Barriers to Public Sector Innovation (Part 1)

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Allow me to preface this post with the acknowledgement that I have worked with more “public sector innovators” than anyone else I know. The sector has a great many smart people doing a great many smart things.

However ….  our public sectors as entities remain reactive, fixed in their thinking and rigid at a time when the need for new thinking and more agility has never been greater.

Public Sectors are struggling to keep up with environments that are shifting and morphing into forms that those standard operating procedures and top down bureaucratic control-mechanisms were never designed to deal with, and that’s why sometimes they have a hard time trying to find good employees for their companies, but now a days business owners can use resources as an afp police check online to perform background check on their employees prospects.

Bureaucracies are by definition about control, and when you are dealing with crucial areas such as Health, Justice, Social Security & Child Protection, control is a GOOD thing to have. We are very strident in demanding that Government maintain control over these challenging areas on our behalf because without it we’d be in big trouble.

Herein lies the fundamental issue, and it’s all about the “control” we seek. The most difficult and vexing issues Government needs to address cannot be “controlled” completely as they are inherently complex and shifting. The goal posts here are constantly moving and sometimes they are not even goal posts.

Therefore “control” measures assuming cause and effect outcomes where cause and effect cannot be immediately perceived will, and does in most instances, fail.

All is not lost however. The core group of progressive people we have operating in the sectors have sufficient nous and know-how to make tremendous advances in the way services to the public are delivered in terms of quality, cost and value. To allow this to happen though, the most senior levels of the sector must first acknowledge and start to address the barriers that stand in the way of these innovation-insurgents.

I make specific mention of the need to acknowledge these barriers as they tend to be “elephants in the room.” They are barriers that the sector finds very difficult to openly acknowledge, self-reflect upon and adequately address.

An inability to properly acknowledge and address these barriers means the innovators of the sector remain an endangered species. They remain the small mammals that scurry at the feet of the dinosaurs and try not to get stomped on or preyed upon as they go about their daily business.

"Innovation exists in the public sector in the form of a resistance movement."

I once shared an analogy with a colleague who had just been appointed an “Innovation Manager” in their Department. They had sought me out for advice and I thought the most sage I could provide was that the very second their “innovation” related appointment was made the “organisational anti-bodies” would start to gather and work away at their cell wall until the unit and role was eradicated. Therefore the thrust of the advice was to start doing things and making a difference while you can because the clock is now ticking. BTW I was right, the unit concerned has long since disappeared into that greatly over-populated innovation-unit graveyard.

I have seen this many times over my 20+ year involvement and participation within the sector. From the very moment a group is formed with innovative intent the clock starts to tick on its demise and it is only a question of time before the organisational anti-bodies break through and its staff are marginalised, redeployed or leave the Department in frustration.

Ironically, the more success they enjoy as a group will only hasten their demise, because sticking one’s head above the public sector parapet with some success can be a career limiting move. This is of course a frightening and contradictory concept, but one that is all too common. I don’t understand the psychological underpinning of why this occurs, but those in the sector know the phenomenon only too well.

Many of our Public Sector people are brilliant in what what they do and they could achieve so much more if only only some of the key barriers they face could be removed or at least diminished. My view is lets just try and address the barriers and get the hell out of their way and enable them to do the innovative things they are capable of, and desperately want to do.

So what are the barriers that are stopping our public sectors being truly innovative?

I present a list here that is certainly not exhaustive, there is a block-buster book required to capture most of them and this is a mere blog-post.  This is simply a list that features a few of the key barriers and “elephants in the room” that spring quickly to mind and have to date, been inadequately addressed.

I will not seek to simply outline the negative aspects, I will also try to suggest some broad directions that could be used to help overcome each in turn. I present these in no particular order of importance as the importance and relevance will vary in differing contexts.


1) Insufficient leading and role-modeling is an innovation killer

This is a very common view in organisations as to why their innovation efforts consistently fail.

I recently worked in one large organisation as a part of their 3rd attempt at “innovation”. It was universally recognised by the staff (and the leadership itself) that the primary reason previous attempts had failed was the lack of buy-in and participation of their leadership group. During their third attempt to drive more innovation we ran a dozen well received training sessions for employees and throughout these sessions only one member of the leadership team attended – Strike three!

