Promoting Innovation in Government

The challenge for senior managers in the public sector is to provide incentives and support to call forth more innovation,” according to Sandford Borins, Professor of Public Management, University of Toronto, in his recent report, The Challenge of Innovating in Government. Part of that challenge, he says, is in creating an innovative organization and environment that encourage innovation. He cites the lack of financial rewards, the political environment, stringent agency controls, and public domain of public sector intellectual property as major barriers to creating an innovative organization in the public sector.

The report – a combination of two different perspectives on public management innovation, the organization, and the individual innovator – is based on research and surveys of over 300 Federal, State, and local government reformers who received awards for their innovations. Award winning managers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, and the Departments of Labor, Defense, and Housing and Urban Development participated in the survey.


The report defines the characteristics of an innovative organization and analyzes how several public sector organizations overcame obstacles to innovation. The report also provides recommendations and practical advice for public administrators to use in recognizing and rewarding individual and group innovators and for creating innovative organizations. Recommendations for promoting innovation include:

  • Support from the top. In the public sector, agencies succeed when managers encourage innovation from all levels of the organization. Borins found that even though front-line staff and middle managers initiate a number of innovations, it is important that senior managers be supportive. Senior managers have the responsibility to establish and support their agency’s strategic initiatives and communicate their support of these initiatives to the entire organization. When senior managers communicate and articulate their agency’s mission and reinforce their commitment to innovation, they empower their employees – giving them the scope to experiment with new ideas and helping them draw the connection between similar innovations and the current needs of the organization.
  • Reward innovative individuals. Managers must support innovation by rewarding the developers of successful innovations. Borins recommends that organizations use group incentive awards in addition to achievement awards to recognize groups or individuals for implementing cost-saving ideas. Senior managers also must support awards programs that reward innovation.
  • Embrace diversity. Managers should seek employees from different backgrounds and organizational levels to use their skills and experience to solve problems. Sometimes innovation will come from frontline employees who have an intimate knowledge of the work process and who are often best able to create solutions. Innovation often depends on the ability of employees to see things differently. As such, diversity in employee backgrounds and the way they think brings a broad perspective to problem solving.
  • Learn from the outside. Managers should seek out and benchmark best practices from the private as well as the public sectors, bring in outside experts or facilitators, and participate in professional networks. Also, it is important that managers support and encourage learning. For example, managers should encourage their employees to attend conferences and workshops, as well as establish mechanisms – such as internal seminars – that will encourage employees to share what they have learned.
  • Experiment and evaluate. Innovation often involves failures as well as successes. When failures occur, managers should be quick to recognize them, learn from the mistakes, and make corrections. On the other hand, when experimentation leads to success, managers should give innovation awards for experiments that achieved results, such as improved performance or reduced cost.