1. Overview

The OECD has collaborated with the Government of Canada on the first ever country review of a public sector innovation system. As the review is the first of its kind, new research was required to establish an emergent model that could be applied in order to understand the nature of the innovation system of the Public Service of Canada and consider possible options for intervention. This chapter provides a high level overview of the context, the key insights from the review, and explains the methodological steps and structure of the review process and this resultant report.


The Government of Canada has a long and proud history of innovation. Innovation, which can be defined as “implementing something novel to the context in order to achieve impact” (OECD, 2017), has been a key ingredient of the Public Service’s success in adapting and responding to the challenges and opportunities of an ever-changing world.

However, Canada, like other countries, is facing significant shifts that ask more of government. These include digital transformation, evolving expectations on the part of citizens regarding their needs and what is possible, an increasingly interconnected world, and issues of rising complexity and volatility. Society is facing large-scale changes ranging from automation to ageing. Transformation will affect all walks of life, whether governments are prepared for it or not. Better results and better outcomes are being demanded – by citizens, politicians and public servants themselves – and agile and effective responses to these demands must be underpinned by new thinking, new ways of working, and new ways of interacting with and delivering for citizens. Doing better often requires doing things differently … or doing different things. This environment requires more than occasional flashes of innovation; it demands more discipline, more routine, more reliable and more consistent innovation. Canada needs innovation to become part of the core business of government, so it can be drawn upon – when and as needed – to achieve better outcomes for Canadian citizens.

Recent years have seen the emergence of an increasingly ambitious agenda to drive and embed innovation in the everyday work of government. Perhaps the most tangible demonstration of this has been the government’s commitment that a fixed percentage of programme funds should be devoted to experimenting with new approaches and measuring impact to instil a culture of measurement, evaluation and innovation in programme and policy design and delivery. This commitment – a global first – provides a powerful structural driver for exploring how and when to do things differently in the public sector. In addition, the government has put in place a range of other initiatives that seek to ensure that innovation is a systemic rather than a sporadic phenomenon. The Government of Canada is working to build a pipeline between identified priorities, delivery and impact, and sees innovation as a tool to ensure that the pipeline is effective.

However, innovation by definition involves doing something that has not been done before. Any innovation process entails challenges with much still to learn about what works and what does not. In the context of government are current efforts sufficient to meet current and future needs? And is the Public Service of Canada well placed to embed innovation or does more need to be done?

As part of its openness to experimentation, the Government of Canada has asked the OECD to conduct an inaugural review of its public service innovation system. The objective is to understand its performance, and to consider what might be done to reinforce its capacity to innovate in order to deliver better outcomes for citizens.

The review takes a novel approach. While other countries have undertaken investigations undertaken work on public sector innovation, the present review is the first to explore in depth what a public sector innovation system looks like, and the factors affecting its performance. The public sector is historically well versed in managing systems, such as human resources, and finance, legal and other corporate systems. However, examining these systems in isolation often results in the introduction of solutions that shift problems from one part of the system to another. This review attempts to explore the innovation system of the Public Service of Canada as a whole (i.e. looking at its structures, actors and processes and their relationships). This attention to the system level is needed if the Public Service hopes to be confident in its ability to consistently identify, develop and apply new approaches as needed, responding to both emerging threats and to opportunities.

The challenge of public sector innovation in Canada – as in many other countries – is to deliver across two priority areas, and to have the capabilities to underpin both:

  • Delivering on today This relates to innovation taking place to meet key priorities and that government has the ability to innovate in order to reach its goals. Such innovation will usually be incremental in nature and exploit current knowledge resources. However, in some cases it will be transformational with a view to responding to more ambitious agendas.

  • Delivering for tomorrow This refers to exploration and engagement with emergent issues and technologies that will shape future priorities, future commitments and future responses. It will likely involve more radical forms of innovation that will be harder to embed in existing structures.

  • Ensuring innovation readiness – This means ensuring the necessary absorptive capacity across the Public Service to engage with new ideas, new methods and new ways of working and delivering. Innovation is not a capability or capacity that can be turned on and off at will, and it is likely that innovation readiness can only be achieved if nurtured and considered explicitly. Furthermore, innovation needs supporting structures to allow it to happen. Effective innovation cannot exist in a vacuum – familiarity, experience, knowledge and processes need to be present for it to function as a reliable resource.

This review builds on existing research undertaken by the OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (OPSI), but also breaks new ground in understanding public sector innovation systems. It draws on both theory as well as lived experience to appreciate what has influenced whether and how innovation has occurred.

