Culture as a Critical Factor in Driving Innovation for the Public Good (Part I)

Samuel Kelley and Tim Glynn-Burke • August 14th, 2012 • Business, Engagement, General, Landscape, Management, Philanthropy, Poverty

The Project on Social Innovation suggests that there are three critical factors for cities looking to encourage innovation in public problem solving: capacity, policy, and culture. We’ve written earlier about this project here and here. This post is part of a two-column series that uses examples from relevant literature to explore what it means to create a culture of innovation in government—excerpted in part from a series of papers that we will release in the near future. For more information on this project or to be notified when these papers are published, please contact us at

Like “entrepreneurship” and “risk capital,” culture is a traditional business concept that has made its way over time into government. The new uses for these terms represent a fusion between business models and public organizational structures that we have seen over the course of a few decades. In the best cases, this blending has led to significant strides in making government and other public interest-serving entities more accessible, transparent, and efficient for employees and the public they serve.

In addition to improved accessibility, transparency, and efficiency, we are increasingly now looking for innovation – or innovative thinking – from our public institutions at every level (federal, state and local). More churn and innovation is needed in how public agencies deliver services and try to solve our toughest public problems.

As part of its efforts to help cities develop and measure their innovation-promoting agendas, the Project on Social Innovation has identified three critical areas of focus for public agencies: building capacity of local innovators, refining the policy landscape to open ‘space’ for innovation, and promoting a culture of innovation within government and the community.

Both columns in this series use a modest sample of the relevant academic literature to discuss the value of creating an innovative culture across the complex networks of public and private providers, funders and community groups tackling our communities’ toughest problems. They also suggest strategies for promoting the right culture in which innovative ideas can manifest and grow into new norms, policies, etc. First, what do we mean by “culture”? Management scholar Jean-François Henri (2006) draws on Rouseau and others for this useful description from his paper Organizational culture and performance measurement systems:

“Culture encompasses five elements… At one end, material artifacts and patterns of behavior comprise the observable physical manifestations and patterns of activity. For instance, symbols, language, rituals, and mechanisms of decision-making, coordination, and communication are part of these two primary layers. Behavioral norms are the common beliefs regarding acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, while values are the priorities assigned to certain states or outcomes. At the other end, fundamental assumptions are the unconscious elements that are not directly knowable, even to members.”

In our framework for encouraging innovation, we associate three strategies with promoting an innovative culture: one directed at individual citizens, another at the organizational level, and the third directed at the public as a whole.

The first strategy involves allowing clients (of government services) to actively participate in their own progress, including the solicitation of their active feedback on programs and services. Similarly, Hein van Duivenboden and Marcel Thaens (2008) suggest that to foster innovation in its services, government must modify its traditional approach and make its work more accessible, transparent and responsive to the public.

In their article on ICT driven innovation in the public sector, van Duivenboden and Thaens use Henri’s above definition of culture in their chicken-and-egg discussion on public sector efforts to leverage information technology to foster a culture of innovation – while at the same time needing an innovative culture to incorporate new information technologies. The authors seek to answer an interesting question: “How can it be that public innovation takes place even though the culture of public administration makes it unlikely?” Their answer includes “a clear focus, the freedom to experiment and the combination of knowledge of several actors.” Equally important within public institutions is a shift in orientation from strictly following procedure to co-creating solutions alongside citizens. Mark Moore and Stephen Goldsmith have both written thoughtful pieces about this important shift.

As their focus is on technology innovation, van Duivenboden and Thaens suggest as an example that one way to provide more responsive service is through an online application process connected to a large database available for multi-agency use. Applicants for any government service could then have their information available to other agencies to which they might apply for services—effectively replacing multiple bureaucratic checkpoints or at least mitigating duplication of effort.

In San Francisco, Chief Innovation Officer Jay Nath pushes the potential for technology to engage directly with citizens even further. The City is developing programs like Smart PDF’s that give San Franciscans the ability to reach out to city government on various issues through an easy online process. This tech-driven innovation enables residents to contribute to making the city a better place while increasing the accessibility and responsiveness of government services.

A second strategy for promoting a culture of innovation is rewarding and protecting risk taking activities, as well as recruiting, rewarding and protecting risk takers or innovators. The incentives and signaling for risk-taking inside any organization are most often driven by the leader or executive of that organization. Kristina Jaskyte (2004) highlights a significant body of literature connecting leadership (whether by the mayor in a city, owner of a business, or executive director at a nonprofit) to transforming the culture of an organization.

Jaskyte’s article Transformational Leadership, Organizational Culture, and Innovativeness in Nonprofit Organization, connects leadership to innovation through its ability to shape organizational culture. Typically the leadership of an organization establishes its culture, the norms and rules that govern it, and even staff stability and cohesiveness. Because leaders establish so many lasting principles in an organization, setting a framework in motion early on that establishes the right culture is an important step towards institutionalizing innovation within an organization.

Jaskyte studied 19 nonprofit organizations and their leaders’ relationship to organizational culture and, in particular, their innovativeness. The measure she used to determine the innovativeness of an individual organization was the number of innovations an organization had adopted within the past two years, whether they be administrative (e.g. creation of a new performance evaluation system; introduction of a new training topic for employees or volunteers); technological product innovations (e.g. introduction of new services or programs; extension of the services to new groups of clients previously not served by the organization); or a technological process innovation (e.g. creation of a new way of service delivery and significant conversion of an existing way of service delivery).

The leadership actions that Jaskyte tested in regards to their potential to encourage innovation include the use of transformational leadership practices (“challenging the process, inspiring the shared vision, enabling others to act, modeling the way, and encouraging the heart”). The organizational culture characteristics she tested were “Attention to Detail, Innovation, Outcome Orientation, Aggressiveness, Team Orientation, Stability, and People Orientation.”

Next week, in the second part of this discussion before we move on to the third strategy, we will discuss Jaskyte’s study further to review her findings and distill important lessons for encouraging innovative cultures within any organization that are directly relevant for public sector leaders and change agents.



Henri, Jean-François. Organizational culture and performance measurement systems. Accounting, Organizations and Society. Vol. 31, 2006: 77–103.

Jaskyte, Kristina. Transformational Leadership, Organizational Culture, and Innovativeness in Nonprofit Organization. Nonprofit Management and Leadership. Vol. 15, No. 2, Winter 2004.

van Duivenboden, Hein and Marcel Thaens. ICT-driven innovation and the culture of public administration: A contradiction in terms? Information Polity. Vol. 13, 2008: 213–232.

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