Delivering innovation in the public service

Head of Public Service Reform at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform Philip McGrath speaks to eolas about delivering innovation in the public service and the formulation of Making Innovation Real, the Public Service Innovation Strategy.

Contextualising the culture in which the Strategy was developed, McGrath clarifies the misconception of a public service that was not innovative in the past. “It is not to say that we never did innovation before in the public services. If you think back to the global financial crisis in 2008 and the first and second public service reform plans in 2011 and 2014, there were huge amounts of innovation involving massive structural changes. To say that we did not have innovation before would be wrong, maybe we just did not phrase it that way or call it innovation,” he observes.

Reflecting on what was learned from the innovation strategies of the past, the Head of Public Service Reform outlines that many of the previous initiatives were “top-down when we really need them to be bottom-up or part of everyday life”. Following work with the European Commission and Deloitte to assess the public service’s innovation maturity and ambition under the European Structural Reform and Support Service, 12 key recommendations were put in place. Each of these have been implemented either fully or in part.

“One of the key initiatives from that was that we put in place supports for public sector bodies, including guidance on how to innovate within an organisation, how to incorporate innovation into corporate strategies and plans,” McGrath says, adding: “We now have the Public Service Innovation Strategy in place and that has been incorporated into the next phase of Civil Service Renewal, and it will be incorporated into the next phase of public service reform.

“Our vision is to harness the power of innovation to deliver world class public services in Ireland. We settled on an innovation definition — there is much debate in the literature about whether to attempt this because it can inadvertently stifle innovation — but we thought that if we were asking people to do something, it would be helpful to describe it. Our definition of innovation in public services is the creation of a new and viable offering that adds value. Adding value is particularly important for us.”

McGrath identifies four priorities that have informed the writing of the new policy, the first of which is citizen-centric innovation, or “the notion of involving the user in designing your services, listening and engaging with users and citizens and then designing and delivering integrated and easy to use services”.

The rationale underpinning this, as he explains, “is that it is simple as a public sector body to create something that is easy to deliver for yourself, but it may actually not be what the user wants or needs”.

“If you put in more time at the start to deliver something that is user-centric, you will get that back in the end because you will attract less appeals, less complaints and you will have happier users that are more willing to engage with your services,” he says.

The second priority is creating a culture of innovation within the public service itself. “This means empowering our staff to challenge the norms within our organisations and to create leaders with vision around innovation and continuous change within our organisations,” McGrath explains, adding: “We put in place interventions that will equip our staff and give people the mindset and the tools to innovate, like putting in place a toolkit around design thinking or putting in place an innovation fund.”

Third amongst the priorities is scaling up innovation, determining where the public service will connect and collaborate across its ecosystem to scale successful innovations and applying case studies.

“There is a saying in innovation: you should steal with pride,” McGrath says. “If you see something that is really good in another organisation, take it, acknowledge it, and adapt and adopt it.” Here, the Head of Public Service Reform sees further opportunity in the case studies rarely mentioned in these types of plans: case of failure.

“Determining lessons learned is something that we need to get a little better at. Talking about challenges and publishing case studies focusing on initiatives where things went wrong. Sometimes they are the ones that can provide the best lessons for people.”

The fourth and final priority is transformative innovation, incorporating the utilisation of strategic insights, future trends and megatrends and the requirements that these will demand of the public service.

“We also have to support and promote policy for innovation, digital transformation and new ways of working through testing, experimenting with new and emerging technologies and establishing how they can help us to deliver better outcomes for the citizen,” he says.

Concluding, McGrath explains that while the guidance document that has been developed contains fixed priorities, its goals are flexible and the actions are free, allowing organisations to develop plans according to their needs. He also mentions the potential of AI in the future of user-centric public services, and “putting in place interventions for citizens who are not digital natives using common data sets such as EirCodes and PPS numbers, which will make it much easier to connect services in the back end”.

“I sit on a group that is looking at the future skills needs of AI in the economy, and while it is well and good to talk about hiring Python programmers, we have an urgent need around basic digital literacy and how we store data in a structured manner and produce data-informed services,” he asserts.

“While we may think that AI is all about programming and technology, the precursor to that is more important and that is that people understand that getting services capable of being use by AI and other automation solutions require a very strong foundation. Looking at some of those learnings around behavioural insights, anticipating what citizens need and putting in place responses that cater for that will be very important.”

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