From May 2017 to March 2018, the OECD spoke or interacted with almost 200 Canadian civil servants and stakeholders through interviews, online forums or workshops. They described in their own words the nature of the innovation process in the Canadian context, the underlying history, the actors involved and the experience of innovation in the Canadian Public Service. The review combined this exploratory approach with desktop research and other investigations to build a complete picture of the activity, actors and ambitions involved in innovation. It should be noted that while innovation has been a significant focus in the Public Service of Canada for some time, this attention has been ramped up only recently. Accordingly, a number of relevant interventions are still quite new and cannot be judged until their impacts are observed over a longer timeframe. The aim of this review then is not to critique, but rather to uncover what has happened, and to appreciate the present state of innovation in the Public Service of Canada, why it matters and what it might mean for the future. On the basis of this investigation, the OECD developed four understandings about innovation in the Public Service Canada: offered four insights:

  1. 1. While increased attention has been paid to innovation, the Public Service’s relationship with innovation is still unsure and there is uncertainty about the nature of this relationship (e.g. the role and place of innovation).

  2. 2. Innovation is happening across the Public Service, however it is often a by-product of other processes or of determination on the part of particular individuals, rather than the quality or merit of an idea, or the underlying need for innovation.

  3. 3. While government is changing how it operates, there is a mismatch at present between what can be done inside and outside of government, risking a public service that becomes unsuited to its context.

  4. 4. The practice of innovation has developed significantly, however it often remains a marginal activity and is not viewed as part of core business or the ways that things are done.

These four understandings about the system build on 28 underlying findings that were collected and tested over the review period. Given the relative novelty of public sector innovation as a practice, these understandings should be interpreted as an emerging picture of the state of the system and not as a conclusive judgement of its functioning.

These insights are a starting point, but are also by their nature retrospective. The public sector innovation context in Canada is changing fast, with new initiatives introduced throughout the review process, while the effects of previous initiatives have started to become more clearly felt in the system. There is a need for measures to assess the contributions of recent additions, in order to help reflect as adjustments and changes occur in the future, and to make deliberate changes as more is learnt about public sector innovation and what works.

The OECD review therefore proposes a model for public sector innovation to help Canada (and others) better assess the development and implementation of innovation across the Public Service and with its partners outside government, and to help plan its innovation journey leading into the future. This new framework draws on the lived innovation experience in Canada, while also providing global insights into the nature of public sector innovation and its determinants. It identifies the factors that shape innovation at the individual, organisational and entire Public Service/system level. This model – developed in partnership with the Government of Canada – is illustrated with examples from other countries that help clarify possible considerations and provide inspiration for potential avenues of exploration.

Applied to the Canada context, the framework serves to assess the aggregate contribution of existing innovation efforts and to identify possible measures that can help the Canadian Government meet its ambitions. It is intended to provide all actors with a sense of what is happening, what more might be needed, and how they can contribute to ensuring that innovation is embedded into the broader system and that their actions are in line with the goals of the Government of Canada. This is essential to obtain real impacts and results for Canadians both in the short and the long term.

However, a point-in-time snapshot alone is insufficient. Like any system, an innovation system is dynamic. Different initiatives and existing measures interact with each other, producing effects that play out over time. The review proposes three scenarios to test and confront assumptions about the current state of innovation:

  • A continuation of the current approach.

  • The introduction of a range of new policies or interventions.

  • A radical shift that prioritises innovation, placing it at the centre of thinking, and involves significant and ongoing shifts in the operations of the Government of Canada in order to continuously meet citizens’ needs and expectations.

By drawing on these separate elements – a reflection on the journey to date, current performance and how things might play out under different future scenarios – the review highlights a number of issues and proposes possible interventions for consideration. These are provided at a whole-of-system level alongside possible options that organisations or individuals could pursue to strengthen their innovation performance.

Public sector innovation is fundamentally challenging. The public sector consists of a diverse set of activities, actors, issues and considerations, and is relied upon for stability, continuity and security. However, governments are also expected to respond quickly, effectively and efficiently to sometimes fast-changing issues and demands in an environment characterised by a generally low tolerance for risk, surprises or mistakes. To truly embed innovation in the public sector as a resource for achieving better outcomes requires balancing these and other competing tensions.

The Government of Canada has undertaken significant efforts to promote innovation as a core capability and has made significant progress to date. It has demonstrated its commitment to experimentation and has undertaken a number of pioneering initiatives, with no assurance that these will succeed, but with the guarantee that it will learn more. In turn, these lessons will help provide insights into how to achieve the best results and deliver the greatest impact.

The Government of Canada now has the opportunity to embed the progress it has made thus far, and to go even further. This review aims to provide support for this journey, and to equip the Public Service (and its partners) with a framework that will enable them to consider what can be done and reflect on the lessons and outcomes of experiments and innovation currently underway.

