The Persistence of Innovation in Government [NOOK Book]


Sandford Borins addresses the enduring significance of innovation in government as practiced by public servants, analyzed by scholars, discussed by media, documented by awards, and experienced by the public. In The Persistence of Innovation in Government, he maps the changing landscape of American public sector innovation in the twenty-first century, largely by addressing three key questions:

• Who innovates?

• When, why, and how do they do it?

• What are the persistent ...

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The Persistence of Innovation in Government

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Sandford Borins addresses the enduring significance of innovation in government as practiced by public servants, analyzed by scholars, discussed by media, documented by awards, and experienced by the public. In The Persistence of Innovation in Government, he maps the changing landscape of American public sector innovation in the twenty-first century, largely by addressing three key questions:

• Who innovates?

• When, why, and how do they do it?

• What are the persistent obstacles and the proven methods for overcoming them?

Probing both the process and the content of innovation in the public sector, Borins identifies major shifts and important continuities. His examination of public innovation combines several elements: his analysis of the Harvard Kennedy School's Innovations in American Government Awards program; significant new research on government performance; and a fresh look at the findings of his earlier, highly praised book Innovating with Integrity: How Local Heroes Are Transforming American Government. He also offers a thematic survey of the field's burgeoning literature, with a particular focus on international comparison.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Sandford Borins has produced another tour de force. Combining comparative knowledge,
data, and analysis from the 1990 and 2010 Kennedy School Innovations in American Government Awards applications, Borins presents a rich portrait of policy and management innovations in the U.S., comparing his fi ndings to studies in Europe and around the world to paint a mosaic of how and why government innovation occurs. Written in clear and lively prose, and full of insights, I heartily recommend this book!" —Frances S. Berry, Frank Sherwood Professor of Public Administration, Florida State University

"If the purpose of innovation in government is to help institutions of democratic governance adapt to rapidly changing circumstances and popular expectations, the work is far from finished. Sandford Borins, like the innovators he has studied for over two decades, persists in the mission to understand this important and diffi cult work. This wonderful book is a must-read for both optimists and skeptics of innovation in government." —Jorrit De Jong, Lecturer in Public Policy and Management and Academic
Director of the Innovations in Government Program, Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government

"Wise scholars early on seize a central issue to which they return recurrently over the course of a career. For Sandford Borins that defining theme, amid a widely varied research agenda, is the topic of this book. Innovation in the pursuit of public value is the ore-rich intellectual quarry, which he mines again and again. In this volume on the persistence of innovation he once more demonstrates, to the benefi t of all of us who care about governmental performance, the payoff to persistence in inquiry." —John D. Donahue, Faculty Chair, Masters in Public Policy Program, Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Sanford Borins is a Professor of Public Management at the University of Toronto and
a Research Fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard
University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He studies narrative and innovation, and his previous books include Governing Fables: Learning from Public Sector Narratives (2011) and Innovating with Integrity: How Local Heroes Are Transforming American Government (1998).

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Brookings Institution Press

All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8157-2560-2


Public Sector Innovation: Still, and Again

Innovation as a phenomenon within the public sector persists. Despite skepticism about whether large, hierarchical, monopolistic government agencies can initiate and embrace change, there is extensive evidence that they can, they do, and they will. Because innovators persist. In the face of the obstacles inherent to the process, in spite of the risk of failure, in spite of the time, energy, vision, skill, networking, preparation, accommodation, persuasion, education, and improvisation required to bring an innovation to fruition, public servants continue to try new ways to create public value. Innovation has also outlasted the theoretical controversies and political backlash of the 1980s, when the New Public Management was new and government was the problem, the all-too-brief limelight of Reinventing Government in the 1990s, and the security and financial crises of the new century, when government started to look more like the only possible solution.

