4. The lived experience of innovation within the Brazilian civil service

How does the “lived experience” of innovation in the Public Service of Brazil fit with the identified theoretical frameworks? What does the innovation process currently look and feel like within the context of Brazil? This chapter explores the experience of innovation and examines the extent to which it is congruent with the theoretical model outlined for understanding what drives innovation at a systemic level.


As described in previous chapters, a need for innovation does not automatically produce innovation. Necessity alone does not lead to appropriate responses. Many other structural and contextual factors shape the innovation process in myriad ways, and affect whether or how innovation occurs, and to what extent. These factors are not always explicit; they may be implicit qualities such as culture, values, beliefs, perceptions or relationships. When trying something new, trust and confidence can matter more than formal rules and requirements. It is important, therefore, to appreciate the “lived experience” of innovation, and to understand how the process unfolds in reality. This chapter examines what it looks and feels like to innovate within the Public Service of Brazil.

Making observations of the “lived experience”

Innovation in the public sector is often a contextual process, driven by specific needs and issues that may require or permit a new approach. How then can generalised observations be made about a practice that will differ to some extent by temporal and spatial context?

To address this challenge the OECD used a design-led approach to gain insight into the characteristics of innovation as it occurs within the Public Service of Brazil. Semi-structured interviews with a variety of actors were used to identify patterns and commonalities across the varied experiences, and to help build a picture of what it “feels like” to innovate in Brazil’s public sector. Further case study research and investigation helped to validate these observations. Responses to a survey (OECD, 2019) provided additional validation in terms of data points about the lived experience of innovation.

What does innovation look and feel like in the Public Service of Brazil?

Building on the models outlined in Chapter 3, four questions can be used to make sense of the varied experiences of innovation:

  1. 1. Is innovation primarily driven by individuals acting on their own, organisational priorities and agendas, or systemic-level concerns?

  2. 2. Does the lived experience support a focus on identified determinants of public sector innovation?

  3. 3. What is the current mix of innovative activity?

  4. 4. What stewardship currently exists across the public sector innovation system?

Is innovation in the Public Service occurring at the individual, organisational or systemic level?

As noted earlier, considerable innovation activity is taking place within the Public Service of Brazil. Whether this innovation is being driven by individual, organisational or systemic concerns is an open question, however. To help answer this question, the report identified three case studies to help exemplify innovation driven by concerns at differing levels:

  • ENAP’s ‘Coursera for government’

  • Electronic voting and the Superior Electoral Court (TSE)

  • Digital transformation of services offered by the Public Service of Brazil.

The first case is a vivid example of how individuals can make change happen and play a significant role in the public sector innovation system, as well as bringing about value that can benefit the whole of the public service (and others).

Box 4.1. ENAP’s ‘Coursera for government’ (Escola Virtual de Governo)

A case of innovation led from the individual level

This is the story of how ENAP developed the idea of a ‘Coursera for Government’, a shared platform for different parts of the public sector training ecosystem to make available their online training for civil servants and others.

ENAP, as the National School of Public Administration, plays a major role in training civil servants to develop their skills. Over the last few years, online training has become a focus of attention, and the school developed an infrastructure to host its own courses.

In 2012, an external speaker introduced the concept of federated IT systems – architecture that allows different autonomous areas to have interoperable systems and share information, without necessarily being on the same network. What might this look like for ENAP and the wider ecosystem of training organisations?

This idea sparked thinking about what this might mean for online education. Over time, the idea was developed, but it was not until later that there was the opportunity to put the thinking into practice, as the relevant area of ENAP did not have the necessary skills to explore the option. In 2016, there was the opportunity to engage someone with the right IT skills, and to have them as part of the relevant operational area rather than based in the IT area. Having them as part of the relevant team meant there was greater opportunity to explore possibilities and to get into the specifics of how such an idea might work.

With access to the right skills, exploration of the possibilities began. The project started small, building on the concept of a common platform for different training organisations to host and operate their online courses (e.g. a Coursera for government). The first step was to create a domain and to iterate and learn from there. Initial questions like “What constitutes a course?” and “What data do we need?” led to realisations, such as “If that is the data we need, then that is the data that we need to collect during the subscription process”. Initial work led to a more tangible proposal for how ENAP could act as a platform for courses (Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs) from different schools at marginal cost through the use of existing infrastructure and associated economies of scale.

The project has grown over time and now involves a number of different institutions, with the platform receiving an average of 3 000 subscriptions per day. Courses are made available to anyone (not just civil servants), and ENAP hosts the service, performs data management and acts as the secretariat system for subscribers. Individual institutions are responsible for managing the remainder of the process, and can use the data generated to refine and improve their offerings over time. Further innovative elements are being developed relating to educational methods and content management, as well as the ability to automate customised messages to students.

While this example of innovation highlights the value that can come from thinking differently, the journey was not always a smooth one. The idea of sharing resources across public institutions might seem obvious in retrospect, but the idea was often not clear to others during the development process. Because of the novelty, there was no easy reference point for people to connect with and they did not necessarily understand what was involved. “People just don’t see it happening. They don’t really understand what you’re saying.

The project was also driven by key people at the “individual” level who saw a possibility and found or facilitated the necessary institutional openness. If the relevant people had not been there, it is unlikely that the project would have occurred in those terms. While the project has clearly been beneficial at an organisational level for ENAP, it that it did not start as an organisational project. This meant that those involved needed to have a lot of belief in the idea and the passion to keep it going even when inevitable hurdles arose. “The small problems, they are so small, but they are so annoying, and they are so frequent that they are dangerous to an innovation project.”

