It is probably fair to say that Denmark has taken the lead when it comes to public sector innovation in the Nordic region. The fare to the frontline has been fuelled by a cocktail of several ingredients; strong financial incitements and an early awakening to mention some. But it is also significant that Danish decision-makers have exhibited remarkable high levels of political courage, determination and trust in the public sector’s capacity for renewal.
Seen in the light of that tradition, the establishment of Center for Offentlig Innovation (COI) didn’t cause as many raised eyebrows as recognizing nods amongst those of us who follow the Danish renewal project from a distance. The initiative is a spot-on move on a diversified scene, where many public, civic and private players on a day-to-day basis put their heart and creativity into redesigning civil service in their local corner of the world. The need for a hub where successful approaches and learning experiences can be shared and collective ownership of tools and strategies boosted, is obvious.
The challenge of making an impact
Even in Sweden the need for a “neutral” national hub for public sector innovation has been recognized. An initiative with similarities to COI was launched by the Swedish Government 2011. It was named “the National Council for Innovation and Quality in the Public Sector”. In short, a small secretary was formed and top-level representatives from government agencies, the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions and private caretakers were put on the steering committee. The council collected experiences of public sector innovation and carried out activities to promote public sector innovation and craft strategies and recommendations that could be anchored with their stakeholders. Time limit was modest – the commission finished its work in 2013 - but the council managed to keep a good rate of work and offer some well thought through recommendations and bold suggestions in their final report. The report was read and appreciated for its profound insights and high ambition.
A year after the National Council for Innovation and Quality in the Public Sector closed its doors, the impact of the initiative is still uncertain.
The starting point of COI is beyond comparison more advantageous than the one of the Swedish council and the COI take-off is highly promising. Still, the Swedish example illustrates some of the question marks that frame the nature of highly ambitious, but small and temporary public sector innovation hubs, the most pressing being: How to make an impact during operation as well as after exit?
Does size really matter?
Yes, it does. Size and funding do matter and are in fact basic tools in the steering toolbox. So how come COI’s operation is limited to three years and the funding relatively small (approximately 9 million DKR/year) when billions of Danish kroners already have been invested in public sector innovation? Do the pre-requisites reflect a decrease in political will and determination?
The read of the COI strategy proves otherwise. COI obviously has the understanding of how to turn the center’s size into an advantage and plans of partnerships are mainstreamed into nearly every objective of the center. In other words, the level of funding has given the center clear incentives to join forces with established organizations and institutions and engage in collaboration and co-creative partnerships. A vaccine against turning inwards or abandoning the aspiration of developing a new role to play, that isn’t already taken.
There is of course a breaking point when smallness turns into a weakness from mainly being a strength. The question is whether COI, with a staff of four, is balancing dangerously close to that breaking point. Together with a uniquely competent advisory board, Pia Gjellerup and her team has put together a solid strategy which at the same time builds on success factors for public sector innovation and management, and leaves room for breaking new grounds and reinforce a frontline position. There is a lot of learning to be done by putting that strategy into play. But without the manpower to stimulate networking, partnerships and the building of high quality models and tools, the strategy is at risk of losing any realistic chance of having a sincere impact. Maybe it is time for a determined decision-maker to call for a meeting and say: “Well done! You’ve understood your role and you’re on the track. Now let’s give you the body to carry out that strategy.”