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Why should government and the public service innovate?

Why should government and the public service innovate? And, is it possible, or is innovation in government an oxymoron? The need to innovate in the private sector can seem obvious – stay ahead of the competition – but sometimes the imperative is not so clear for the public sector. In this blog post Grace Cunningham answers the question of why we can’t just keep doing what we’re doing and why the public service needs to innovate.

Innovation is of growing importance for governments and public service organisations globally. Social, political, environmental and technological factors are all combining to mean that staying the same is not an option.

Societal problems are becoming more complex or “wicked” (involving multiple, interconnected factors and actors). Think of climate change, for example, and how it requires alignment between all actors, and all nations, to tackle.

Society is changing in other ways too. Globalisation is driving migration across the globe meaning our populations are shifting and changing. In Western Europe, our populations are aging, impacting government services, healthcare costs and economic growth. Exponential technology and data growth has also changed every aspect of our lives – 93% of Irish consumers own a smart phone, five exabytes* of data flow through the internet every day, and technology growth continues to accelerate faster than before.

None of these are “bad” things – in fact, they present the opportunity to hugely advance public services. But if the public service doesn’t innovate to stay ahead of these changes, then it doesn’t just miss the opportunities – it ends up facing major risks and bigger challenges.

* That’s 5,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes!

1. Keeping pace

Existing ways of developing solutions will not suffice in meeting new and upcoming challenges. It is impossible to solve deeply complex problems such as climate change or homelessness in traditional ways. Responses that go beyond incremental improvements are now required. Put simply, innovation in government is required just to keep up with the pace of change – and especially to stay ahead of it.

Take regulation, for example. Technology is changing at such a pace, that regulation in the way it is currently imagined and developed cannot keep up. Are our legal and regulatory systems able to deal with the ethics of self-driving cars, the realities of cyberterrorism, or the implications of artificial intelligence, now? And if not, how can they respond to the future, when technology is developing exponentially?

Innovation provides a way to be more responsive to change, and to respond to the future rather than the past.

2. Meeting expectations and building trust

According to research conducted by the OECD and Edelman, trust in government is deteriorating. Today only four out of ten citizens in OECD countries say they have confidence in their national authorities. This is a major concern – the legitimacy of our political and social systems is built on the trust and confidence of the people they serve. Trust contributes to social and economic stability and allows public policy to be successful.

Trust in government is falling for a number of reasons. Failure to meet expectations is one factor. Expectations are at an all-time high for the private consumer. Customers are becoming more powerful and expect a seamless experience, personalisation and innovation. Citizens expect their government to offer answers to their concerns and to meet their expectations. Most significantly, citizens expect their governments to listen and engage with them and to collaborate.

Policy created in isolation from the public, or service models that feel bureaucratic, won’t cut it anymore. Public service organisations must be innovative if they are to meet expectations, reimagine the public’s experience of interacting with government, and ultimately to build trust.


3. Attracting the best innovators

People are at the heart of innovation, and the public sector can find itself in a chicken-and-egg situation when it comes to attracting the best, most innovative talent. Innovators want to work in organisations where they have the opportunity to be creative and innovative. If public sector organisations don’t cultivate a work environment where innovators can flourish, they will fail to attract people who are motivated to develop original, inventive solutions.

By investing in innovation and creating an innovative culture, the public service can attract – and retain – the best people, even in a competitive labour market.

Government and public services across the globe are recognising these factors and taking notice of the need to innovate. In Ireland, “Innovating for our future” is a central pillar of Our Public Service 2020, the overall strategy for the public service to 2020 and beyond. Strides are already being taken across the public service to implement that vision, in particular to promote a culture of innovation in the public service.

Get in touch!

Be sure to sign up to receive future posts at the link below or get in touch with Anne Byrne ( or Grace Cunningham ( if you want to shoot the breeze or get down to the business of innovation!

About GovLab

GovLab is Deloitte’s public service innovation offering. We work with public service organisations across the globe to help them develop the mindset, skillset and toolkit to innovate.

What does that mean? It means we help public service organisations to build the strategy, organisation, and capabilities needed to innovate. We also get stuck-in, designing, building and launching innovations with public service organisations

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