The project was dependent on those involved having good relationships with different parts of the system, and being able to carve out the necessary organisational space, and navigate existing formal and informal channels to seek institutional approval and support. Given the sometimes clear downsides (e.g. demands for IT skills and changes to workflows for round-the-clock hosting and servicing), perseverance was required to reach the longer-term benefits that were not as immediately apparent.

This highlights a strength – that individuals can make a difference and introduce valuable new ideas and practices – and a weakness – that individuals often have to go ‘above and beyond’ in order to make change happen. Such innovation is often driven more by chance and circumstance, than systemic considerations.

Source: Interviews, http://escolavirtual.gov.br.

Innovation will often arise from the individual level. This should be valued as a feature of the public sector innovation system. Individuals, including leaders, will often be better placed to see emergent opportunities or challenges than slower-moving organisations or systems. Innovations led at the individual level play a vital role in any public sector innovation system.

However, efforts at the individual level should not be relied upon as the sole means of meeting and addressing changing societal needs and concerns. Individually driven innovation is naturally going to be driven by individual concerns.

The second case is a good example of a situation where innovation has been driven by organisational concerns, which are generally of a greater scale and scope than individual motivations.

Box 4.2. Electronic voting and the Superior Electoral Court (TSE)

A case study of innovation led at an organisational level

Voting is mandatory in Brazil, and in 1996 the country became one of the first to introduce electronic voting. While this represented an innovation in and of itself, the process did not stop there. Every election brings additional considerations and innovative aspects as the technology evolves, while maintaining an ongoing effort to ensure the system is secure, transparent and auditable.

The Superior Electoral Court (TSE) is responsible for the running of federal elections, which take place every four years. These involve over 100 million voters spread across almost 5 600 municipalities. The TSE is also responsible for supervising state and municipal elections (through regional courts). The TSE, thus, oversees elections using electronic systems every two years. The elections themselves are significant events, and the TSE undertakes substantial preparation to ensure that everything runs smoothly.

Part of this preparation involves being open to new technologies and possibilities, such as the introduction of biometric elements for voter identification. Additional activities include training and preparation to support voting by Brazilian citizens overseas, and ensuring that the voting process is accessible for blind and deaf people. Other initiatives include educating children about the voting process.

In the lead-up to the elections, the TSE runs field tests and simulated electoral tests across all states to ensure readiness and to identify and address potential issues. They conduct hackathons and public testing of the voting system (and the supporting source code) with the involvement of universities, the public prosecution office, and the National Brazilian Intelligence Agency, in order to detect issues or mistakes.

Given the clear need to avoid mistakes during the election, there is extensive testing beforehand – “We commit a lot of mistakes so we can make it right.”

Ongoing innovation clearly forms part of TSE practice as it works to ensure the electoral process runs smoothly and is efficient and trustworthy. Innovation is focused on a particular priority – efficient and trusted elections – which has led to a range of innovative activities over a 20-year period. The innovative activities involved are somewhat wide-ranging, and are visible throughout the electoral process, affecting how it is conducted and supported. And, indeed, the innovation has had wider effects across the system, as the use of biometrics for the electoral process has demonstrated their use-case for other applications. As a result, the Superior Electoral Court has now become involved in citizen identity matters external to the electoral process.

Yet, despite these wider flow-on effects, the innovation that has occurred is clearly driven from an organisational perspective. The benefits of the innovation that has occurred have been recognised at a wider level, but the driving force behind the innovation has been primarily reactive to a distinct organisational perspective. Ongoing innovation exists, but it is tied to a particular set of activities or a particular priority.

In this manner, the innovation is dependent upon a particular organisational mandate with a clear sense of the consequences that might occur if the organisation does not innovate and ensure that processes are up-to-date (e.g. loss of faith in the electoral process).

This underscores two points: 1) innovation can and does happen across the Public Service of Brazil; and 2) where it is not promoted by particular individuals, it is often driven by specific and pressing organisational concerns, rather than more systemic considerations.

Source: Interviews.

Oftentimes innovation will naturally be led by individual organisations pursuing particular priorities or taking advantage of opportunities that have arisen. However, the nature of such innovation is that it will inevitably involve organisational rather than system-wide or societal concerns. Public sector organisations will naturally seek to address their own priorities, as these are their primary responsibility, and to do otherwise (including being too ambitious) can even be inappropriate.

The third case presents an example of innovation being driven by system-level concerns (and ambitions).

Box 4.3. Digital transformation of the services offered by the Public Service of Brazil

A case study of innovation undertaken from a systemic perspective

Brazil is a country with longstanding experience in eGovernment and digital government initiatives. As outlined in the OECD Digital Government Review (2018b), co-ordinated efforts in this regard have been underway since 2000, when the E-GOV policy was launched. The Digital Citizenship Platform is one of the most recent developments, and has been instrumental in helping the digital transformation of federal government services.

The ongoing process of digitisation of services is led by the Secretariat of Digital Government (SGD) and the Secretariat of Management (SEGES), within the Ministry of Economy (formerly the Ministry of Planning, Budget and Management). From an analysis undertaken through the “Censo de Serviços”, by SEGES and ENAP in 2017, it was identified that there were 1 740 federal government services.

