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Busting myths about public service innovation

Myth #1: Innovation is just a buzzword


We know that innovation gets its fair share of eye-rolls when spoken about. And look, sometimes we’re the ones rolling our eyes too! But it’s not because innovation is just a buzzword – it’s that the word innovation is often misused or used without understanding what it is.

There are many definitions of innovation out there. The one we in GovLab use is: “the creation of a new, viable offering that adds value”. Some of the key parts of this definition, that are missing when innovation is spoken about in a “buzzword-y” way, are that it is viable and that it adds value. Innovation that isn’t viable – that isn’t working in the real world – isn’t innovation, it’s just an idea. And value is essential. Innovation isn’t just a cool new thing, it’s something which really adds value to the lives of the citizen, employee or member of the public.

In government and public services, innovation may mean turning ideas into a policy or process, delivering new or better services, or building on solutions that already exist.

Myth #2: Innovation = technology


A common misconception we’ve encountered is that innovation must involve complex technology or that technology itself is innovation. This can give public servants without digital skills the impression that innovation is not possible or attainable. That’s nonsense! Technology is a huge enabler of innovation, but is not necessarily innovation in itself. If it’s the same process, but just on an iPad instead of paper, it’s not really innovation. What’s really innovative is when someone meets a user need, or solves a social problem in a new way. It can be high-tech (think of getting rid of toll-bridge queues through eTolls; or improving patient and healthcare provider experiences with electronic health records) but it can also be low tech (like how Brazil introduced reserved seating on buses for “new friends” to improve social connection by encouraging communication; or how Dublin City Council introduced “tea and chats” sessions to engage with local community groups).

Myth #3: It’s got to be the next iPhone to “count” as innovation


Innovation doesn’t have to be “new to the world” – some of the best innovations are where existing processes or technologies are adapted to meet a new need. Innovation at its finest is when seemingly unconnected things are joined together to make a really impactful solution.

Mosquito-borne diseases cause hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. Mosquito repellents exist, but one of the challenges faced is how to distribute and dispel the repellents across large spaces. In Bangkok, social entrepreneurs looked around their city and found the answer in the mopeds and motorbikes that are ubiquitous. They fitted a device to the exhaust pipes of the bikes that releases natural mosquito repellents around the vehicle. The developers state that they have helped repel mosquitos in slums across Bangkok and protected 80,000 people so far. Neither mopeds nor mosquito repellent were “new” technologies, but with a bit of creativity and modification, the developers brought these existing elements together to create a powerful innovation.

Myth #4: But I’m not an innovator!


Yes you are! We fundamentally believe that everyone can be an innovator and that everyone is creative (yes, even Bruce from Accounts!). You just need to be equipped with the skills and knowledge to do so. This belief runs through everything we do.

There isn’t one type of person who is an innovator. Innovation does need the big thinkers and the tech whizzes – but it also needs the “small thinkers” who will work on the details to make the big idea work; and the “people whizzes” who make sure that technology meets what the users need.

There are some common innovator traits – curiosity, an experimental mindset, and empathy – but these can be built and developed in all of us, with the right training, tools and culture.

Myth #5: The public service isn’t innovative


This myth is one that we really want to shake. We’ve seen truly inspiring innovations developed by the public service across the world: a public servant in Portland, Oregon was instrumental in the development of Google Transit; the City of Leeds is fighting loneliness with an “app and a map”; hospitals across the world are being re-designed to better meet the needs of patients. Deloitte’s Future of Government Report is full of international examples of public service innovation.

There are great examples close to home too. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection are rolling out digital services, through, that have been designed in a truly user-centred way. Dublin City Council have implemented innovations from painted traffic light boxes to brighten the city and reduce graffiti, to the Dublin Dashboard to share data about Dublin. The Probation Service is adopting innovative approaches to reduce recidivism, such as its “Mugshot Coffee”, a coffee cart located at Cloverhill Prison and run by probation service clients to build client skills and employment prospects. The Civil Service Excellence and Innovation Awards are a good place to start if you want to learn more about the innovation taking place across the public service.

Get in touch!


One of the things we’d love to do as part of this blog is to share more stories of the innovation that is happening in the public service. If you have an innovation story to share, email Anne ( or Grace ( to let us know.

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