Innovation awards also persist, bringing wider recognition to these efforts among practitioners, scholars, and the general public and encouraging new generations of change agents, experimenters, and "local heroes." Twenty-five years after their inception, the Harvard Kennedy School's Innovations in American Government Awards receive over five hundred applications every year, two-thirds of them new, all of them evidence of an enduring fact. The academic study of public sector innovation clearly persists. Researchers worldwide are producing a continual stream of work, seeking new data sources, and asking new questions. And my own personal interest in innovation persists. Twenty years after first studying innovation awards applicants, I continue to find that they provide an important body of information and experience for grappling with this persistent, and shifting, subject. For if public sector innovation endures, and it clearly does, it still does not stay the same.

In many ways this book is a return—to a subject, to a methodology, and to data I have engaged with extensively, in my book Innovating with Integrity: How Local Heroes are Transforming American Government (Borins 1998) and in numerous articles that followed it. Technically, it is even a replication. Like the earlier work, this study will analyze applications to the Innovations in American Government Awards program run by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School. Like the earlier work, this too will employ rigorous statistical analysis, aggregating data to identify trends and anomalies and using regression analysis to test hypotheses about the relationships among characteristics of public sector innovations. And it will also try to convey something of the character and specificity of individual innovations, innovators, and their processes through secondary, disaggregated, qualitative observation.

Within the social sciences, replication tends to be endorsed in theory more often than it is embraced in practice. No one questions the desirability of repeating research as a test of its initial validity or broader applicability. But replicating other scholars' work can be felt to suggest a lack of imagination or initiative and generates none of the excitement of discovery. Most researchers, understandably, prefer to strike out for themselves. If they are revisiting others' data, they do so in their own way, choosing their own methodologies and providing their own interpretations. The one exception occurs when findings are considered controversial or have proved to have a major impact on public policy. The recent reanalysis of Rogoff and Rinehart's data about financially induced recessions comes to mind as a pertinent current example. When replication does occur, it is most often undertaken by the original scholar, because he or she believes in the ongoing value of the research and has better access to the original data and methodology. Replication of this type often appears as subsequent editions of a book. The study of innovation has a distinguished exemplar: the late Everett Rogers's Diffusion of Innovations, published in five editions between 1962 and 2003. Rogers originally developed a conceptual model of diffusion. He then applied it to a growing number of phenomena in his subsequent editions.

I do not see this book as a second edition of Innovating with Integrity, however, nor would I call it simply a replication. To explain why, it is necessary to recap something of the history of public sector innovation, as a practice and as an object of study, retracing the evolution of my own thinking and writing about the subject as part of that larger story. Initially, innovation was closely tied to the Reinventing Government movement, the term most often used in the United States, or the New Public Management (NPM) as the phenomenon was known internationally, with NPM and innovation evolving simultaneously in the last fifteen years of the previous century. The governments of the United Kingdom and New Zealand in the mid-1980s pioneered NPM ideas and practices. David Osborne, first in Laboratories of Democracy (1990) and then together with Ted Gaebler in Reinventing Government (1992), analyzed and publicized the innovations that were bubbling up, primarily at the state and local levels in the United States. Reinventing Government derived ten principles of a new paradigm of government from approximately fifty government innovations with which the authors were familiar. The Harvard Kennedy School's Innovations in State and Local Government Award, instituted in 1986, offered external recognition to encourage innovative public servants to share information about the programs they had initiated. The program was also intended to counteract the "government is the problem" rhetoric and policies espoused by the Reagan administration. Indeed, some of the early winners were discussed in Reinventing Government, and David Osborne has been a longtime member of the national selection committee. (A word of explanation regarding the proliferation of award program names: the John F. Kennedy School of Government's State and Local Government Awards program was expanded in 1995 to include applications from the federal government, and consequently was renamed the Innovations in American Government Awards, the name that is still in use today. In 2007 the school began referring to itself as the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). For convenience I will generally refer to the awards program as the HKS Awards and distinguish particular iterations of it by date or date span.)