Initially, the Ministry of Planning assisted government agencies with the digitisation of their services through a multi-pronged approach. SETIC (the Secretariat of Information and Communication Technologies, now SGD) centralised and streamlined the contracting process for relevant services and processes that agencies might need to access when digitising their service (although government agencies are not obliged to use SETIC for such contracting). SETIC provided access to software tools to assist with digitisation, a single sign-on solution, and SEGES provided methodologies to help agencies consider the costs and benefits of digitisation (e.g. the standard cost model), and tools to help agencies simplify and transform their services such as design thinking. In short, the Ministry offered a one-stop-shop for government agencies that are seeking to digitally transform their services quickly and efficiently, working with service owners by matching the particular tools and offerings available to the outcomes desired.

The transformation has been a gradual process, and commenced with targeted agencies who had a clear desire to transform their services. The first such service came online in January 2018. As the process has been refined, more services have come forward to explore digitisation. As of September 2018, 110 services were undergoing digital transformation in 25 different departments.

Each government agency has differing levels of maturity and different levels of IT investment. The hope is that over time the work involved in digital transformation will lift more agencies up to a level closer to that of leading agencies.

The digital transformation process also provides richer data and intelligence for both the Ministry of Economy and the agency responsible for the relevant service. Digitisation provides feedback from citizens about their service experience, which can be used by agencies to consider how to improve their performance and practice. In addition, a public performance panel provides information about the services, such as how long it takes to receive a particular service or how services are performing on a range of metrics.

When a new service is created, the relevant agency can work with SGD to ensure that the service is “digitally native” or digital by default. As with the rest of the process, however, government agencies are not obliged to work with the Ministry of Economy, and can choose their own path if they think this is most appropriate.

SGD is undertaking ongoing reflection about their work to ensure that new lessons learned from implementation inform the broader push towards digital transformation.

This case illustrates how systemic and scalable change can happen in the Government of Brazil. It is foreseeable that, as more and more services are digitised and the benefits better understood and demonstrated, the Government of Brazil will have access to significantly richer information about how services are used and the associated citizen experience. Such data will help send signals about potential areas for improvement or opportunities for further innovation.

It also suggests a range of preconditions necessary for such systemic change, including:

  • a clear mandate – in this case in the form of the Digital Citizenship Platform and a range of other digital transformation measures across government

  • available resources – in that agencies are not bearing the full cost of the digital transformation process themselves

  • available expertise and support – in the form of a team at SGD with the necessary skills to help service owners navigate the digitisation process and think through the different tools and options available to them

  • a clear sense of benefit – in that agencies can readily see the value offered by digitisation

  • a low level of contestability or potential for controversy – in that the benefits of digitisation are clear and are not likely to receive significant scrutiny, as it is something understood as a clear public good.

Source: Interviews.

This last case involves a very particular set of circumstances, and the relevant preconditions that enabled it (a clear mandate, additional available resources, dedicated expertise and support, a clear business case, a low degree of controversy) are not likely to be common. This suggests that systemic innovation will be rare in the absence of additional factors that make the case for innovation clearer and more pressing.

These three cases help to illustrate the differences in innovative activity that is led at the individual, organisational and system levels:

  • Innovation can be led by individual efforts, as people seek to achieve particular goals, solve specific problems or respond to a changing context. Individuals are often better able to identify emerging issues or needs, and thus will often be the “first line” of response to a shifting environment.

  • Organisational-level innovation can mobilise more significant efforts and resources. Innovation at this level will often have more legitimacy and be more sustainable. As organisations have more structured responsibilities and relationships, innovation is, however, more likely to occur in response to pressing concerns, such as delivering on organisational priorities (e.g. organisational missions) or responding to particularly pertinent problems (e.g. crises).

  • System-level innovation is the most powerful category as it can lead to widespread change with great effect, but it is also the most challenging, as it requires greater co-ordination, alignment of interests and favourable preconditions or structural drivers.

The analysis of the Public Service of Brazil found that systemic innovation appeared to be a rare exception, rather than a standard feature.

The lived experience and the determinants of innovation

When viewed through the lens of the determinants of innovation at a system level (clarity, parity, suitability, normality), what can be seen? Do these frames of analysis make sense for the lived experience in Brazil?

The following section provides a discussion of system-level determinants (clarity, parity, suitability and normality) and observations of the lived experience, as gained through interviews, workshops and surveys. It explores whether these frames of analysis function as useful lenses to interpret the lived experience of innovation in Brazil. Some of the observations are illustrated by quotes from interviews to help highlight the relevant sentiment or issue and to convey the “voice” of the system.


Is there sufficient clarity within the Public Service of Brazil about what is needed and how innovation fits in with other priorities? Without clarity – that is, an explicit signal as to the value of and need for change – innovation will likely always come second to other, better understood agendas, or alternatively be driven by individual motives, the needs of individual organisations or external events. Clarity might take the form of explicit strategies, identified expectations or goals for innovation, or articulated roles that people can play within the innovation process.

Investigations revealed broad conceptual agreement around the core elements of what innovation means, however it was less clear what this looked like in practice. In addition, the term and concept of “innovation”, as currently understood in the Brazilian context, is invested with different and overlapping meanings (see Box 4.4).

Box 4.4. What is public sector innovation?

Views from across the Public Service of Brazil

Innovation is about difference:

  • Doing something different or doing something you are already doing differently.

  • Something new that generates results, has practical application and impact.

  • Distinct from discovery (knowledge), it is something that must be applied.

  • Distinct from invention (prototype), it must be useful/ respond to someone’s needs.

