Our Perspectives


Innovation for development in Africa: Focus on the public sector

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Innovation in the public sector often occurs as a pressing need arises for a solution that would deliver improved services with tighter budgets, to citizens with increasingly higher expectations. Photo: UNDP Burundi

Over the years there have been many definitions of innovation, which unfortunately left the concept rather belabored. The reality is that it is a journey that governments and public sectors need to undertake – with the aim to change the lives of citizens.

 For us at UNDP, it is summed up by three principles:

  1.  No innovation happens in isolation. Innovation exists within a particular context, and is usually prompted and driven by a the ‘need to do better’. For example, in West Africa, the pharmaceutical sector faces a major challenge with counterfeit drugs flooding the country and putting lives of citizens in danger. A system that helps in differentiating between fake and genuine drugs, E- Pedigree tracks products from factory to pharmacy.
  2. Innovation is not high-tech. Innovation is 5% technology and 95% imagination. At a practical level, it is about analysing pressure points and thinking about creative ways of dealing with that.
  3. Steal with pride (and learn). In many instances, what constitutes the best knowledge would not be in our immediate or usual environment. It is highly advantageous to venture outside our comfort zone and explore partnerships for improved performance.

Innovation in the public sector is not very different from other sectors. It often occurs as a pressing need arises for a solution that would deliver improved services with tighter budgets, to citizens with increasingly higher expectations.

It is sometimes, but not always, part of a reform agenda or a measure introduced to improve the functioning of the state machinery within the prevailing conditions.

The public sector is always under heavy political pressure and faces challenges of social change (e.g. ageing). This makes innovation vital to ensure better quality services. Furthermore, the public sector is an important market for innovative products (goods and services) from across economy, thus impacting on public procurement.

Barriers to public sector innovation

Firstly, the sheer size and complexity of public sector institutions: silo mentality’ is usually rife, there are skills shortages and gaps, lack of clear agreement with respect to perceived problems, approaches and solutions as well as overlap in responsibilities and communication difficulties.

The systemic impact of innovation and change is often viewed as an unwelcome perturbation to the overall functioning of the organisation. There is much of the “not invented here” attitude which results in an unwillingness to accept any novel ideas.

Added to that are many other issues including internal and external politics, bureaucratic and overregulated work environment, poor leadership, budgetary issues and poor learning environment.

Public service managers and politicians are generally very wary of enacting changes that may result in negative outcomes, particularly if there is the risk that these will attract media focus. This risk aversion, added to an inherent blame culture, with its associated high levels of accountability, contributes to a work environment that is quite hostile to innovation.

Making publics sector innovation work requires the introduction and facilitation of learning and networking. This will help pull the organisation together and enable easier access to relevant in-house competencies needed to find, understand and make use of outside competences and technology.

Part of the improvement of the public sector work force is to encourage entrepreneurs or champions with sufficient vision and determination to push the innovation process through. These people should be given funding, responsibility and leeway to pursue the innovation agenda.

Staff mobility should be encouraged between institutions and involvement and commitment developed by encouraging civil servants to take initiative while providing them with a safe space to innovate

At policy level, it is important to reach for a good balance between “competent bureaucrats” and “creative policy entrepreneurs”. Shaking the system is often a necessary evil as reorganisation measures against organisational lock-in and stagnant waters

Everyone, including people employed in the public sector, private and non-profit sectors, possesses the capacity to learn and innovate. Innovation should be seen within the context of human evolution. It is essentially about humans escaping and breaking free from the confines of the old world.

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