Much of the debate among practitioners and academics about the merits of NPM focused on high-level, government-wide structural reforms such as service charters, disaggregation of government departments into a cluster of single-purpose (or at least tightly focused) agencies, fixed-term contracts between agency heads and ministers, and the replacement of cash-basis accounting with accrual accounting. But it was clear even then that "big reforms and big ideas" were not necessarily the whole story. Pollitt and Bouchaert (2000, 191) concluded their magisterial comparative study of high-level reforms with the recognition that the reform movement necessarily included local innovations, what they called "micro-improvements." The proliferation of such improvements was, they felt, a direct result of the cultural shifts within the public sector represented by NPM, and fostering them was a crucial component of any successful reform strategy:

And yet there is another side to public management reform, which has a more solid and sensible persona. The pressure, the rhetoric, the loosening of the old ways—all these have combined to give many public servants the opportunity to make changes which make local sense to them. Such "improvements" may occasionally be self-serving, but often they are substantially other-directed and result in gains in productivity, service quality, transparency, fairness, or some other important value.... One of the major limitations of our approach—and the approaches of many others who have concentrated on big reforms and big ideas—is that they capture very little of this micro-improvement. As some of the most successful reform leaders in several countries have recognized, a crucial ingredient of a successful reform strategy is that it should create and sustain conditions in which small improvements—many of them unforeseen and unforeseeable-can flourish.

Despite this resounding endorsement of local innovation by two major scholars, critics of NPM did not spare it. They argued that the entrepreneurial public servants who initiated innovations were engaging primarily in self-promotion, rule-breaking, and power politics, ignoring traditional public service values such as probity and deference to political authority. Larry Terry (1998), who made this argument most forcefully, concluded that the innovators' "penchant for rule-breaking and manipulating public authority for private gain has been, and continues to be, a threat to democratic governance." NPM advocates countered, with leading scholars like Robert Behn (1998) arguing that innovative public servants were taking the lead in policy areas on which elected politicians were not focusing their attention and that legislation often did not provide clear direction for public servants, a fact that forced them to take the initiative.

Although the very title of my 1998 book might be seen as an implicit admission of the possibility of innovation without integrity, I explicitly joined the debate about public sector entrepreneurship with an article published in Public Administration Review (Borins 2000a) entitled "Loose Cannons and Rule Breakers, or Enterprising Leaders? Some Evidence about Innovative Public Managers." The article used data from the HKS Awards in the 1990s to demonstrate that the applicants did not behave like loose cannons or rule-breakers; rather, they combined initiative and creativity with traditional public service values, such as respect for the law and due process.

The vigor, and even occasional vitriol, of the New Public Management debate has long since abated—changes in political leadership (Bush replacing Clinton and Obama replacing Bush), the emergence of new policy priorities (homeland security, climate change, and economic renewal in response to the global financial crisis), and changing research interests all playing their part. Perhaps the most lasting legacy of NPM has been a focus on defining and measuring the results that public sector programs and activities are intended to achieve. This has been facilitated by the information technology (IT)revolution that has enabled governments to readily gather, analyze, and post their performance data online. Kamensky (2013) succinctly summarizes this trend as the evolution from "Reinventing Government" to "Moneyball Government." To a certain extent the NPM battle has mutated, with former enthusiasts emerging as advocates of performance measurement and performance management and former skeptics redefining themselves as critics of the performance management revolution.

Nothing ages faster than yesterday's "new." But if the New Public Management controversies are now history, interest in public sector innovation has if anything grown stronger among both practitioners and scholars. Today's much more challenging policy agenda has led governments to welcome public entrepreneurship and commentators to celebrate the achievements of innovative public servants, rather than impugn their motives. Governments look both within the public service and to civil society generally for innovative solutions to policy problems and for better ways of providing service, and they will likely continue to do so. Within the public sector, innovation awards programs, most notably the HKS Awards, are still in operation and continue to receive hundreds of applications, providing scholars with an ongoing source of qualitative and quantitative information. This new urgency has its parallel in the private sector, with the question of innovation now a pressing one for private sector managers and business school researchers alike. Innovative corporate "visionaries" and "geniuses" are routinely featured in the popular media and some management scholarship for their defiance of conventional corporate wisdom and ability to "think outside the box." (Within the private sector business advice genre, "innovation" often seems to have become today's TQM, shorthand for a comprehensive reconceptualization of practice focused on new product development.)