Innovation will not take root where the senior management do not 
demonstrably and positively role model the behaviours and processes required.

In Government Departments we see a procession of Managers stand up and talk the innovation talk, then comprehensively fail to walk the walk. The achievement of innovative outcomes by definition involves change and to achieve meaningful change there is usually some degree role-modeling along with an appetite for some risk and failure along the way.

While there no serious appetite to role model the behaviours required to engender the change, meaningful change will not happen.

Public sector leaders  like to announce that “we need to be challenged and we need to innovate” and with this comes the assumption that they can pick and choose the challenges they want to take on. When the serious challenges do manifest, they tend to default into their patterns of past experience and apply linear, assumption-laden approaches (see points 3 & 7) that either do not work or don’t achieve the outcomes promised.

Insufficient leadership and role-modeling also leads us into the next barrier to driving innovation …


2) Erroneous assumptions on how to “manage” culture strangles innovation

The inability to address and positively influence a Department’s culture is a barrier to systematically driving innovative practices.

Forget your “Innovation Strategies” – they don’t work. Build an innovative culture instead and the strategies will naturally evolve. The assumption that an organisation’s culture can be measured and manipulated in a preferred direction by external consultants is something that not only does little to improve culture, it also costs a small fortune in precious tax-payer dollars to enact.

An organisation’s culture is inherently unique, complex and shifting, therefore it cannot be “understood” nor packaged up in the ways many organisations seek to do so currently. The best people to positively shift and impact an organisation’s culture are those within the system itself, not “culture experts” external to the Department.

The most senior people in each business unit have a unique opportunity to wield the greatest influence in this space through leading by example and role modeling. However, they consistently fail to do so by ignoring their responsibility and consigning “culture change” to outside consultants. (More on this in point 4).

Consultants bring off-the-shelf approaches with surveys, crude categorisation tools and awe-inspiring coloured graphics that make the complex seem all so simple. Such interventions can cost in the 100’s of 1000’s of dollars – which in itself is never a great outcome for the Department, Council, the employees or the tax payer. I’ve seen three such interventions enacted and heard of numerous others and the ultimate outcome is that cultures are rarely, if ever improved as a result.

There are radically cheaper and more effective ways to work with culture and they can 
all be enacted in-house with leaders driving it and incorporating the knowledge 
and insights of the employees.

Staff have the unique knowledge to design it and leaders have (or need to find) the ability to role-model and drive it.


3) Entrained bureaucratic thinking inhibits innovation

Different layers within our sectors can have very different understandings of how the world operates based upon their very disparate experiences, learning and reporting lines. Diversity of views within a Government Department should be a beneficial trait. However when you get concentrations of similar thinkers within the same management layers it is a major impediment to innovation and progress.

As a case in point we conducted a substantial narrative capture across an entire public sector that included the collection and analysis of over 2000 stories from every Department and Agency. The over-riding themes that emerged from the public servant’s narrative were:

Many at the top of the sector (mostly Executive Officer positions) have not been personally developed and skilled in the most contemporary management practices for many years. This is due to their incredible busyness, along with it seems, a belief by some that they are above participating in the learning that those beneath them in the hierarchy are expected to, and mandated to undertake.

During the same period, those further down the organisational charts have been personally developed by virtue of mandated personal development plans and they have gone out and learned contemporary and up to date management methods.

As a result of this, the now more agile thinking middle and lower layers of the sector learn and bring those learnings back into the Department in the hope of applying them to their work, but are all too often told “Sorry but that’s not the way we do things here.” (One wonderful skill-set senior people tend to have is the ability to say no, without having to actually say “no” – a great skill to have if the thinking presented to you is outside of your habitual thinking style and as such, not understood or seen as a threat.)

In frustration at their inability to apply these contemporary approaches to their work, many of the best and brightest tend to move laterally within the Department, into another Department or out of the sector altogether.  Their drive, experience and knowledge is lost.

Perhaps the most unfortunate by-product of this, is that those staff who are most compliant and think along similar lines to those in a position to promote them are the ones who ultimately move into the most senior positions.  As a result, the executive officer levels of our organisational pyramids are becoming more fixed and brittle in their thinking as the world they operate in becomes more complex and volatile.

Make no mistake, senior sector leaders know the “language” and how to talk the innovation talk but when it comes to doing the walking, it can be a different story.

