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Working with innovation top of the agenda for government agencies

Innovation work at Swedish government agencies is at an exciting stage. More and more agencies realise that working with innovation is necessary for them to play an important role in the future. The agencies play a key role in transforming society - partly by driving innovation in their own operations, partly by initiating innovation in their surroundings.

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- I'd like to say that innovation is more important than ever for Swedish authorities, says Jakob Hellman, head of one of the divisions at Vinnova.

Jakob leads a team that looks at Vinnova's strategies to support innovation in the public sector.

- The public sector faces complex challenges. Among other things, it's about changing to sustainable activities that are adapted to the demographic development where an increasing part is elderly. But it's also about making sure the elderly keep up with the digitalisation. All this with scarce resources. It involves completely new ways of thinking and working, called transformation, explains Jakob Hellman.

Government agencies play a key role in the transition to a sustainable society.

- More and more agencies are recognising that they need to develop the ability to innovate in their own activities to manage the complex social development, be effective and meet citizens' expectations. At the same time, they can drive development in society by, for example, demanding innovation in their procurement and pursuing collaborations in their sector to create innovation.

Innovation is now on the management agenda

Innovation is still a relatively new phenomenon in the world of government. But a lot has happened and interest is increasing. Vinnova began to support innovation in the public sector in the early 2010s. Then many asked why the public sector should devote itself to innovation. Now the question is how. Innovation issues have gone from being something that is driven by committed project manager individuals to being on the management agenda.

In 2011, Vinnova started a forum for innovation in which six general directors of different government agencies participated. Now the same director forum has 23 members and more directors want to join. At the same time, the agencies are a diverse group of organisations with different purposes and sizes, and have come a long way in developing their innovative capacity.

Challenging habits

Today, innovation work raises new questions for the agencies. When they try to open up, collaborate and experiment across borders, they often encounter obstacles in, for example, law and financial control.

Many agencies also experience their own culture as an obstacle. To succeed in its activities in the future, leadership that has innovation high on the agenda and drives development is needed. But it also has to involve the entire organisation in thought and action. How do you create structure and culture to challenge the habitual ways of working and thinking? How can an agency focused on keeping government safe and establish effective processes simultaneously be good at experimenting and testing, or opening up for dialogue with others?

More and more people realise that agencies don't have all the solutions themselves. Insetad they have begun to use methods to involve collaborative partners and the people the agencies work for in their development activities.

Tanja Ståhle has worked with innovation at the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) for a number of years and runs a project to create a so-called reality lab. There, employees from various actors within community protection and preparedness, educators and students will be able to test and investigate the methods, processes and technology of the future in real-life and safe conditions.

Tanja feels that innovation work is becoming increasingly accepted and important at the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency and sees great opportunities with collaboration and exchange of experience.

- The reality lab should make it possible to work specifically with innovation, involve more perspectives, and experiment. The lab also hopefully also makes it easier to talk about and raise the innovation issues to the system and management level. The lab also provides us with a platform for regional development cooperation and has led to exciting contacts with actors in our sector in Europe, says Tanja.

At the same time, Tanja sees challenges in the internal culture of the authority, a challenge that is perceived by many authorities.

Shared learning

- Innovation work is at a very exciting stage for Swedish authorities. At Vinnova, we see that commitment is growing and that we can contribute to increased collaboration and learning, Jakob Hellman says.

For example, we meet a great need to learn more about innovation management and to learn from each other, which was evident when Vinnova organised a conference on the theme earlier this fall with 150 people from over 40 different agencies. Since agencies have come a long way and have chosen to do things in a slightly different way, there are also many experiences to learn from.

To build up more knowledge about what characterises successful innovation work in the public sector, Vinnova funded a research project carried out by KTH and Implement Consulting Group. The project has resulted in a research report and a much appreciated learning network. Six authorities participated in the network. Tanja Ståhle at the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency is one of the participants.

- The working method in the network has been very valuable. We have been able to find out about researchers' investigations on successful working methods and to share experiences with each other, says Tanja.

Deeper collaborations

In collaboration, the authorities face important challenges and find innovations at the system level. On the government's behalf, Vinnova has just completed a project which 12 authorities, including the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency and the Swedish Financial Supervisory Authority, tested working in so-called policy labs. Actors with different competencies gather to test, experiment and learn in policy development using user-centered methods. The conclusion is that regulations can hinder but also speed up and facilitate innovation development. Together with the Procurement Authority, work is underway to explore how to best procure innovation.

A group of authorities with the Police at the forefront is in the middle of a project to find new ways to work together and solve challenges that arise in the spaces between the authorities' activities. In this way, one hopes to be able to work smarter with, for example, organised crime.

Digitalisation provides opportunities for innovation but also raises new issues. How can authorities use all the data collected to innovate their way of working? Large authorities such as the Swedish Tax Agency and the Employment Service have begun to explore this. There are great opportunities here, while at the same time issues of security and integrity become important along the way.

"The authorities are well on their way to shoulder their key role, and we at Vinnova want to support them in their development," says Jakob Hellman.

Last updated 11 October 2019

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