The COVID-19 pandemic has put all public service organizations to the test as never before. We may not know whether citizens will view governments as having passed this test for some time. However, many public service organizations have shown that they are ready to do whatever it takes – at unprecedented speed – to outmanoeuvre uncertainty and deliver solutions to support citizens through the pandemic.

In doing this, they’ve triggered a fundamental rethink of what governments are capable of and the ways that public sector service delivery can be executed. A key aspect of the resulting change is an upsurge in agile collaboration and innovation with other sectors – especially the private sector. And as we highlight in our thought leadership report, building public service for a new era will continue to demand bold collaboration, tremendous flexibility and relentless innovation.

Why open innovation is best

But what do we really mean by innovation? As we all strive to move on from the pandemic while managing its ongoing impacts, now is a great time to take stock of what kind of future we’re looking to create for public services and how.

There’s a growing body of evidence that companies who collaborate more innovate more – and more successfully. Research quoted in the recent World Economic Forum report on Collaborative Innovation found that 71% of digital companies surveyed in Europe expected more than a quarter of revenues to be generated through collaborative innovation by 2030. More generally, the old idea that competitiveness is driven by companies’ closely held "trade secrets" is being disproven.

Collaboration allows companies to extract value from underutilised assets, resources, and capabilities by exploring shared value with other partners. Exploring informal partnerships is a great way to reduce the risk inherent in building in-house capabilities or in acquisitions.

In addition to collaboration, the most dynamic and ground-breaking innovation comes from openness and transparency – and being ready to fail and learn in public.

Learnings for both sides…

Open innovation is taking off in both the private and public sectors – not least in Canada. Accenture’s latest thinking on Canadian public service innovation – "Lessons in driving innovation" – finds that public service "innovation drivers" are collaborating with other public and private sector organisations and tapping into successful new models and ideas.

Among other attributes, innovation drivers are more likely than their peers to prioritise: research and development with partners (+14%); innovation centres (+22%); and promoting ideas on external platforms (+20%).

What is more, both public and private sector innovators stand to benefit from sharing their lessons learned. This applies especially in the wake of COVID-19, when we’re all navigating uncharted territory, facing a series of firsts that requires us to adapt fast.

Experience in the private sector has shown that "componentised" organizations – those that work and innovate through small, agile, collaborative teams, rather than as a large unit – have a greater ability to adapt. And that using open source systems enables much faster scaling, while allowing organizations – in this case public service agencies – to tap into ecosystems that make them more resilient.

Innovating and being prepared to fail out in the open with partners and the public can also build trust with citizens and residents and enable public organizations to own the conversation about future products and services. This can even attract aspirational talent.

…to get the best of both worlds

There are many examples of collaboration’s benefits in the private sector – with companies getting innovations to market faster and scaling them more rapidly. But this fast pace can come at a heavy price. And it’s here that the private sector can learn from the public sector.

Scaling innovation too fast risks failing to consider the full and unintended consequences of an innovation for society. Public service organizations are duty bound to take wider societal impacts into account, meaning optimizing exclusively for growth is not an option.

Public services can overcome these issues by creating a new definition of open innovation. One that harnesses the speed and focus of the private sector, and blends it with awareness and accountability for wider, longer-term consequences. A hybrid approach that still generates innovation but balances it with other public benefits like stability.

There’s an analogy here to VC funded companies. Those that grow at a headlong pace and reach a valuation of US$1 billion while still privately-owned are termed "unicorns". They’re the product of a system whose mantra is "grow, grow, grow." By contrast, "zebras" are slower-growing and more circumspect. They operate via collaboration not competition and focus on building sustainable prosperity. That’s why public sector organizations should resemble zebras.

How are public service organizations doing it today?

We’re already seeing many public service organizations in Canada and beyond use collaboration to drive open innovation. Here are some examples:

  • PolicyInnovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) is creating mechanisms for inter-provincial sharing of best practices in open innovation policy, and providing funding for open innovation conferences organised by the private sector.
  • Communities and participatory design – Citizens and residents are engaging in open dialogues with government and participating in innovation, including through citizen and resident "lived experience panels" and hack-a-thons in some countries.
  • Open source ecosystem libraries – Public service organizations are making growing use of the open development platform GitHub (see for example the BC DevExchange). During the COVID-19 response, digital tool catalogues such as Open Call were designed as open source, enabling municipalities nationwide to access them quickly and easily.
  • Publishing – Writing blogs and papers to share learnings with organizations of all kinds.

To meet citizens’ needs in the new era, public services must innovate in new ways. The message is clear: the future of public service innovation is open.

Anant Gadia

Managing Director – Public Service, Digital Transformation


Elina Lawrie

Director – Interactive, Innovation and Design, North America

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