What is Government Innovation? Towards a Structured Typology

Julienne Chen, Sr. Research Associate, Chen Tianqiao Programme on Urban Innovation

In recent years, we have seen a growth in popular discourse about the importance of the “city as the future.” Globally, there have been historic increases in the number of people moving to cities, which, coupled with trends for governments to decentralize, have given significant credence to the local levels of government responsible for city units (UN Habitat World Cities Report 2016).

“Mayors are leaders, doers. We get things done, and we are moving America’s cities forward. That can be a jarring idea in today’s America when some of our national leaders can’t seem to agree on anything. Mayors don’t have the luxury of endless debate and gridlock. We respond, every day, to the needs of our cities. We pick up the trash. We balance our budgets. Have police officers patrol the streets. Put out fires. Fix potholes.” – Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, 80th Annual Conference of Mayors.

Within the context of the increasing importance of the city as a unit, there has also been a corresponding emphasis on the need for city government to “innovate” their policies, services and practices. Some argue that this is a direct result of the Great Recession, which has introduced an imperative for governments to be inventive in order to “do more with less,” while others see it as a reaction to the increasing responsibility of cities and city mayors to find new solutions to the challenges and complexities of our urban systems. Regardless of the reason, it has become clear that the old ways of doing things do not have the capacity to meet the needs of a modern constituency. In a time of rapid change, it has become a critical asset for cities to be nimble and proactive in responding to new technologies and trends.

What does innovation mean? The OECD definition of “innovation” is an interesting starting point and expands beyond the traditional assumption that innovation is inherently about technology and brand new discoveries. Instead, the OECD definition focuses on products, processes, marketing and organizational innovations that are “new or significantly improved,” or “involving significant changes.” Of course, what is considered “significant” is a key question and will be discussed later on.

Some of the recent language of government innovation mirror many of the same principles of the New Public Management, a push in the 1980s to bring more accountability to government through private-sector modes of management, treating the citizen as a “customer” and setting measurable standards of performance to ensure that taxpayer funds were being put to good use (Hood 1995). Examples include cities that have embraced practices such as design thinking to redesign city services (e.g., improving bus service, creating one-stop shops), performance management units to ensure accountability and measure success, data-driven decision making to help target limited resources towards the greatest need, and new partnership/contracting models such as pay-for-performance. Other examples have been more focused on identifying new methods to advance the urban agenda, such as experiments with minimum wage and energy sustainability, that attempt to break from path dependency in transformative ways.

However, the proliferation of the word “innovation” has become a double edged sword – while it has encouraged the ethos to spread widely, it has also diluted the concept, making it difficult to know what it means when a government claims to be innovative, or to evaluate innovations against one another and thus push the boundary on excellence in public service delivery and social outcomes.

To bring more clarity into these discussions, I’ve been working to develop a preliminary typology of the methods and tools, aims, intents and mediums of different examples of government innovation that have been given credence over the past several years, in hopes of stimulating and providing more definition to future discourse.

To construct this typology, I reviewed many of the innovations that have been publicized through outlets such as Governing Magazine and CityLab, and government innovation programs such as the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayor’s Challenge, the Knight Foundation and Nesta. To ensure a global focus, I also reviewed applications to the 2016 Guangzhou International Award for Urban Innovation to see what types of projects were being put forth that qualified as being innovative practice. While sifting through these various projects, I was struck by how varied in type, scope and size they were, and used these observations to develop the below schema as a starting point to categorize different types of innovations.

My hope is that we can use it as a springboard to better understand the landscape of projects that are emerging within city governments, and move from an overreliance on being “innovative” to a sharper focus on the best mechanisms to achieve the city’s needs. Such a schema could also be useful in holding governments accountable for multiple types of innovation, and ensuring they are not relying on incremental forms of innovation at the expense of truly transformative innovations, or vice versa. What results is a simple schema that highlights three key areas of differentiation:

  • Is the innovation based on continuous improvement or breakthrough thinking?
  • What is the goal of the innovation?
  • What form does the innovation take?

I explore these categories a bit further below:

Category 1: Continuous Improvement or Breakthrough Thinking

Traditionally, the word “innovation” has been paired with science (e.g., R&D, space travel) and technology (e.g., cloud computing, apps), although this has been fairly soundly debunked in the context of the government in favor of a broader definition that leans more towards transformation, evolution and adaptation – regardless of whether it is low or high tech.

In general, there is agreement that the term commonly encompasses initiatives that fall somewhere along the spectrum between “continuous improvement” and “breakthrough thinking” – or in other words, from incremental process changes to new inventions (Moore 2005). In the midpoint of this spectrum, I would also position “taking to market,” acknowledging that there are few ideas that are truly new, but some of the most common urban innovations consist of adapting strong ideas from elsewhere to the local context, or implementing new technologies like digital services in a government setting.

