INNOVATION IN PUBLIC SECTOR
Are we getting there?
Existing operating culture is so much taken up with everyday routine and mundane business that innovation is crowded out and gets less relevant. Few seem to realise that, since an empowered public sector is charged with policymaking, direction-setting, resource allocation, stabilisation and regulation and serves as a facilitator of growth and entrepreneurship, it could and should be innovators’ natural habitat, writes Dr Jamal Khan
WE DO not seem to be good or steady at inventing or innovating in the public sector. Or, for that matter, in the larger and more differentiated society. Perhaps, noteworthy exceptions are a handful of researchers from the Bangladesh Agricultural University, and such specialised research institutions as the International Cholera and Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh and the Bangladesh Scientific and Industrial Research Council making some strides. That said, one should also include much-published researchers from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, Dhaka University and some other leading universities in the country. Many, however, are likely to get startled when we talk about innovations in the public sector. ‘Is it an oxymoron?’ if someone were to exclaim like that, he/she should be excused, at least for now.
First thing first. Innovation is a process of turning opportunity into new ideas and putting these ideas into widely-used practices; it is a means by which some manage change as an opportunity for a different activity; it is capable of being learnt and practised; and it includes new ways of doing things and behaving and using technologies.
By and large, from 1947 to date, our management history shows, among other things, that we remain rather indifferent to and cagey about innovation in management; fail to support it morally or financially; fail to recognise it even if it is evolving somewhere in the sectors/sub-sectors; fail to market it widely and deeply for others to emulate; oppose it to smear, disgrace or isolate the individuals/groups spearheading some innovation out of spite or malice; copy somebody else’s innovative idea or practice; fail to give credit where it is due and push it as though it is theirs; block, ridicule, reject and undermine such activities and their initiators; even if it is accepted in one unit, it may be rejected by others in the same or other units; an innovation may fall into disuse or abuse by negligence or rejection; there is seldom any room for trial and error, experiment or tryout for innovations to succeed; there is very little margin or tolerance for error, setback, disappointment or ambiguity; ours is not a culture which embraces initial error or failure in order for bigger things to happen; a great deal of resentment and hostility may greet initiators; we seem comfortable with imported innovations and practices but turn down indigenous ones; we are hesitant to fund innovation-inducing initiatives; and so on and so forth.
Of the many reasons why we have had such a dismal record in public sector innovation, so far, a few pertinent ones are citeable. Barring some exceptions, most of us somehow fail to see the need for innovations in management. The widespread but erroneous perception that management is something routine and static, and that there is no place for innovation in it, lingers. It is widely held that public personnel are routineers, clock-watchers and adjusters and that innovative impulse or behaviour is an anachronism in this analytical/operational environment. Existing operating culture is so much taken up with everyday routine and mundane business that innovation is crowded out and gets less relevant. Few seem to realise that, since an empowered public sector is charged with policymaking, direction-setting, resource allocation, stabilisation and regulation and serves as a facilitator of growth and entrepreneurship, it could and should be innovators’ natural habitat. The general belief that innovation occurs exclusively in the private sector, that the public sector is merely a paper-chaser and that the public sector is not a candidate for innovative activities seems to have a hypnotic effect among people. Third, the perception is rife that the public sector is not a competitive entity and that there is scarcely any compulsion for innovation in this sector. Personnel get paid, spending is done from duly-allocated budgetary resources, and neither an organisation’s nor an employee’s existence is threatened. There is hardly any reason for innovation, and organisational survival or expansion is not dependent on innovative behaviour.
A closer and harder look reveals something else. Although many developing countries have not made the grade in this respect, in some of the high-income countries, for instance, the United Kingdom, the United States, New Zealand, Singapore, Holland and Sweden, the public sectors have been credited with conceptual as well as output innovations, such as financial management initiatives, accrual accounting, e-tendering, performance auditing, programme budgeting, performance review and development system, 360-degree appraisal, lateral entry practice, best practice benchmarking, logical framework analysis, SWOT analysis, human capital movement, Delphi method, synectics, Gordon technique, total quality management, quality circles, and networking/clustering. More in the bag: downsizing, upsizing, interagency networking, just-in-time inventory, project cycle and management, indicative/perspective planning, organisational mapping, environmental scanning, scenario planning, outsourcing, organisation development, learning organisation, multiskilling, satisficing, niching, new venture management, SWORD approach, unlearning, venture capital, brainstorming, and continuous improvement. Still more can be cited: development funnel, championing, dual ladder, organisational resource planning, one-stop centre, online payment, focus groups, public-private partnership, quality function deployment, Jowhari window, Sala model, strategic alliance, test marketing, contractual appointment, queuing discipline criteria, and personal digital assistant.