Innovation is a process:

  • A systematic process that can be managed, not waiting for luck.

  • Innovation is work, it is a process, it is a method.

  • Being able to make mistakes in order to learn, and then to transform.

  • Innovation has to do with the way we operate, but also the way we conceive our solutions.

Innovation is used to solve a problem / to achieve a purpose / to transform:

  • Innovation is a new way to solve a problem.

  • Creating value based on new business models, to overcome our current challenges.

  • A tool to achieve transformation.

  • Innovation is a tool for change and therefore, for our government’s improvement.

  • The transformation of a good individual idea into the solution of many people.

Innovation is about the citizen/public good:

  • Finding new ways to solve people’s problems, or attending to their needs, attending to their needs in a way that is either more efficient for them, or more efficient for the state.

  • Centred on citizens.

  • It is to create solutions for and with the citizens as opposed to bureaucratic insulation.

  • An opportunity for Brazil to finally leave behind the 20th century agenda.

  • To do government services better and more efficiently.

  • Empowering the citizen and private sector.

Innovation is a spectrum/multi-faceted:

  • Ranges from continuous improvement to something that is disruptive.

  • Disruptive innovation where you can put some more effort to have to do with the risks and it has different whole process of managing it.

  • Can result in new procedures, processes, functionalities, and characteristics to things that already exist.

  • Something that will sustain any entity today. Innovation means something sustainable.

Innovation is a necessity:

  • The ability to respond to the emerging demands of a rapidly changing society.

  • Necessary to change constantly, just to stay in the same place.

  • It is survival.

Innovation is sometimes difficult:

  • Difficult to be understood and measured.

  • A rupture with what has been done before.

  • A change in mindsets.

  • It is to face a culture of “it has always been like this”, of risk aversion to making mistakes, of making “more of the same”.

  • It involves challenging / questioning the things that have always been done, the way it has always been done and the why.

  • “I sometimes hear people talking about innovation in such a broad way that it almost becomes like senseless”.

Source: Interviews and workshops

It is also clear that there is innovation happening. The investigation surfaced numerous instances of innovation in the Public Service of Brazil, with varying degrees of project formality. There is also evidence of a history of innovation (as documented by the winners of the longstanding innovation awards). However, there does not appear to be a collective sense of that history, nor of how innovation fits with the broader “story” and identity of the Public Service of Brazil.

There also does not appear to be agreement about the extent to which the Public Service is innovative, or a shared view as to what extent the public sector actually needs to be innovative (or even, in some instances, whether it has the social licence to innovate).

“All I hear is, we have problems, huge problems, and the government can’t give us the solutions.”  

There is also no common consensus regarding key drivers for innovating within the Public Service, or reasons why the public service could and should innovate.

Box 4.5 identifies some of the structural forces and drivers for innovation within the Public Service of Brazil.

Box 4.5. What helps drive innovation within the public service of Brazil?

Structural forces within the Brazilian context that encourage innovation

Debureaucratisation/red-tape reduction push

There have been multiple attempts to debureaucratise throughout the history of the Public Service of Brazil (see Chapter 2). However, the latest efforts were instigated by the Council of Social and Economic Development and are supported by the National Committee of Debureaucratisation and Decree 9094/2017 (and Laws 13460/2017 and 13726/2018, which require the simplification of public services).

Digital transformation

A number of initiatives are pushing for digital transformation of the Brazilian economy, including the civil service (e.g. see OECD, 2018b). While digital transformation can be an opportunity for innovation, this is by no means guaranteed, as digitisation can also result in standardisation. Digital transformation, therefore, is a somewhat inconsistent force for innovation in and by the Public Service.

Financial pressures/constraints

A budgetary ceiling has been mandated which came fully into effect in 2018. However, fiscal constraints are not a reliable driver of innovation, and the effect on innovation will depend on how the fiscal constraints are managed (e.g. what is shielded from fiscal consolidation and what is not).

Citizen agitation and citizen-centred government

There is a growing development of a citizen-centred focus within the public sector (e.g. the National System of Social Participation platform participa.br, the creation of the Department of User Experience within the Digital Government Secretariat) alongside a clearer sense of a responsibility to deliver better results, including through Law 13 460/2017, which provides for the participation, protection and defence of the rights of the user of public administration services. However, it is not entirely clear if there are sufficient feedback loops to entrench this development and create an ongoing structural focus on citizen expectations.

Experience gap with the private sector

Citizens and public servants are increasingly aware of a gap between what is happening in the public sector and what is happening in the private sector. This gap is somewhat acting as an impetus for change, as it helps lead to a realisation that there are new possibilities on offer.

Open and transparent government/greater government integrity agendas

A range of initiatives are focusing on increasing public sector transparency and opening up government practices and performance to public scrutiny, with a view to improving performance and ensuring greater levels of government integrity. These efforts will likely boost consideration of innovative options, although this is by no means certain.

Source: Interviews and workshops.

There also does not appear to be a common understanding of the value of innovation, what types of innovation are required, nor a clear understanding of when, or under what circumstances, innovation is most appropriate (or even allowed). There is a sense that the government is required to do more with less, yet this is no guarantee that innovation will be the result.

“I think there is a space for innovation, but there’s a lot of space for no innovation”  

Without clarity about why innovation is important and how it can contribute to the workings of the public sector and its offerings to citizens, there is a risk that innovation will come second (or third or fourth) to other priorities, or that it may not even be recognised as a priority at all. If the reasons for innovation are not tangible or meaningful, if there is a sense of uncertainty about innovation (and thus insecurity) as to whether it is allowed, wanted, needed or expected, then it is just as reasonable to not innovate.