It is vital in the context of discussing innovation to be clear about whether it is an innovation that takes an existing process and improves its execution, whether it is an innovation that applies an existing idea or technology in a new environment, or if it is an innovation that truly breaks from path dependency and charts a significant departure from how things were done in the past. Thus, I propose including a category in the typology that assesses the extent of the transformation, as there are very different needs and outcomes that occur from either end of the spectrum.

Category 2: Goals of Innovating

What is the purpose of government innovation? While there is an underlying assumption that governments exist to elevate the quality of life of their citizens – there is generally also an additional, more targeted, set of goals that seem to drive government innovation. Here I argue that motives matter – we should understand that innovations can be used to create good, but can also be used to justify or mask the bad or unnecessary – and that doing something new is not in and of itself a fundamentally good thing. Thus, as we consider innovations, we should take a critical eye towards what it achieves, and therefore create a sense of accountability that the innovation is meeting a stated need, and not a solution in search of a problem. To address this point, I add “goals of innovating” to the typology, which could fall under one of the following:

  1. Increase the coverage of existing services so that more citizens are eligible and/or can access those services
  2. Improve the quality and responsiveness of existing services so that citizens can access them more easily and more quickly (e.g., better customer service, user-centered design)
  3. Create new services that respond to emerging citizen needs
  4. Decrease the costs of providing services through achieving efficiencies in staff, resources or alternative delivery models
  5. Prevent future problems from occurring that are likely to risk public safety and consume large amounts of resources (e.g., earthquake retrofitting for buildings, hurricane preparedness)
  6. Increase the city’s tax base by attracting new residents and tourists, or increasing the productivity of existing residents
  7. Elevate the status of the city and administration by modeling best-in-practice
  8. Address a social tension/challenge or new innovation that threatens the existing social order (e.g., asylum seekers, homelessness, ride share, autonomous vehicles, etc.)
  9. Meet a mandate that is required by a funding or regulatory agency (e.g., to reduce sewer overflows or decrease police brutality)

Category 3: Forms of Innovation

Finally, innovation takes many forms – as mentioned earlier, it does not have to be technology driven, but can happen whenever cities find a way to break from “business as usual”. My review of government innovations has shown that this can include:

  1. Policies: Developing policies that are new and/or make a significant break with the past (e.g., minimum wage)
  2. Strategic Plans: Creating strategic plans / master plans that incorporate new or innovative practices, from planning through to implementation (e.g., incorporating particularly sustainable elements that are well positioned for implementation)
  3. Regulations: Reforming or updating regulations that are barriers to desired outcomes (e.g., pink zoning codes that loosen requirements for development within specific zones to allow for cheaper rehabilitation of dilapidated housing, reducing parking requirements to account for more people using ride share instead of driving, etc.)
  4. Services and Programs: Modifying or implementing services or programs, ideally in creative ways that cross agency boundaries and/or help to meet more than one need with one solution (e.g., having low-income individuals collect trash in exchange for bus tokens, food and school supplies – providing social supports while also addressing the challenge of trash collection in Curitiba favelas; half built houses in Chile that decrease the cost of producing affordable housing while enabling the inhabitants to build out and add value to their homes over time)
  5. New Business Models and Partnerships: Utilizing novel business models to deliver and/or pay for services (e.g., public-private partnerships, pay for performance and performance-based budgeting); forging multi-agency/stakeholder partnerships that enable new ways of delivering services in ways that are more effective and holistic, including bottom-up and community-led approaches
  6. Technology Products: Offering or enabling a technology product for constituents (e.g., free wifi, digital kiosks)
  7. Process and Data Management: Standardizing, re-ordering and/or automating processes so they are more predictable and efficient; integrating/overhauling computer systems to allow for better data management and data sharing
  8. Digitizing Services, Web Platforms and Apps: Making services available online (e.g., online payments and applications); developing new online platforms and applications for communicating and exchanging ideas, goods and services (e.g., 311, open data).
  9. Performance Management: Creating accountability mechanisms, such as city dashboards, that help decision makers understand how the city is performing and identify areas for structured and targeted improvement.

Towards a Typology for Government Innovation

By combining the categories we can create a matrix that helps to categorize and sort different types of innovations. Thus, we can begin to have more targeted discussions about what innovation means. Some projects, such as fundamental policy changes, will probably always have a higher impact than small, community-led projects. That does not mean that one is more valid than the other, as they both fulfill important roles in city governance, but it does mean that they should not be compared against one another in the same playing field, or that they should have the same label assigned to them.

I would love to hear from others’ experiences with government innovation, as well as feedback and input to improve the above typology so that we can better understand the current state of government innovation. Equally importantly, by pushing the dialog and cataloguing best practices that emerge from city governments today, we can continuously raise the bar on specific categories of innovations and ensure that innovation doesn’t become relegated as a buzz word that says everything, but means nothing.