an internal activity. To achieve public value in today’s world it needs to develop new solutions with outside partners. Government is engaging in systems change to address complex problems.

"Innovation at this level is now a normal part of government, and there is an innovation system. After some re-organisations, the innovation infrastructure has settled."

Throughout government there are experts on certain types of innovation, like service design, behavioural insights or policy innovation. Some of them have built reputations and networks far beyond the organisation.

Deeper learning takes place, often with closer ties to academia. The innovation work is also effecting government’s brand, as employer and organisation. And trust in government that it can deliver the public value society needs is rising.

What public innovators can do

If you have built your career in public innovation, make sure to create time to reflect. Think about from what position you can achieve true change. And then organise that. Connect with peers from other governments and those working outside of it. Allow yourself to think bigger and more long-term. You do not need to fight any longer, but your leadership is in demand. Help younger generations to prevent the mistakes that you made.

What government leaders can do

Focus on stabilising innovation for the long-term using lessons learned. Develop that government’s identity when it comes to innovation, where does it stand out. Use your network to connect with partners outside government to work together on complex challenges like youth employment or climate change. Watch out for complacency, keep pushing boundaries. There are always new challenges the organisation needs to prepare itself for, now be it blockchain or artificial intelligence.

My thinking here is also a work in progress. Yet, making innovation the new normal means, I strongly believe, helping government go through these maturity levels. Almost like a necessary rite of passage if you will. That also means one needs to balance the introduction of new innovation ideas, methods or approaches with a good analysis of government’s innovation maturity. And try to be honest here. Whereas in real life we often portray ourselves as being younger than we really are, the reverse is probably true here. Do not be tempted to overstate your age. Build your innovation capacity step by step, level through level. And over time, you will make innovation the new normal.


¹Weber, Max, 1968, Economy and Society, edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, New York: Bedminister Press (reprinted in 2013)

²Jorrit de Jong, 2016, Dealing with Dysfunction; Innovative problem-solving the public sector, Brookings Press, NY.