Innovation and diversity in the public sector

Madlen Popignatova 17
Article by: Sophie Poulsen
Innovation and diversity in the public sector

The public sector has long been plagued by issues like bureaucracy and red tape, which is why, in today's ever-complex world where you have to keep up with a rapid state of change, things like innovation and diversity are crucial.










Why is innovation so difficult?

In a sector defined by strict protocol, high stakes, and, let’s face it, a certain level of mundanity, it can be extremely difficult to innovate. Steven Collet, a THNK Class 5 participant who spent several years working in the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, says, “Innovation is very challenging for an institution that is run by political accountability. Innovation means that you stand to fail and failure is very difficult to sell.”

Nonetheless, a few initiatives around the world are trying to make innovation happen. Belgium’s Innovation Learning Network, for example, aims to coach innovation projects and to create an environment where civil servants can help and learn from each other during the innovation process. The participants – civil servants from different government organizations – learn about the benefits of co-creation and multidisciplinary working, as well as how to follow trends, get things done more efficiently, and recognize restrictive patterns. The network currently operates in 14 government organizations, with 20 projects and about 50 civil servants.

In Korea, the public sector has implemented a Personnel Exchange System, a one-to-one exchange program that moves public servants between administrative agencies and other public organizations for a limited period. Its goals are to improve understanding across different agencies and to enhance the capabilities of the public workforce by providing extensive experience and opportunities for development.

To foster innovation, research from the OECD found that governments need to:

  1. Build the culture, incentives, and norms to facilitate new ways of working
  2. Facilitate the free flow of information, data, and knowledge
  3. Promote new organizational structures and partnerships to improve approaches and tools
  4. Ensure that internal rules and processes both mitigate risks and enable innovation

An analysis of cases around the world revealed that these categories were the most effective ways to enable innovation: awards and recognition (e.g. Australia’s Awards for Excellence in Public Sector Management), learning in networks, mobility management, and holistic HRM approaches.

Innovation and diversity in the public sector
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Innovation demands diversity

One of the public sector’s weaknesses is that it’s not very diverse. A THNK alumnus working with the Australian government explains, “Groupthink can easily become prevalent. A lack of diversity, a dominant hierarchical structure, and inculcation of a set of values and expected norms from the day you step in the door contribute to groupthink. To move beyond groupthink and homogenous thought can be very challenging, to have individuals and teams think differently can be challenging, and to have those thoughts valued and make meaningful change can, at times, be even more challenging. It requires courageous leadership.”

While the number of women in public employment is rising, the extent to which women hold senior positions in central government varies considerably. In most countries, the higher the positions, the fewer women work in them. Very few countries achieve gender parity; in Poland, Greece, Iceland, and Latvia, the share of women in senior positions is highest (50-54%). The smallest shares are found in Japan (3%), Korea (6%), and Turkey (8%).

The public sector workforce across the globe is also aging rapidly. In several OECD member countries, the largest age cohorts in the public sector are made up of people over the age of 40.

Achieving diversity in the public sector can advance its efforts to innovate. A significant amount of research has shown that diversity of people brings diversity of thought which leads to innovation – thus helping to improve decision-making and policy-making.

Diversity may also help to enhance social mobility. Pursuing diversity objectives may contribute to human development by reducing the gender gap in economic and political participation and decision-making, and fostering equality in achievement between men and women.

Innovation and diversity in the public sector
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Leaders: It starts with you

In any company or organization, leaders need to be involved in making equality a part of the daily business. But, in the public sector, especially, leaders play an important role in workplace reform, particularly diversity-aimed reforms as these involve change and people. Building a representative public workforce is about changing people’s attitudes and behaviors, and these attitudes and behaviors come from the top.

Strong leadership is critical to develop equality and diversity policies, to motivate and promote institutions to be able to adapt for the sake of public interest, and to make innovation happen.

To champion innovation and diversity in your organization, join the THNK Executive Leadership Program.