To often our thinking defaults to safe-mode when promoting staff with a strong tendency to promote candidates largely upon technical ability. This means many are prematurely advanced into management and leadership positions without the ability to lead and manage people. If a candidate has limited social and emotional intelligence then they will struggle to lead those in their charge, especially when placed under pressure from a manager above similarly lacking in empathy. Not all senior people are like this of course, many are great leaders but we do have enough of them.

If the primary paradigm of those in management & supervisory positions is control and “management” (read micro-management) then staff are quickly disenfranchised and their potential is lost.

Promote primarily on a candidates ability to lead and manage others, not on their technical ability. 
Technicalities can be learned but it's much tougher to know how to lead people.


4) An over-reliance on external “expertise” dampens internal innovation

Driving innovation and developing a more innovative culture is an inherently difficult task. When tasks are perceived to be too difficult and the potential of failure as being high, Government brings in the big consultancies. The unspoken driver behind these moves is very often “If we bring in the big boys and they fail it will be their fault and not ours, and we can’t get our rears kicked because we engaged experts.” Again, we end up with hundreds of thousands of public dollars wasted on failed projects with no one held to account. our tremendous ability to rationalise failed projects doesn’t help here.

Government wastes 100’s of millions of dollars every year on external engagements that are often ineffectual at best, and at worst a waste of precious dollars out of the public purse. When issues are truly complex the best people to design new approaches and interventions are the organisation’s own staff, stakeholders and clients. Why? Because they know their system better than anyone and have unique insights others cannot enjoy.

There are many simple and cost effective ways of engaging staff in developing
more targeted and cost effective ways of addressing issues that don't involve 
handing the keys to the Treasury over to consultants.

Innovation will not happen with the consultant’s formulaic “off the shelf” approaches. It won’t happen by adopting the “10, 7 or 5 keys to successful innovation” or even paying heed to the “Fatal innovation traps exposed”! It will only happen when the staff themselves have new thinking methods at their disposal, a clear focus of where their innovation is needed, carriage of design and permission to proceed.

Each Department’s culture is unique and requires significant internal design to be able to develop more a more innovative culture. Government can no longer afford to uptake safe, formulaic approaches and they just cannot keep paying for interventions that are not driven internally that leave staff increasingly cynical about the “innovation” word.

As a case in point I was informed from the most senior levels in one Department not to use the words “continuous improvement” in my project work because staff are now cynical and will not buy into anything with that title. How on Earth can we get to such a outrageous position where something that is so crucial is viewed as such a negative?


5) Endless restructuring = no appetite for innovation

I once had an internal analyst tell me many years ago that a substantial percentage of all the Public Sector’s work involved restructuring itself and I suspect in recent years this % has grown somewhat. If a substantial percentage of all Departmental efforts are directed toward ongoing restructuring, this involves a substantial reduction in the provision of services to the public.

Political leaders assuming power need to understand that their ideology-based restructuring or their need to be seen to be doing something, is all too often a major distraction to those responsible for providing essential public service. Non-stop restructuring is a major impediment to service delivery and stops committed and hard-working public servants from focusing on what needs to be done to provide the best possible services to the Public.

Of course some restructure is required to address changing service demands but certainly not as much as we are seeing now. Much of the restructuring is unavoidable and dictated by political masters in what is euphemistically described as “Machinery of Government” changes.  Even the language here seems somewhat inappropriate, these are people and their jobs being shuffled around, not cogs in a machine. It’s almost as bad as referring to staff as “Human Resources”! But I digress…

Unfortunately, I suspect that once “machinery of Government” changes are announced, a healthy percentage of the subsequent change is about “positioning” to ensure survival as the top down change is imposed. I have former colleagues in the sector that have been undergoing restructure for years now and I’m just not sure how any sane person can stand back and say there is any value in that whilst the demand for public services only increases.

A healthy percentage of public sector employers are public servants for very altruistic reasons. They want to provide a quality services for those who most need them but are consistently impeded from doing so by endless restructures, imposed by from above by people who will disappear just as quickly as they arrive in the cut and thrust of politics and its short term election cycles.

The primary role of the public sector is to provide services to the public, 
not ongoing internal reshuffling. 


