Innovation in the public sector? Only with cultural change!

For digital transformation to gather pace in the public sector, a cultural shift is needed. The most important thing is to introduce a culture of learning that puts employees at the centre, writes BFH expert and lecturer Angelina Dungga. The current Corona crisis clearly shows that states must be able to react quickly to unexpected events and changing conditions. Therefore, innovations should also be systematically promoted in the public sector so that the administration can master unexpected crises with foresight and resilience. Innovations do not always have to be disruptive. They can take the form of innovations or significant changes in processes, organisational or communication methods, products or services. The aspect of “novelty” must be considered in relation to the context in which the innovation or significant change takes place. Thus, solutions copied or inspired from other contexts are also considered innovations. The OECD’s Observatory for Public Sector Innovation (OPSI) defines innovation as “the process of implementing novel approaches to achieveimpact” (OPSI 2021:8). An innovation or significant change is therefore only understood as an innovation when it is implemented and has an “impact” as its goal. Possible impacts include improvements in quality, efficiency and citizen involvement, as well as staff satisfaction.

Experiments – yes please

If innovation is to be systematically promoted in the public sector, it is advisable to introduce a culture of learning. Experimentation and iteration are gaining in importance. This goes hand in hand with implementing unusual ideas on a small scale and consistently learning the lessons from them. At the other extreme is the planning and development of larger solutions in one’s own closet, the suitability of which is tested in lengthy consultations and consensus-building processes. Already today, pilot projects and their evaluations are the order of the day in some authorities. A culture of experimentation and iteration differs from this in four ways:

  • First, in the size of the implementations. The basic approach is to implement solutions on a small scale for the first time in order to keep the risk low. If the solution turns out to be a mistake, huge amounts of resources have not yet been wasted on it. A distinction is made between “stupid” and “intelligent” errors. Intelligent errors can occur when the solution arises for reasons that were not foreseeable beforehand. Thus, complexity, rapid change and the factor of uncertainty are countered.
  • Secondly, in speed. By trying out the solution on a small scale for the first time, it can be implemented more quickly. The possibility that the solution will not work is considered in advance and thus the risk is taken into account.
  • Thirdly, in the way ideas are generated. The idea for the solution does not necessarily have to be developed by the person who is responsible for it alone. A culture of learning requires openness at the management level to ideas from below as well as from outside.
  • Fourth, in the way stakeholders and citizens are involved. Involvement starts much earlier and provides for greater participation. If stakeholders and the population are already involved in the development of solutions or even in the definition of the problem, it can be prevented that ready-made solutions are rejected by them. In Switzerland, we have recently witnessed such a phenomenon with the issue of E-ID.

If a culture of learning, more precisely of experimenting and iterating, is introduced in the public administration, employees – regardless of the hierarchical structures within the organisation – play a significant role. The figures from the recently published Public Sector Innovation Scan on Denmark (OPSI 2021) clearly show this. Thus, 87% of innovations in the public sector were either initiated or driven by employees. The scan shows that in Denmark, innovation in the public context is mainly generated on the frontline – thanks to individual employees or teams developing and implementing creative solutions to improve service delivery.

Appreciation as a foundation

However, a shift towards a culture of learning will only succeed if employees know that their ideas are asked for and heard, they experience that these ideas are also implemented and they are given enough space to acquire the necessary knowledge and to cultivate exchange also with people who do not usually appear as possible partners (in short, unusual partners). Thus, the same scan shows that there is basically a culture in Danish public authorities that is conducive to innovation. Between 66% and 86% of employees in the public sector believe that, among other things, the introduction of new ideas is valued in their workplace, learning from mistakes is systematically encouraged or sharing solutions with other workplaces is favoured (see figure).

Figure: Culture in the workplace (OPSI 2021:38)

Indeed, recent concepts around innovation in the public sector build on the power of collaborative strategies. Workplaces that promote the exchange of knowledge, skills and ideas stimulate mutual learning processes and improve understanding of specific problems and challenges. In this way, the range of possible solutions can be expanded.


  • Dungga A., Ferri C., Schmidt K., Neuroni A. (2020). Creating an administrative culture conducive to innovation for digital transformation. In: Stember J., Eixelsberger W., Spichiger A., Neuroni A., Habbel FR., Wundara M. (eds) Handbuch E-Government, pp 1-26. Springer Gabler, Wiesbaden.
  • Buisman, Heather (2021, March 24th). Public sector innovation scan of Denmark. Paris: OPSI, OECD.

Learning to innovate – a specialist course from BFH Wirtschaft

BFH Wirtschaft has developed the new specialist course Public Sector Innovation. This will give you an overview of the most important ways of thinking and working for the design of a data-driven, transparent and inclusive state. Registration is open until 20 April 2021. Further information and the registration form can be found here.

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AUTHOR: Angelina Dungga

Angelina Dungga is a research associate at the Institute Public Sector Transformation at BFH Wirtschaft. She conducts research on digital infrastructures, electronic identity and the accessibility of public services.

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