How to drive innovation in public organisations


How to drive innovation in public organisations


In sitting around a conference table with colleagues pondering the most innovative organisations in the world, ideas conjured up would likely include Google, Apple, Safaricom, Facebook, Tesla, Amazon, Alibaba, etc. What do all these firms have in common? They all represent for-profit companies.

Google’s simplified unique search innovation propelled to global dominance. Apple’s touchscreen concept revolutionised phone handsets. Safaricom’s M-Pesa and M-Shwari changed how the world saw financial payments technology. Tesla launched the electronic car competition craze among automobile makers. Amazon disrupted retail distribution chains. Alibaba took ecommerce to multi-industry dominance.

Many researchers highlight that the profit motive and lower bureaucracy in such organisations makes them more responsive to creativity and innovation than non-profit, NGO, parastatal, and government entities.

However, populaces around the globe demand more from their governments. Demands include transparency, controlling inflation, corruption crackdowns, political representation, and better more innovative government services in the digital age, among others, with citizens in many countries from Lebanon to Chile to Hong Kong to Catalonia to Ecuador protesting openly.

But one can see in places like Estonia with nearly all government services accessible online and free public transportation or the Dutch government’s management of Schiphol Airport widely seen as innovative, that at times governments can lead in innovation.


Here in Kenya, we clamour for more innovative government services too. We can now file our Kenya Revenue Authority(KRA) taxes online through iTax, access many government-related services on eCitizen, interact with the National transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) through their Android app, and interrelate with parastatals like Kenya Power through 24-hour customer service lines that are not available from other utilities in other countries.

But how do we maintain and then increase the level of innovation in our public organisations? Innovation at the individual level even in public services improves handling of budget constraints, increases demands from citizens, solves complicated issues, and boosts quality.

Research by Mieke Audenaert, Adelien Decramer, Bert George, Bram Verschuere, and Thomas Van Waeyenberg explores the criteria needed to boost innovation in public entities.

New managers often try new things or change conditions in the workplace often just to assert their new authority or to show that they are doing something. But even more prevalent includes the ineffective and sometimes laissez-faire leadership in firms whereby management does not consistently apply the same procedures and policies with each business cycle.

But what the research finds is that to enhance innovation, executives in public organisations must become consistent in how they utilise performance management. Public servants crave predictability, reliability, and consistency. For public organisations to be consistent in employee performance management, they must incorporate consistency in policies and procedures, continuous monitoring, and implement feedback mechanisms so communication is not one-sided.

Employee worries and fears over performance planning in changing inconsistent environments decreases job satisfaction. Inconsistency hinders staff ability to focus their attention on innovation attempts.

Additionally, the research found that, unsurprisingly, the quality of leader-employee exchange and relationships in public organisations can moderate the otherwise good effects of consistency. So even if human resources put in place a rock-solid performance management system that remains consistent with monitoring and feedback, if individual line managers have toxic relations with their public servants, then innovation will not ensue.

So, governmental and public service organisations must still utilise 360 degree performance tools for managers and incorporate employee surveys similar to the private sector to make sure individual supervisors do not kill innovation efforts.

In summary, government and public organisations can originate innovation. Public servants crave consistency in their performance management that can, if granted, boost innovation even in the most unlikely of work environments.

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