“And every time you have insecurity in Brazil, we usually don’t do anything.”  

Interviews provided a glimpse into a highly educated workforce, with many of those interviewed possessing relevant skills or qualifications that would support their contribution to innovation efforts. However, the interviews did not reveal any clear and articulated expectation as to what role civil servants should play in regard to innovation, or any sense of the different roles that people could play when participating in innovative efforts. This lack of role clarity extends even to uncertainty over who can be, or is able to be, innovative.

“Because for a very simple public servant in general, they don’t believe they can be innovative. They think innovation is just for, you know, very creative brilliant people, the smartest. It’s one of the work we do in this public innovation network, is to change this idea. Everyone can innovate somehow, at some level.”  

There are a number of opportunities open to interested civil servants, including labs, training, courses and networks, to gain experiential knowledge and understanding of innovation. However, these options do not yet appear to be matched by any systematic sense of how that experience can be drawn upon or best used, or under what circumstances. There is no clear overarching narrative about innovation.

“I think that there’s no clear policy to foster innovation within the government.”  

This situation risks an environment where those with interest and/or capability can become demotivated or habituated to a non-innovative environment. In the absence of a clear signal, it is likely that any innovation agenda will join other, past agendas in not having the hoped-for effects or transformational outcomes.

“… but if that communication is not there, I don’t think there is going to be any kind of recognition and then the agenda may die just as others have died.”  


Does innovation enjoy parity with business-as-usual approaches in the Public Service of Brazil, such that it is placed on an equal footing? Without parity between innovation and default options, innovation will occur primarily as a result of exceptional efforts on the part of individuals (“going above and beyond”) working to surmount the obstacles that arise, and organisations responding to external drivers for change or pursuing narrow agendas. The pursuit of parity in practice will relate to the ease of challenging the status quo (e.g. existing options defending themselves), or ensuring that risk calculations consider both the costs of acting and the costs of inaction.

The innovation environment is clearly a challenging one. The risk environment in the Public Service of Brazil is particularly noticeable, given a context where individual public servants can be held personally accountable for decisions. The absolute risk of an individual public servant being accused and sanctioned or penalised may in reality be relatively low; for example, in 2017 only 2 706 people, including individuals from outside the Brazilian Public Service, were sanctioned in some way by the TCU. However, the perceived, and thus felt, risk environment was strongly evident as being much more severe. In addition to the observed reality from interviews, workshops and discussions, this perception is supported by commentary by the TCU Observatory, a research project of the Public Group of FGV Direito SP, in partnership with the Brazilian Society of Public Law. The project noted (SBDP, 2018) that TCU communications tend to emphasise and reinforce the perception that public servants will be held accountable, and thus may unintentionally feed a wider belief that innovation is a risky activity within the Public Service. Given that innovation concerns different possibilities, perception is crucial.

In a private sector setting, a challenging risk environment may still be functional, as the potential for rewards can be high. However, in a public sector setting such a potential payoff will (and should) rarely be the case, therefore those undertaking the risks involved with public sector innovation will generally require motivations other than possible extrinsic reward. Even a small chance of negative outcomes may be sufficient to deter innovation in the absence of any belief of a positive payoff.

“I mean being innovative excites me. So there is an internal natural process inside me. I like innovation. I want to be innovative for the rest of my life. So I have internal motivation to face all these obstacles.”  

In a context where the sentiment “the only risk you have is if you do something” is commonly held, there are nonetheless many people are nonetheless trying to innovate, and introduce new ideas and new approaches. While this may be admirable, in effect it means that individuals are taking on risks that should otherwise remain with the system. If those undertaking innovation need to personally accept risk, there is a natural inclination for them to favour more incremental opportunities where the risks can be better managed, where risk mitigation strategies can be used, and where the risk can be assessed as being proportional to the possible outcomes.

“Usually, doing nothing is more secure than doing something.”  

Where the risk/benefit calculation falls to the individual level (rather than being borne by the organisation or even at a wider system level), individuals will either exploit the opportunities they have at hand and feel comfortable with (those highly dependent on their personal scope of autonomy, authority and ability) or be reliant on persuading others. Interviews revealed a number of potential bottlenecks for anyone seeking to attempt something different, including legal issues, risk governance, spending co-ordinators, managers, and control authorities. One respondent noted that “70% of the time is convincing, 30% is executing”, pointing to a high, and possibly frustrating, burden for any individual innovator. Organisations are unlikely to be confronted directly by the downsides of these efforts, as they will often be concealed as transaction and opportunity costs, rather than being seen as direct costs.

“We cannot jeopardize good solutions because we want to stick to formalities.”  

Much of the risk environment stems from the legal context. A common refrain was that “in the public sector you can only do what the law says government can do, whereas in the private sector the legal parameters are only what you cannot do”. However, the examples found clearly demonstrate that much can still be done within the existing scope of the law.

