Defining Innovation in the public sector is not about bringing what works in other sectors and bringing it over to the public sector and expecting it to work in the same way. In the private sector, what fuels innovation is growth and more market share. In government agencies, mission impact and being good stewards of taxpayer’s money drives innovation. Therefore, incentives to innovate are very different. Underlying both of these incentives is deeper impact and creating innovations that people love and want to keep coming back.

Defining Innovation

Based on research, public sector innovation is defined in the following way:

Innovation is a product, program, service, or process that is new, creates value and changes the status quo of government services. To be impactful, innovations must also be scalable, not merely one-off novelties.

Federal government innovation means delivering a better government for and WITH the People.

Public sector innovation is split between four main categories of innovation, based on how might we as a government:

Category Types of Innovations
Create a 21st Century Culture and Workforce
  • Better hiring practices: hiring a Chief Innovation Officer, Tour of Duty hiring
  • Improve ways that contracting and acquisitions is done
  • Incentivize people to innovate and overcome barriers to innovation
Improve Government Services Delivery
  • Support creation of innovative labs, programs, and services; evangelize proven innovative disciplines, methods, and tools. Hire top talent to lead innovation.
  • Encourage data-informed decision making and evidence-based approaches to contribute to your transformation story.
  • Design citizen- and user-centered programs, products and services that speak directly to the public’s needs.
Solve Complex Societal and Governmental Problems
  • Identify and pursue grand challenges of the 21st century to address national priorities and tackle societal problems.
  • Lessen siloed thinking across government and encourage cross-agency collaboration to address common government challenges and share expertise.
  • Lead research and design to solve current challenges and look at what’s ahead to solve the challenges of the future.
Collaborate with Innovators Outside Government
  • Harness the creativity of the public through incentivized competitions/challenges.
  • Empower innovators with open and machine-readable Federal data.
  • Launch high-impact multi-sector collaborations.

Meeting the Innovation Imperative

The power of the federal government is in the reach and scale of its work. That reach and scale creates opportunities and challenges for innovation. Meeting the innovation imperative within government is not about launching ever-greater numbers of pilot projects that don’t grow. It’s about developing cultural norms and practices that support increased awareness, adoption, and adaptation of successful innovations systematically across the entirety of government.

Moreover, innovation is not a process with a fixed beginning and ending. It is the presence of a culture within an institution that prompts continuous action to improve processes to meet goals. Innovation is about encouraging a problem-solving mindset organization-wide, and using new tools and approaches to achieve greater mission impact.

We have narrowed down a deeper definition of innovation with the six plays that are located in this Playbook. The plays listed here were co-created over a series of workshops with more than 1,000 public sector innovators in Spring 2017.