6) The extinction of the frank and fearless public servant means innovation is dangerous

Over the past 20 years I have seen our Public Servants slowly morph into Government servants. Most public sector employees can provide you with any number of stories about edicts that have come from their political masters that they know with great surety are poor decisions, and ones that will not add value for their clients and stakeholders.

When a short-term election cycle determines what is best for the public, 
the public do not always get the best possible decisions made on their behalf.

Are our Departments there to serve the public or to solely serve the relevant Minister? Certainly this balance needs to alter as the context changes, but when the focus is on the Minister any serious dissent is not encouraged. In fact dissent is actively discouraged.

When you have an endemic fear of risk and failure within the sector, this tends to manifest itself with a culture in which you are more likely to get a boot up the rear than you are a pat on the back, therefore your ongoing employment and career advancement demands your compliance.  In a time of accelerating change and the need for the incorporation of multiple and diverse perspectives this sets a dangerous precedent. Innovation cannot happen if the “status quo” is rarely questioned.


7) Short-term management vs long-term leadership thinking stops innovation in its tracks

In tough economic times the public sector has a default panic switch which automatically sets to AUSTERITY.

Now austerity absolutely has its place because the sector is very prone to “empire building,” but it should not always be the first point-of-call in tough economic times. As soon as things tighten the first things the managers of the sector seek to do is reduce budgets, reduce staff numbers, stop new developments, slash existing programmes and put a freeze on new programmes. Colleagues in Learning & Development and Change Management are usually the first to suffer.

These are all reductionist approaches that diminish capacity to provide service. Actual service demands rarely diminish, they increase over time and the longer a service is put on ice, the harder it is for the associated Department to catch up with stakeholder and client needs once out of austerity mode.

I liken this standard approach to driving a car and trying to navigate a way forward by looking into the rear-view mirror only. Existing things that you are doing and have already planned are by definition – looking at the past and where you have been. Austerity measures use the rear-view mirror and represent short-term management thinking.

What should happen instead is the adoption of longer-term leadership thinking where we actually navigate our way forward into an uncertain future by looking through the windscreen as we drive the car! This way we engage with the immediate and near present to identify the curves, the obstacles and potholes ahead. We then design new, value-adding ways forward instead of simply looking at what exists and cutting it.

When the sector focuses on the rear view mirror its misses opportunities and increases its failure rate as it is the road ahead that demands most attention.

Looking back with hindsight will not provide the foresight needed to navigate into an uncertain terrains. In the innovation space a very healthy percentage of time must be dedicated to the windscreen and “what can be” rather that “what is & what was” in the form of things we already know and think we understand.

The default public sector panic switch in tough times should read new thinking and design,
and austerity only where appropriate.


8) The “busyness” epidemic – We’re too busy to do innovation

This is an epidemic that is crushing any capacity we have to innovate. Being busy in itself is no impediment to innovation, it can in fact be a great driver. However, the inability to manage time and the preoccupation with endless tasks that are non-value adding are now used as a perpetual excuse to NOT take the time to think anew and work ON the business.

As ridiculous as it sounds it can be summed up in the following quotation, “I’m too busy to attend the time management training because I haven’t got enough time to go.”

If employees don’t take the time to get off the dance floor and take the time to  stand in the balcony above a pause for a more strategic view, they will fail to discern the many opportunities to improve that become apparent when you stop to work “ON” the business. Furiously working “IN” the business has us running on a treadmill.

If we do not regularly stop to try and make sense of what is happening around us we cannot seriously start to work out where the opportunities to improve lie and start to identify the activities that are non-value adding so we can stop or redesign them.

Many public servants are running furiously on a treadmill of busyness and and getting nowhere fast. This frenzied activity is not necessarily of their own doing, but is rather the result of being micro-managed and completing endless tasks imposed from above. We need to acknowledge that new design is needed and that doesn’t happen when you are too “busy” to do it. When the time is taken to work ON the business, new design and innovation start to become possible.

Use the pressure created by an excessive workload to drive innovative practice,
not to close down and simply do more work.


To be continued …  Barriers to Public Sector Innovation (Part 2), next week.