“Brazil appears to be characterized by a significant legalistic culture and regulations are regularly pointed to as the most important policy levers to make change happen in the country. Whether to promote the exchange of data within the administration, allow for more agile procurement processes or promote digital inclusion, the stakeholders interviewed during the peer review mission frequently raised the need for new or updated legislation and regulations as the top priority for areas requiring public sector attention and intervention.” (OECD, 2018b: 116)

However, the intersection of different decrees and laws is not always clear, and nor is the interpretation of the limits of these different laws (or their aggregate impact). This lends itself to a situation where a significant degree of technical familiarity with the law is required. It also relies on people being able to assure themselves that their decisions meet the test of reasonableness, which can involve a significant burden in terms of generating an evidence trail to prove that their actions were above board. Innovation can certainly happen, but where the risks of doing are perceived as potentially very high, and where the experience and expertise required to do so is also potentially high, it is likely that a lot of bottom-up innovation that might otherwise have emerged will not occur.

“We innovate a lot, but it's not forbidden … when we innovate, we don't necessarily break the laws, we have to innovate with the laws, just solve a problem a different way. But I think the majority of our public managers are thinking about law as a kind of obstacle, as a kind of barrier to innovate. And it's not true …”  

Part of the current dynamic around innovation and risk is the relationship with control organisations (primarily the TCU). As is common in many countries, there is clear evidence of an ongoing movement between different ends of a control-empowerment spectrum. Many clearly feel that the control emphasis is currently too rigid and too strong, and is inhibiting much-needed innovation.

“… they mine and suck the courage of the organisation to do anything that is not in the status quo.”  

This is not to suggest that the relationship with control organisations is always hostile or negative. The TCU and CGU both contribute in different ways to the innovation environment. For instance, the TCU has created an innovation lab of its own. External audit can also be a valuable instigator for innovation and act as a legitimiser of change, by pointing out better practices, identifying opportunities and highlighting instances of useful innovation. The TCU and CGU, like other organisations, are also potential innovators themselves.

“They never remember when TCU promoted innovation, innovated something, but they always remember when they are punished.”  

However, given the inbuilt defaults (risk aversion, unclear legal environment, and high potential costs for individual innovators if they are subject to audit, even if they are not found to have done anything wrong) it is not clear that there are sufficient structural drivers for innovation to drive more concerted efforts outside of specific, explicit and time-limited agendas (e.g. digital transformation). Without such drivers, the natural tendency of any control organisation is likely to focus on ensuring compliance with the law, resulting in a tendency among organisations to avoid doing anything that could be interpreted as wrong.

“They are obsessed with the idea of protecting. It's like telling your kids, ‘Don't go out.’ ‘But I'm going to have fun.’ But maybe you're going to be robbed. And they like to be mums, and sometimes it's not helpful. Sometimes the kids need to go out and see the world.”  

With regard to “parity” between innovation and the status quo, the following potential biases are apparent:

  • There is a bias towards incrementalism or windows of opportunity (identified times where an agenda can be pursued), as there are significant hurdles to getting entirely new ideas (outside of technology) on the agenda for consideration and endorsement. This bias risks losing opportunities to pre-empt potentially significant shifts that will require investment, forethought and experimentation.

  • There is a bias towards innovation from middle management or experts rather than bottom-up innovation, while significant obstacles hinder those who are not technically knowledgeable about the legal framework, who lack the autonomy or confidence to decide what will be regarded as reasonable, and who are not well connected. This bias risks missing out on opportunities for more adaptive innovation based on emergent evidence from on-the-ground experience.

  • There is a bias towards digital innovation because it is likely to be less contentious and it is easier to see the gap between what is and what should/could be in terms of service experience for citizens and users.

Overall, there appears to be an over-reliance on individual innovators being willing to “go above and beyond” and making exceptional efforts to propose and pursue innovative proposals.

The introduction of new legislation (Law 13.655/18) on the obligations of auditors to consider the context of innovation and whether any serious mistakes have been made may help to mitigate some of these issues. However, this is by no means guaranteed and it will likely need to operate for some significant time before the intent and reality of the law is trusted or believed.


Does the requisite suitability exist to engage with new ways of working, so that new opportunities can be feasibly undertaken? In the absence of suitability (of technology, infrastructure, systems, and capability matched to the operating context), individuals and organisations will face a range of increased costs when innovating. In practice, suitability might be a matter of ensuring that external developments are monitored, that citizen expectations of government are understood and inform the work of government, and that senior leadership is familiar with new technologies and the associated possibilities.

This also raises the question of whether the Public Service is well placed to take advantage of innovative ideas that reach the stage of being actively considered. Initial impressions reveal a civil service that possesses some of the ingredients necessary to engage with new possibilities, but does not appear able to take advantage of all of them.

There is a clear emphasis on training within the civil service and growing offerings regarding innovation, but there appears to remain a widespread lack of confidence regarding the practical side of innovation and how it works in a complex and legalistic environment.

“It’s not only that it’s not easy, we don’t know how to do it. Many people don’t know how to do it. For example, ‘I have a good idea. This is my good idea, it’s here.’ But how to sell your good idea. Do you know how to have the ability? Do you really see the benefit? So I think this is one of the problems within us. I just cannot blame the administration.”  

Given the legal context and the default requirement for public servants to be technically competent in terms of interpreting legislation, there are likely to be significant system hurdles to more consistent and widespread innovation efforts. If individuals have to be able to navigate complex settings in order for innovation to occur, then it is not going to happen on a regular basis.

“This kind of simple reading of a law, they have to be trained, they have to be trained to innovate, they have to be trained how to understand their problem, and how to understand better the law that supports that problem, and try to get some creative solution. In my opinion, we have a major problem about capabilities of our public managers to understand the problem and the law around the problem.”  

