An introduction to public leadership
An introduction to public leadership

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

An introduction to public leadership

2.2.4 Innovation in the public services

In this brief excerpt from a lecture given to an international audience in 2013, Professor Jean Hartley examines the distinctions between improvement, change and innovation in the context of public services. She examines innovation, once again highlighting some of the specific challenges for public leaders of applying and adapting conventional leadership principles.

Download this video clip.Video player: ou_futurelearn_police_vid_1023.mp4
Skip transcript


Innovation isn't just the same as change. It's a particular form of change. And many people would argue that it is disruptive or step change.
So it's different from continuous improvement, it's not about gradually increasing efficiency and making things better. It's actually about doing things differently. And that may involve a different mindset, a different set of practises, something that's actually quite disruptive for the organisation.
And in relation to the public sector, Geoff Mulgan has talked about defining public sector innovation as new ideas that work at creating public value, not that necessarily achieve public value, but that are trying to achieve it. Because I think the other element of innovation I just want to underline is I think a good definition of innovation doesn't conflate it with improvement or better performance or success. It's quite possible to have very interesting innovations that, for whatever reason, don't work. We can think of high-rise housing in Britain in the 1960s as an example of that.
OK, that's a quick definition of that, and remember also that innovation, many scholars would say it's about being new to the organisation. So it doesn't have to be totally unique. It's about new and disruptive ideas and practises for the organisation that starts to develop or adopt this innovation.
So just drawing on The Tempest, when these shipwrecked sailors end up on the island and Miranda, who's never seen human beings in her life before, says, ‘Oh, brave new world that has such people in it.’ For her, people are an innovation. Her much more world-weary father, Prospero, says, ‘Tis new to thee.’ So that's a way, if you like, of underlining that innovation is about newness to the organisation. So it doesn't matter if it's already happened somewhere else. So I'm going to draw on those kind of definitions of innovation in my talk here today.
Now, I think the field of public services innovation or innovation in governance and public services has tended to draw quite a lot from the private sector. And that has been very valuable and has given us some really good ideas and is also very important in terms of public private partnerships and so on, hybrid organisations.
But I think the difficulty with some of the private sector literature is it still tends to focus on products, we tend to think of light bulbs or cars or LED lighting. It has, until recently, there's been less literature around service innovation. And service innovation is very different because you're not dealing with a product. Most service innovations are actually about a changed relationship between people, either between different staff groups or staff and citizens or whatever.
So I want us to just be aware of that. But on the positive side, I think we are now starting to see a really good and burgeoning literature about public innovation and seeing some of its distinctive features. And I'll refer to those. Now, finally, on my introductory remarks, I'm going to draw on, in my talk, the idea of three phases of innovation. And I'm going to think of them in terms of invention, that is where do the ideas come from? Creativity, inventing new ways of doing things. Then there's the implementation stage, which might include piloting, trialling, experiments, really embedding the innovation and so on. And then, thirdly, thinking about diffusion, in other words, the spreading of innovation across different organisations. Now, that's a very simplified view of innovation. There are lots of different models and stages and so on. And it doesn't always happen like this in any case because in the public sector, sometimes you get an implementation, for example, an announcement by a politician, and then the public managers have to think about the innovation. So it does sometimes go the other way. And Christian Bason calls it a half-rolled-up ball of wool.
End transcript
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

As Professor Hartley suggests, significant changes or innovations in public service provision often happen as a result of the actions of a politician.

Activity 3

Identify the most fundamental recent change or innovation in your own sphere, and think about (a) how you responded, (b) how your colleagues and/or staff responded, and (c) how the public responded. In what ways did it ‘change the relationship’ between you, your colleagues and the public who use your service?

Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371