Given this blog was initially supposed to be a 400 word contribution to Ed Bernacki‘s soon to be released book on Public Sector Innovation and it has now morphed into a 3700 word (and growing) novella, I will temporarily pause here and continue next week. We will culminate this series with a third post in a fortnights time outlining a number potential solutions to the barriers …

Comments in the interim are welcomed below …

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About the Author

Frank Connolly is the Principal of “Think Quick”, a business that adds value through thinking differently. His work history covers all sectors and includes initiatives that have yielded bottom line benefit in the 10’s of millions of dollars.

Frank has worked across Australia, South East Asia, China, the Middle East and Africa where he has trained and facilitated multiple thinking methods and been acknowledged by Edward de Bono as one of the foremost practitioners of the de Bono thinking methods worldwide.

Frank believes strongly that if we can improve the way we think, the actions that follow also improve.

Comments (7)

  1. A Brown :

    I worked as a public servant for many years and left out of frustration at a number of the points raised above. The interesting thing is everyone knows of these behaviors and talks of them informally, but just can’t do anything about it for lack of support and knowing how. The leadership tend not to do anything either as acknowledgement of the same reflects rather poorly on them.

  2. Alan K :

    I worked in an Innovation Group within one of the largest Victorian Public Sector organisations. I found that the biggest impediment to innovation was the overwhelming organisational committment to Risk Avoidance. Don’t do anything that will attract attention.

    The second biggest impediment as the article states, was the incapacity of senior managers to lead and manage, they were more inclined to see their role in view of their next position, making no mistakes and keeping everything under control. This was especially so with some who had been hand picked for senior positions, without any management experience or training. Saying No is easy. Saying Yes is courageous, and you can’t be courageous and have a successful senior PS career.

    On the other hand I have found others who have been freed by their “no further promotion” position by accepting this and instead of becoming negative, have forged ahead in new ways of doing work. Some with limited success, others with great success. Real innovators need to recognise that they may be the “enemy” to the rusted-on bureaucrats.

  3. Laurel Sutton :

    The comment “Innovation exists in the public sector in the form of a resistance movement” comes from 60 plus public servants engaging in the innovative process of “Archetype Extraction” around Innovation in the Public Service a few years back. Emerging from this was a comprehensive list of barriers and opportunities along with a unique archetype set that collectively represented the issues and behaviours impacting innovation in the public service.

    There were many fascinating insights. One such comment on culture was that people like the idea of change, but when it happens they feel uncomfortable and oppose it. Reflecting on this, gives rise to the notion that people are unable to sit with their discomfort as this immediately gives the early warning signs of “unsafe” and need to return “comfort and safety”. To do this people often assume that innovation will cost big dollars and use this is just one excuse amongst many used to say “No”. Too often they invoke corporate buzz words like .. “Strategic Direction” “Authorising Environment” “Business Priorities” and as innovation is new and different by its nature it is often not seen to “fit” these.

    The Archetypes developed reflected much of this and should have been used by the public sector when considering “something different” as it gave them a way of looking at what and who they might need to manage in a more practical and natural way.

  4. Frank Connolly :

    Thanks Laurel,

    I recall there was a great deal of valuable and usable insights drawn from that session that were subsequently ignored and went unused. I may do a post on that session (with the names and places removed of course!)

  5. Rapheal :

    It is funny how there can be so much literature and such a growing body of evidence and advice on change -> learning -> improvement -> innovation…. and yet we still can’t quite seem to get there with the public sector.. such inherently political organisations … everything being driven by the political narrative and a paradigm of power…

    I think the term ” innovation exists in the public sector in the form of a resistance movement” is completely accurate.. change and learning are about empowerment.. and empowerment is about taking back control and power over one’s domain. We are a guerrilla army of change within our organisations.

    But having said that.. how do we address people’s fears? When the adrenalin kicks in and fight or flight or freeze manifests.. what can we do? Do we acknowledge that it is a primal urge driving our behaviour wrapped in pretty or “rational” rhetoric… or do we pretend not to see the elephant in the room? Is it time to talk to the elephant?

  6. Richard Bartlett :

    Thanks, mate. It’s all too easy to write the PS off as detached, work-shy and generally useless (Part 3??? joking!). We DO have a problem and like you I’m convinced things are different in 2015 to the days we worked together. Your descriptions here are incisive. As good as anything I’ve read on the topic.

    Motivation, agency and public policy: Of knights, knaves, pawns and queens, by Julian Le Grand is another good read.


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