There is evidence of a range of innovation labs and efforts to explore new methodologies and technologies. However, there is a question about the what extent to which some of these emerging practices (e.g. design thinking) have been integrated with traditional approaches, processes and structures.

“So how do you integrate methodologies? How we, how do we establish a framework where everything can cope together? And I, as a professional, I have the ability to point out which is the best way for each kind of context that I have. There is no miraculous solution for everything.”  

While labs are likely providing a structural space for some exploration and experimentation, there is a larger question as to whether this will be sufficient given their level of maturity and the scope of the challenges and opportunities facing the Government of Brazil.

“This is not in our culture. To experiment. To experience. If you invest, it has to work. It's not allowed to fail.”  

As the OECD has observed in other public sector innovation systems (e.g. OECD, 2018a), there is unevenness in the expertise and experience of innovation. There are often pockets of innovation, surrounded by areas that may not be engaging in the issues, may face pressing business-as-usual responsibilities, or that are oblivious to the need for innovation.

“You have islands of excellency. But you have places where you can't find a single soul to help you, you have to do the job yourself.”  

Discussions revealed a degree of focus on digital transformation and digitalisation of government services. While skilled and experienced individuals are clearly involved, the extent to which a wider digital or technological literacy exists across the Public Service was not clear. It was also unclear how newer technologies are being socialised.

Due to concerns around corruption, it appears that the procurement and partnership environment for government agencies is quite cumbersome and sometimes fraught. Despite these potential constraints, however, there are clear signs of the public sector attempting to engage with outside actors in new and innovative ways.

There does appear to be a general sense that things are moving in the right direction, and that the appetite for innovation is greater than before. There was also a contention that Brazil is used to adapting to changes.

“What I see right now is at least there is more openness and real projects going on with this sort of assistance of interdisciplinary mindset and more sharing and more support from most organizations.”  

Despite significant, and sometimes longstanding, efforts to better engage the citizenry in policy making and to increase transparency and social accountability, it is not yet clear whether there are tangible and meaningful links between citizen experience and the appetite for innovation. The connection between any citizen dissatisfaction and a need for innovation does not appear to be well established.


Is there a sense of normality around innovation in the Public Service, such that it does not seem unusual, different or expected? If innovation is not viewed as part of day-to-day business, it will be perceived as an occasionally useful aberration, rather than a something that everyone should participate in, in order to achieve better outcomes. Normality of innovation would be seen if innovation is widely practised, expected and defended as part of regular operations and core business.

Innovation does not yet appear to be a ‘normal’ feature of the Public Service of Brazil, despite innovation clearly happening across the service. Engagement with innovation as a topic or concern appears to be quite mixed. This is problematic from a systems perspective, because if there is limited implementation, then there will be limited learning, and thus limited engagement.

“Because if you talk to people ‘Are you against innovation?’ ‘No I am not’. But to engage, it's difficult.”  

There are a range of perceptions as to how innovators are regarded within the public sector. Some thought “We sound like crazy people” and thought themselves perceived of as dreamers. Others thought there was little, if any, stigma associated with those undertaking innovative efforts. And others believed that those associated with innovation were often looked up to, well regarded, or that it was a means of differentiating themselves and raising their profile. Such variation in views often depended on the beliefs or attitudes of managers or the leadership around innovation.

“I think the person who is doing innovation in general is well regarded. The problem is when it affects the person and then get reaction, but the reaction I think is mostly against the innovation, specifically not the person who is trying to lead the change”  

This variation also suggests that innovation is not normalised, as differing areas experience innovation quite differently. It may also suggest a degree of indifference, as innovation has not yet permeated core work for many people, and is thus not seen as either remarkable or a threat. This lack of normalisation means that innovation can often be quite demanding

“… if I was not so resilient, and love what I do, I would have given up like two years ago.”  

The lack of normality around innovation is also visible in the varied approach to innovation taken by organisations.

“I don't think many organizations are putting bets on innovation.”  

An overview of Brazil’s lived experience of innovation through the lens of the innovation determinants model

The observations of the Public Service of Brazil support the innovation determinants model as a valid model for understanding public sector innovation in the context of Brazil. For instance, the issues identified as holding back or hindering innovation, can be categorised against the determinants (see Table 4.1).

Table 4.1. Identified systemic barriers to innovation
Barriers to innovation matched to the most relevant determinant of innovation.





Lack of understanding of what

innovation is or what it involves

Risk aversion

Civil servants being in a ‘bubble’/

removed from problems and

possible solutions

Lack of recognition and valuing of

innovative civil servants / Incentive structures

Lack of continuous sponsorship /

management discontinuity

Legal restrictions

Low capacity to innovate / lack of

capacity building

Gaps in diffusion of innovative

experiences and practices between


Lack of legal certainty around


Corruption / Concern with


Lack of autonomy for tests and


Culture of avoiding errors and


Difficulty of gaining leadership


Lack of an evaluation culture

Legacy management

Civil servant complacency/”it was

always like this”

Challenges in cross-agency collaboration

Limited resources

Conflicting legislation

Resistance to innovation

Rigid hierarchies

Significant potential scrutiny for


Difficulties in public procurement

of innovative products and services

Source: Interviews, workshops and research.

Viewed through the perspective of the innovation determinants model, the following observations can be made about the current lived experience of the public sector innovation system of the Public Service of Brazil:

  • There is a growing awareness and understanding of the “what” of innovation, even if this is not always matched by first-hand experience. The degree of clarity about the “why” of innovation (why it is needed and why it is important) is much lower.

