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Developing some new skills is a good way to enhance how you do your job. So what should you be learning to make innovation a success in the public sector?

To help answer this question, Nesta commissioned a piece of research to identify and analyse the skills and competencies needed to innovate in a public sector context. This involved carrying out a series of in-depth interviews with people working in innovation projects, initiatives and units, and below researcher Daniela Sangiorgi discusses the insights from these.

There is no set formula for the mix of competencies and skills that are needed to drive change when bringing new innovation approaches to public sector. It depends on who is going to apply them, and where and how the change needs to happen. Looking at the experience of innovation teams in the public sector, however, there are some common qualities that are particularly important when it comes to addressing the kind of challenges they often face when trying to change a complex system.   

The first common and fundamental trait is having people who know and understand how to navigate the system well. This might be because of their past as civil servants or politicians. It helps to have a good network of contacts who could potentially be interested in supporting the initiative and collaborating. In systems as complex as government and public sector organisations, having good connections and internal support is fundamental for innovation teams in their initial years. As Stéphane Vincent of 27th Region explains: “We understood how regional government really works… how they take decisions, how they run their processes, how they build policies. We had knowledge of how the machinery of regional bureaucracy works in real life.”

This knowledge, though, needs to be balanced by a firm belief and commitment to the fact that things can be better, an openness and an ability to persuade and facilitate people to try new approaches, and a general resilience in the face of recurrent failures and obstacles in the process. As Ee Tien, director of the Behavourial and Design Unit in Singapore's Ministry of Manpower, suggests, self-motivation and openness are fundamental qualities for people working to  innovate in the public sector, as “we have to spend a lot of our time persuading departments to join us, so we have to be quite self-motivated ourselves”.

These two key complementary skills can sustain the development of an innovation unit, particularly in its initial stages. Specific projects then require different kinds of technical and expert knowledge depending on the type of initiatives, among which project management, ethnography, social science, design, psychology or statistics might feature.

Key learning points:

  • The competencies and skills needed change depending on the kinds of projects and department the unit works in.
  • However, there are two important qualities that are complementary and fundamental when aiming to change a complex system: knowing and navigating the system very well, but at the same time demonstrating an openness and commitment to change things and persuade people to follow.

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