Innovation, Government and the Concept of Novelty

By John Powers and Julienne Chen


It seems like hardly a day goes without hearing in some way or another the importance of innovation to the social and economic vitality of our economies and our cities. Much is increasingly made about the latter being the strategic sites where innovation flourishes and continually renews itself. It has become commonplace to hear of the importance of making cities more innovative. Typically, the attention is centered around economic innovation in the business enterprise sector as the link between innovation as a driver of long-run economic growth is a generally well acknowledged relationship in scholarly and policy circles. Comparatively less understood is how innovation is occurring in the public and social sectors where innovation concepts and modes of thinking are being used to improve key service functions, solve complex problems, and generally boost performance. Whereas science and technology development through R&D and its multi-faceted downstream activities leading to commercialization of new technologies are commonly associated with much of what innovation is understand to be, innovation has expanded in the last couple of decades to include organizational and even marketing-related functions in the private enterprise sector as expressed in the international measurement framework for innovation under the OECD’s Oslo Manual; only more recently has emerging scholarship begun to define innovation in any robust or generally accepted sense as it regards innovation in government.

City governments around the world, including international agencies working to support social and economic development, are increasingly developing innovation departments, innovation labs, and in some cases appointing ‘chief innovation officers’ ostensibly to re-orient significant aspects of the work of their many agencies to enhance the lives of residents through innovation. This invites important questions about what innovation in government actually consists of, how the current focus on innovation may be changing the public sector service delivery function, and how innovation in the public sector may be a distinct phenomenon as opposed to many previous cycles of governmental reform efforts, including often highly publicized calls to ‘reinvent’ government.

Unlike some of these previous cycles of reform which were drawn to efficiency and outsourcing, such as the New Public Management, the emerging rhetoric appears to have a different driving force that is more oriented towards public value. Thus, we explore the question: does this new tranche of innovation in government bear new promise to improve social and economic equity in our cities?

Innovation, government, and the concept of novelty

There are differing notions of innovation. In an earlier post, we talked about the spectrum between continuous, incremental improvement and breakthrough thinking. However, it is important to keep in mind that innovation in a more orthodox sense does entail some notion of novelty (e.g. traditionally of an industrial product or process type).

This leads us to ask two questions. First, is what is considered “government innovation” an innovation because it is a break with a previous mode of governance, or because the policy and program outcomes themselves are innovative? This may seem like a circular distinction. However, considering that novel processes may very well yield less than novel outcomes/results, and interesting or innovative outcomes may derive from conventional process, how do we meaningfully assess where innovation in government resides?

For instance, what Gerry Stoker (2006) terms as the “traditional public administration” was a key paradigm of the 20th century, one in which government was largely top down, hierarchical, state-centered and rule-based. It was during this era, when government had a monopoly-type role in providing public goods for a relatively homogenous population, that several large-scale infrastructural and social service policy innovations emerged, such as novel national transportation and housing delivery systems across the United States.

Emerging from the traditional bureaucracy in the mid-20th century was a paradigm that is now commonly characterized as the shift from government to governance, or moving from a heavy-handed mode of ruling to one of steering and guiding external actors to help achieve governmental aims. Of particular note is the New Public Management (NPM), a specific mode of governance that emphasizes bringing a private sector management ethos into public sector administration. Key tenets of the NPM include a decided rhetorical focus on public sector accountability. In essence, it responded to the perceived inefficiency and corruption of traditional bureaucracy, and questioned whether government services were effective in terms of actual outcomes. A series of reforms were introduced to increase government performance and efficiency, including organizational management techniques and outsourcing services such as trash collection and IT to the private sector (e.g., Hood 1995). Arguably, in this era we shifted from policy and program innovation into a phase of process innovation; while little consensus has been reached on whether NPM reforms have been successful in achieving their aims of better service and fewer costs (Osborne 2006).

Since the early naughts, we have seen a new wave of government reform, often referred to as networked governance. Like the NPM, there is not one overarching definition, but there is a significant shift that typically refers to 1) a renewed focus on the public value and 2) a recognition of the complexity and interdependence of modern day society. The aims of networked governance thus go beyond accountability and efficiency, and begin to ask questions about whether or not positive social and economic outcomes are being achieved (Stoker 2006).

Given the context of these three overlapping, intertwined paradigms, one must ask: what not only characterizes, but distinguishes, what is now referred to as government innovation? Does it represent a new form of governance that has the potential to shift power and begin to meaningfully address issues such as social inequality in novel ways? Is it a repackaging of previous modes of governance, made shiny again with new language? Or is it a minor shift, playing at the margins of path dependent, existing institutional practices? In short, is “government innovation” an innovation itself? And if so, does its promise for more equitable outcomes hold weight amongst a competing set of priorities and ideologies?

In our subsequent post, we set up a future research agenda, with an emphasis on exploring these questions through the lens of specific examples of service delivery.



Stoker, G. (2006). Public Value Management A New Narrative for Networked Governance? American Review of Public Administration, 36(1), 41-57.

Osborne, S. (2006). Editorial: The New Public Governance? Public Management Review, 8(3), 377-387.

Hood, C. (1995). The “new public management” in the 1980s: variations on a theme. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 20(2), 93-109.

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