It is the data from the HKS Awards that have formed the persistent through- line in my own study of public management innovation. Innovating with Integrity drew on systematic statistical analysis and thematic qualitative analysis of a large sample of 217 semifinalists in the HKS Awards between 1990 and 1994. I quickly followed this with a number of articles applying its analysis to additional, albeit smaller, data sets (Borins 2000a, 2000b, 2001a, 2001b). These included 104 HKS Awards finalists between 1995 and 1998, 33 of the best applicants between 1990 and 1994 to the Institute of Public Administration of Canada's Innovative Management Awards, and 83 applications to the Commonwealth Association of Public Administration and Management's (CAPAM) Commonwealth International Innovations Awards in 1998 and 2000. The subsequent articles detailed an innovation process similar to that observed in the United States and discussed in Innovating with Integrity.

Of course, this time period was the beginning of the Web era, and it is not surprising that approximately one-third of the award applications I analyzed involved some form of information technology. This led me into a parallel exploration of IT as a facilitator of public sector innovation. I convened an international team of scholars to chronicle the progress and explore the implications of the Internet as medium of transaction with citizens (Gov 1.0) and its use for policy development, public consultation, and democratic dialogue (Gov 2.0) in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. We published our findings in Digital State at the Leading Edge (Borins and others 2007).

At the same time, I continued my active research on, and teaching of, professionally authored narratives relating to the American and British public sectors, culminating in my 2011 book, Governing Fables: Learning from Public Sector Narratives (Borins 2011). This, too, has been a long-standing, persistent intellectual interest of mine, but one that I had initially conceived as quite separate from my work on innovation. Increasingly, however, the two streams-narrative and innovation-converged. This was literally the case in 2008, when I edited a festschrift celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the HKS Awards, Innovations in Government, while researching and writing Governing Fables. The festschrift included chapters studying public sector innovations in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Brazil, as well as a history of the HKS Awards program and an evaluation of the body of research it has supported. Carrying over something of the narrative perspective of my other project to my engagement with my colleagues' work enabled me to see as narratives the HKS Awards semifinalist applications, which respond to a comprehensive questionnaire about the program's antecedents, origins, implementation, overcoming of obstacles, and achievements. I undertook a pilot project, employing a narratological methodology and perspective to analyze the varied retellings of the stories of the thirty-one finalists in 2008 and 2009.

This fusion of innovation and narrative research was a difficult but immensely rewarding venture. It was published in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory in 2011 (Borins 2012). By returning me to the HKS Awards database, albeit with a markedly different perspective, it also served to convince me that, almost two decades after the first applications I studied, the time had come for a comprehensive reexamination of innovations undertaken by applicants to the program. The Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at HKS concurred and generously provided funding. The approach we decided on was an analysis of applications to the 2010 awards. This time, however, in addition to studying the detailed questionnaires submitted by the semifinalists—which had been my database in previous research—I also collected and analyzed the data from a large sample of the much more succinct initial applications, which included both those chosen as semifinalists and those that were not. Data about initial applicants enabled me to ask additional questions: What differentiates those selected as semifinalists from those that were not? Do the semifinalists demonstrate characteristics similar to the group from which they were selected? Are certain characteristics more frequently represented because the HKS Awards judges impose their own views of what constitutes public sector innovation?


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Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments, ix,
1 Public Sector Innovation: Still, and Again, 1,
2 Emergence and Diversity: Public Sector Innovation Research, 11,
3 The Class of 2010, 40,
4 Present at the Creation, 61,
5 Innovation Stories: Real People, Real Challenges, Real Outcomes, 86,
6 Creating Public Value, Receiving Public Recognition, 108,
7 From Data to Stories: Innovation Patterns in the Six Policy Areas, 143,
8 Summing Up, Looking Forward: Awards, Practitioners, and Academics, 180,
Appendix: Initial Application and Semifinalist Application Questionnaires, 207,
References, 211,
Index, 217,

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