Despite big countries having many advantages, externalities and linkages, in our country right now innovations could secure strategic gains via novelty in output generation and delivery, work processes, operating culture and procedures, customer services, accessing, complaint documentation and redress, time management, staff meetings, consumer protection, legal provisions, interagency control and coordination, human resource management, training and development, performance appraisal, productivity measurement, and recruit testing. The innovation-driven gains include offering something nothing else can: offering in ways such as faster, at lower cost and more customised; offering something which is difficult to beat; offering something which others cannot do unless they raise their competence by their own efforts; moving from price/cost to quality, choice, dependability and availability; gaining first-move advantages; offering something on which other varieties and variations can be built; doing things differently and making old ones redundant; rethinking ways in which subsystems of a system work together; and finding new ways to do things and obtaining strategic payoffs.
Innovating and renewing can be enablers in shaping certain core values, e.g. recognising, adjusting, acquiring, generating, choosing, executing, implementing, learning, developing, and building. Some of our organisations in the country can be, eventually, beneficiaries of shared vision, committed leadership, innovating will, achievement need, responsive structure, championing, team-working, education and training, extensive communication, organisation-wide participation, customer orientation, quality culture, creative response, and learning organisation. Even in terms of core processes, some organisations and able managers can be winners in relation to network creation, decision-making, conflict resolution, information-processing, knowledge capture, motivation/commitment, risk/benefit-sharing, and introjections. Moreover, we can strategise and secure a modicum of innovations in policy, analysis, operations, personnel, finance, budgeting, accounting, auditing, procurements, information, and programmes/projects. Fourth, we can invest and succeed in management services — how to benefit from better research and training, how to turn unionism into comparative advantage, how to incentivate and sanction, how to retain information-friendliness, and how to reach and sustain measurable management.
Most innovations — whether in management or elsewhere — are messier and muddled, involving nasty surprises, false starts, recycling between and among stages, dead ends, intuiting, jumping out of sequences, moving back and forth, etc. It is like seeing innovation as a railway trip with the option of stopping at different stations, going into sidings or even, at times, going backwards — but there is still some sequence to the basic process.
Innovations do not emerge in a vacuum. One crucial influence on success and failure is the organizational context in which they are created and implemented. Routinisation or innovativeness is not a permanent condition of organisations nor is it a monopoly of the private sector. To innovate or routinise, to achieve or ‘satisfice’, to lead or follow, to succeed or languish, the policy, organisational, leadership and managerial choices in all of these are stark and clear.
Based on empirical research, we know and recognise now that a supporting environment is essential for innovations to occur in management, viz. the structure of an organisation, the essence of leadership, the quality and authenticity of interpersonal, inter-group, inter-level and inter-organisational communication, the roles played and orientations shown by key individuals/groups, the training, development and outlook of personnel, the way in which work is organised around team-working and synergy, the extent to which personnel are involved in innovation, and how an organisation itself goes about learning and sharing knowledge.
In order for us to respect, encourage, support, introduce and practice innovations in Bangladesh, we need to put in place specific measures of innovation, e.g. the number of new outputs marketed over the last five years; percentage of return on investment; the number of new ideas generated over the last five years; failure rates; customer satisfaction measures; the process and cycle time to market; the lead time between conception and marketing; output costs vs. sector trends; quality vs. sector trends; outputs vs. sector trends; testability; trialability; deliverability; maintainability; disposability; employee hours per new or altered output; process innovation average lead time; number and type of new processes installed over the last five years; and measures of continuous improvement — suggestions and inputs/employee, number of problem-solving teams, savings occurring/employee, cumulative savings/year.
The bottom line is, once again, not simply to collect data and analyse trends but also to use these measures to drive the improvability of innovation, output generation/delivery and customer service and to sort out the ways in which these aspects are managed. The point, still again, is if we do not identify and measure innovation, we will forever remain dependent, defensive, apologetic, timid and derivative. A big dividend of managerialism in the public sector, for instance, might be instituting and institutionalising a kind of behaviour which makes innovations possible and desirable. It is not an either/or option, in fact, it is both, i.e. running routines and doing innovations and buildings innovations into organisational practices and culture. Successful innovations in the public sector, as elsewhere, only happen with a supporting organisational context. Is it there in Bangladesh? Do we want it around here?
Dr Jamal Khan was a professor of public sector management at the University of the West Indies. firstname.lastname@example.org.
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