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Can government innovate?

GLENDA WHITE, executive director of the Centre for Public Service Innovation, considers the challenge of transforming government into an innovative institution.

Dusting down government and making sure it is built to deliver its best is one of South Africa’s challenges. We certainly aren’t alone in this. Whether rich or poor, all governments face the never-ending quest of sustaining or improving standards of living, through taking a long hard look at their operations.

Developing countries such as South Africa have the added responsibility of getting their public-sector institutions in the best possible shape to reduce poverty and meet basic needs. It is a matter of ensuring that democracy and respect for human rights are a reality: government processes and the customer interface have to be efficient and effective, so that citizens have access to those services to which they are entitled, and get value for tax-payers’ money.

The irony in South Africa is that this poverty and desperate need stand alongside the latest in technological gadgetry and global thinking. But this contradiction also carries the solution. Using the best of globalisation creatively, to transform public sector institutions, is the way to step up the public sector’s delivery capacity and service quality.

Innovation is the key: it takes creative and clever thinking to enable government to do more and better, without using more of the limited resources available to it. This entrepreneurial thinking includes the invention of new products and services and new approaches to the application of technologies and tools.

The Centre for Public Service Innovation (CPSI) is one of the many projects initiated by government to improve its effectiveness and efficiency through innovation. Its formation in 2001 followed government’s recognition that innovation is not an option, but a necessity. This Section 21 company is a private-public sector partnership that reports to the Minister for Public Service and Administration.

The CPSI devotes its days to finding innovative ways of improving service delivery to South Africans, and to broaden access to these services. It recognises that such improvement depends on internal-systems alignment and better customer interface, not only through technological innovation, but through non-technological solutions too.

The CPSI Public Service Innovation Awards are an extension of the day-to-day work of the CPSI. Now in their second year, these Awards are an exciting and meaningful way to find original ways to upgrade the way government works. The Awards are a platform for finding and nurturing innovative practices, projects or initiatives within the public sector.

Whether initiated within the public or private sector, by individuals, teams or institutions, innovations that challenge conventional practice with the aim of improving services to the public, are celebrated by the CPSI Public Service Innovation Awards. Initiatives that make for a more effective and accountable government are targeted particularly.

The judges are on the lookout for service delivery improvements that extend democracy and address economic and social exclusion. These may be through policy, institutional processes, private-public sector partnerships and service-delivery mechanisms.

The Awards focus on innovative initiatives that are sustainable. Since the public sector is largely rule-bound and procedural it demands energy and effort to implement new concepts. Unlike the private sector, public-sector systems and structures are less able to cope with the implementation of new systems.

The Awards programme goes beyond simply acknowledging these innovations. The CPSI will use the programme to develop lasting relationships with awardees, to support their future work. In walking this path with the identified innovators, we at the CPSI will help find ways that capture learning, establish partnerships with other local and international programmes and develop ways to influence government-policy decisions.

The CPSI acknowledges that extending innovative practices in the public sector is easier said than done. Across the globe public services are known for being inflexible, rule-bound and focused on compliance. Transforming these structures into more efficient ones, that can meet changing needs, takes a change in culture. Government staff and structures need to become more flexible, less risk-averse, capable of identifying shifting needs and solution-orientated.

While not impossible, such a process of change towards a culture of innovation is a slow, incremental one that has to be supported by programmes of change management, skills development and vision building.

The vision-building exercise requires a comprehensive policy statement on how an innovative government, living with globalisation and poverty, should look and behave. This vision helps in the identification of the needed programmes and of the type of behaviour that has to be rewarded.

An implementation strategy is essential in overcoming the obstacle of artificial institutional divides: putting innovative practices in place would have to cut across various government departments and bodies.

Managing people through this process would include an incentive and rewards programme, to motivate them to behave in a way that may contradict existing practice. And, through a skills-development programme, people are equipped with the competencies to manage the introduction of innovative behaviour and systems into government.

The monitoring and evaluation of new innovative practices in state structures, such as the initiatives identified by the Awards, are essential. Measuring the impact of these efforts will give implementers and policy-makers a clear idea of their value to government and to society in general.

Given the scale of the public sector and the scope of its impact on the nation, getting it into shipshape condition is both a continued task and an urgent one. Where these structures are capable of detecting changing and varied need, and focused on meeting these needs, their output will be good.

The thinking within the CPSI is that a healthy and productive government is one that sustains the energy of the nation. A lively and creative nation is one that prospers.

Glenda White is executive director of the Centre for Public Service Innovation (CPSI). She can be contacted by e-mail at or phone her on 012 672 2499.

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The Big Change is a business strategy blog and newsletter published by Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a leading technology research organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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