Drivers and barriers related to innovation in the public sector

How can change be generated in a system where all things seem stagnant, as the public sector?

Innovation is a periodic issue in public administration and is considered necessary in order to improve efficiency, effectiveness and authenticity. Innovation inspires the population and policy makers ensuring a radical change, but how can the change be generated in a system where all things seem stagnant, as the public sector?

Is competition always good? According to Torfing and Sörensen (2011), the lack of competition in the market explains to a certain extent limited innovation in the public sector. Competition entails privatization and liberalization within specific service domains. Here, public services have to increasingly compete with private initiatives. Public procurement programs (the process by which public authorities, for example government departments or local authorities, purchase goods or services from companies) have stimulated this and, as a result, citizens are increasingly perceived as consumers with growing expectations especially if they have a choice. There is increased competition between regions and cities in terms of being an attractive place to work, live or visit. In order to be attractive, local and regional governments, and also national governments, often use the quality of services as a source of competitive advantage.

Political competition
We can also add the challenges generated by phenomena such as globalization, fragmentation or computerization (Osborne and Brown, 2005) at a macroeconomic level, together with political and administrative issues which result from them as the main triggers for innovation in public sector. I believe that the desire to improve the quality of public services, in combination with the desire to reduce bureaucracy, has become a political issue, being negotiated among political parties. It represents an incentive for the public sector to innovate. In literature it is called “political competition”, where authors like Walker (2006) and Bekkers (2011) consider that this political competition for the consent of citizens who have increasingly higher expectations and demands represents a huge opportunity to innovate.

A very important factor which can support or hinder innovation is leadership, both administrative and political. “Linking leadership” refers to connecting the political realm with the innovation project by linking people, ideas and resources. A good example of this, in Bucharest, Romania, may be the social store SocialXchange, initiated by the General Directorate of Social Assistance and Child Protection District 6 and supported by the City Hall of the 6th District. It was born from the need to stimulate acts of charity and to promote a sense of social responsibility and principles such as respect for donors, protection of dignity and social inclusion of beneficiaries. Thought of as an intermediary between those who want to make charities and those in need of such gestures, the social store simplifies the goods donation procedure. It conditions the access for people with modest incomes on performing community service activities. In return for these activities, beneficiaries receive products.

Attitude towards risk
Innovation is a risky process itself, because the results are almost always unknown. While Drucker (1985) highlights the importance of innovation and entrepreneurship through the development of organizations in the long term, goal-oriented and a systematic perspective on the use of resources (knowledge, people and funds), we find barriers that prevent the process.
In the public sector there is a negative attitude towards risk and risk-taking. Political cultures and bureaucracy are known as risk-avoiding (Borins 2008; Kelman, 2008, Albury, 2005). The current policy pursues short-term goals and is focused on winning potential voters and satisfying interest groups through quick wins through increased coverage in the media of possible failures of the other part. This adds to a risk-averse attitude by showing that failure is publicly sanctioned rather than an opportunity to learn and improve. It is important for policymakers to heed the mistakes of the past and look at the economic policies responsibly. Not only in election years, but generally. Not only for short term, but making economic developments sustainable. Innovation is made through strategic goals and strategic goals are achieved long-term.

To sum up, competition between geographical regions and political competition can be used to foster social innovation in the public sector. In this context, leadership and a sustainable, long-term strategic vision may tame risk-aversion. This is why, in fostering social innovation one needs to also take into consideration the way in which these variables influence each other, in practice. More than this, the ones above are only the most frequently debated drivers and barriers of innovation in the public sector discussed in the literature. Practice in this field may lead to further unexpected challenges.


Bekkers, V., J. Edelenbos and B. Steijn (2011), Innovation in the public sector: linking capacity and leadership. Houndsmills: Palgrave McMillan, pp. 3-32.

Borins, S. (eds.) (2008), Innovations in Government: Research recognition and replication. Washington: Brookings Institute, pp. 28-52.

Kelman, S. (2008), New Public Management in Europe, Houndsmills: Palgrave McMillan, pp. 26-51.

Osborne, S. and K. Brown (2005), Managing change and innovation in public service organizations. London: Routledge.

Sörensen, E. and J. Torfing (2011), Enhancing collaborative innovation in the public sector, in: Administration and Society, 43(8): 842-868.

Walker, R. (2006) Innovation type and diffusion: an empirical analysis of local government, in: Public Administration, 84(2): 311-335.


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