  • The Public Service of Brazil has a pronounced tolerance of ambiguity, perhaps driven by its complex legalistic context where clarity can be difficult to obtain. This suggests that clarity is not the most important determinant in the Brazilian context.

  • There is a strong degree of risk aversion, due in part to deeply held beliefs that control bodies sometimes accuse individual public servants of mistakes or inappropriate behaviour when they are trying to do something new. While the reality of this can be debated, this is an issue where belief matters as much as reality, as it concerns people’s willingness to take risks, which depends on their perception of the risk environment.

  • There is a lack of clear and consistent counter-acting or mitigating drivers or structural forces to match the structural forces and contextual factors that may inhibit innovation. Therefore, where innovation does occur, it is often channelled into safer forms that have less chance of being criticised.

  • There is a growing practice of innovation, alongside experimentation with new methods and structures such as innovation labs, and significant investment in digital technology to improve the capabilities of the Public Service.

  • Normality appears to be the keystone innovation determinant for the Public Service of Brazil. What is accepted as normal is much easier to do, and if innovative activity feels normal, this provides cover for innovation more broadly. As yet, innovation does not feel “normal” as a general practice, although it has started to become more routine within some of the islands of innovation activity.

A tentative portfolio perspective

The innovation facets model was developed at the same time as this study was underway in Brazil, and was therefore not used as a formal analytical device. It is therefore inappropriate to give a hard and fast categorisation of the innovation activity occurring across Brazil’s system. Nonetheless, by drawing on the observed cases and insights into the underlying system dynamics at play within the context of the Public Service of Brazil, some limited observations about the portfolio of innovation activity can be made as a prompt for further conversation and investigation by system actors:

  • Risk aversion is pushing innovation activity towards areas where there is less contestability – for example, where there is a clear case that the innovation offers improvement over the status quo (e.g. digitisation/digital transformation) or where there is a high degree of technical knowledge or expertise (e.g. investigation of the application of Artificial Intelligence or Blockchain technology).

  • Much of the innovation activity occurring is currently being driven by individual efforts. As such, most of the innovative initiatives that result will be in response to specific pain points or issues, and are therefore likely to be closely linked to efficiency and getting existing things to work better (enhancement-oriented innovation), a reaction to cases where on-the-ground experience indicates that things are not working as hoped (adaptive innovation). Where organisational mandates and delineated responsibilities are clear and organisations have a degree of innovation maturity, there are cases of contained mission-oriented innovation (e.g. the work of the electoral court (Box 4.2) or activity around digital transformation (Box 4.3).

  • Little activity was observed within the anticipatory innovation space, although this may be due to other reasons, such as the challenge of identifying such activity, or because such activity may be cloaked so as not to draw unnecessary attention which might lead to efforts being stopped or otherwise reduced.

Figure 4.1. OECD Public Sector Innovation Facets Model
Figure 4.1. OECD Public Sector Innovation Facets Model

Further investigation of the portfolio of innovation activity, at a whole-of-system level and/or within particular segments, would be advisable before taking definitive action based upon these observations. At this point they are provided as an illustration of how the facets model might be used to reflect on the current mix of innovation activity in the system, why this might be the case and whether this is the desired outcome.

Stewardship of the innovation system of the Public Service of Brazil

A number of players are leading particular initiatives, playing supporting roles or co-ordinating with one other through the InovaGov network (Box 5.13). However, interviews, workshops and discussions revealed only a patchy sense of governance or key players in the public sector innovation system.


The lived experience of innovative activity in the Public Service of Brazil provides a number of insights useful to understanding the innovation system:

  • Much of the innovative activity occurring is driven by individual or organisational perspectives, rather than systemic ones

  • The innovation determinants model provides a helpful framework for understanding the tensions and issues within the system

  • There appears to be a lack of clarity, parity, suitability and normality in regards to innovation, which is contributing to a lack of systemic innovation activity

  • The current structure of the system is driving innovative activity in particular directions, namely towards more incremental and uncontroversial innovation, despite a likely need for exploration and experimentation with other forms of innovation activity in order to meet existing, evolving and emerging needs

  • Existing stewardship of the system is not yet readily recognised or seen as official.

What impact have existing interventions had?

The observations of the lived experience represent a snapshot in time, obtained through interviews, workshops, discussions and survey responses. They provide some insight into the current state of innovation in the Public Service of Brazil, but are not sufficient to appraise prior interventions or recently introduced initiatives that may address the observed issues. A number of the interventions or changes relevant to the functioning of the public sector innovation system have been introduced only relatively recently. A more formal appraisal of those efforts is therefore required to understand the workings of the public sector innovation system, and where, if anywhere, further effort is needed to address issues. The next chapter provides an appraisal of existing initiatives in regard to the innovation determinants and the question of stewardship.


OECD (2019), Innovation skills and leadership in Brazil’s public sector: Towards a Senior Civil Service System, OECD Publishing, Paris.

OECD (2018a), The Innovation System of the Public Service of Canada, OECD Publishing, Paris. https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264307735-en.

OECD (2018b), Digital Government Review of Brazil: Towards the Digital Transformation of the Public Sector, OECD Digital Government Studies, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264307636-en.

SBDP (Sociedade Brasileira de Direito Público) (2018), “Observatório do TCU” [TCU Observatory], http://www.sbdp.org.br/grupo-publico/.

4. The lived experience of innovation within the Brazilian civil service