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THEORIZING PUBLIC SECTOR INNOVATION

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What is it?

There is currently a proliferation of “innovation” initiatives in the public sector. However, there is very little in practitioner or academic literature that explicitly describes the theories of change that they are using to define what innovation means, and how it is shaping their work. Some innovations are about improving customer experiences, and others are concerned with digital transformation. Some innovation efforts are about transforming systems, and others are focused on democratic and co-creation with those outside government. All of these approaches can be called “innovation”, but there are very different understandings of how change happens implicit in their approaches.  This foundation aims to help fill this gap by making the theories that are guiding possible understandings and interpretations of “how change happens” in innovation efforts more explicit, appropriate, and strategic.

How is it used?

This is a tool to aid strategic thinking and choice-making early in an innovation effort. The goal of this framework is to surface the choices that are being made when defining “innovation”, and to provide a structure to question the underlying and often unstated assumptions, values, and ambitions of these initiatives. The aim is to  contribute to more effective and transformative change initiatives in the public sector by taking a stronger approach to theorization. 

 

This foundation can be used in a variety of ways, both dialogically as well as by individuals. The key idea is to really wrestle with understanding and choice-making about the type of innovation effort you are undertaking. Dig into what these words mean, and understand what the real differences are between these choices. Get rigourous about how you are using your words, and how these choices then translate into your process design and choice of tools and techniques. A blank template is provided, with the idea that each of the “petals” is shaded with a level of saturation that represents the extent to which each particular element of this framework is part of your approach to how change happens.

 

This is a framework that can be used by individual innovation efforts, but it can also be used collectively. When innovation initiatives are collectively more explicit about our understanding and contributions to how change happens in our unique contexts, the learning and movement-building potential will be much greater. Stronger impact evaluation frameworks can also be created when this foundation is put into place, rather than continuing to focus mostly on measuring outputs and activities that do not tell the full stories of change.

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