Purpose and methodology of the study

The current study is the first of its kind. Unlike other OECD public governance reviews, this review is not designed to directly benchmark Canada against a pre-defined model or framework for public sector innovation. Public sector innovation is in itself an emergent topic, and has never before been examined from a systemic perspective. Accordingly, much of the work underlying the review has involved theory building. In this context, the Government of Canada has shown great leadership in supporting the development of an emergent systemic model of public sector innovation that will hopefully benefit not only OECD member states, but also other countries around the world.

Due to the absence of similar earlier studies the work has been necessarily exploratory in nature and loosely guided by grounded theory (inductive) approaches. In particular, it involved the generation of theory from systematic research characterised by simultaneous involvement in data collection and analysis phases of research, the creation of analytic codes and categories developed from data, the writing of analytic notes to explicate and fill out categories, and theoretical sampling (Charmaz, 1996; Strauss and Corbin, 1990). Methodologically, the work aimed to gain insights into and familiarity with the functioning of the public sector innovation system, and thereby construct a first model that could be employed in other contexts (including other countries). In addition to robust grounded theory techniques, the review also drew upon a design-led approach to provide key insights relevant to the Public Service of Canada, and network analysis techniques.

Once the review arrived at a set of preliminary findings, the subsequent steps included looking for deviance from the general narrative, in order to identify possible exceptions or contradictions. An accompanying critical instance case study analysis was applied to challenge the generalised assertions and the casual linkages observed within the system (Yin, 2011).

As such, the data for the review were triangulated from a variety of sources including: desktop research, semi-structured interviews, workshops, focus groups, online engagement tools and expert consultations. The understandings about the system and the model were validated through several workshops, focus groups and international experts throughout the study process.

Due to the number of unknowns connected to the subject matter at hand, and to minimise risks throughout the review process, an iterative, step-wise research design was developed that would allow the methodology to be adapted throughout the course of the review if and when the need arose. The research design is outlined in Box 1.1. International insights and comparisons with system(s) in other countries were provided by the direct involvement of two peer reviewers (senior officials in the Australian and UK governments), and via the OPSI’s existing research and network of international partners.

Box 1.1. Step-wise exploratory design

Given that the present review is the first of its kind, the OECD and the Government of Canada agreed upon a flexible, step-wise research design, which consisted of the following steps:

  1. 1. Agreement on the study design (March 2017). The Observatory of the Public Sector of Innovation and the Central Innovation Hub (now the Impact and Innovation Unit) at the Privy Council Office of the Government of Canada agreed on a review of the innovation system of the Public Service of Canada. The review would encompass the range of actors and what the system delivers, the position and role of the different components of the system including their strengths and weaknesses, and the ability of the system to deliver change when needed. The terms of reference for the review are provided in Annex A.

  2. 2. Desktop research (March-July 2017). During this phase the available documentation on Canada’s public sector innovation efforts was analysed. These included corporate strategies, reports and expert opinions identified by the Privy Council Office.

  3. 3. Online engagement (April 2017). A public engagement process designed to reach the wider civil service was initiated on two Government of Canada platforms: GCcollab and GCconnex. Three open-ended questions were posted on the platform to capture expectations of the review, personal experiences with innovation in the public sector and the relative importance of innovation in the Public Service of Canada.

  4. 4. First exploratory mission to Canada (May 2017). During the first mission to Canada, four teams conducted over 60 semi-structured interviews with public sector innovators or interested parties. The interviews included both inductive and deductive questions with a majority of inductive, open-ended queries. The aim was to capture the “lived experience” of innovation in the public sector, with a focus on how civil servants defined public sector innovation in their own language, the kinds of examples they identified with and the opportunities or barriers they observed across the sector. The specific backgrounds of interviewees were also discussed. Interviewees ranged across all levels of the civil service (interviewees are listed by name in Annex B). A snowball methodology was applied to identify other significant figures and resources in the field of public sector innovation.

  5. 5. Peer reviewers from Australia and the United Kingdom (selected together with the Canadian Government) accompanied the mission and participated in the interviews. The role of the peer reviewers was to identify potential similarities or contrasts within the innovation systems in respective countries, and to reflect upon noted barriers, issues and opportunities. In addition a discovery workshop was organised for public sector innovators, identified by the Privy Council Office, in order to test the insights in a semi-expert environment.

  6. 6. Analysis of data collected (June-September 2017). All interviews from the prior phase were transcribed and initial coding was attempted with a focus on identifying commonalities in language on the definition of innovation. Additional material identified in phase 2 was collected and analysed. A series of intermediate artefacts were developed including a general timeline of main events in the development of the innovation system, and the mapping of main stakeholders and their roles alongside key examples of innovation in the Canadian Public Service. These artefacts were posted on online platforms to collect feedback from the Public Service. Based on the triangulated data from desktop analysis, narrative and actor analysis, clusters of main findings were assembled resulting in 28 preliminary findings. Critical instance cases deviating from the main findings were identified for future study to challenge the general cause-effect relationships of the observed interlinkages.

  7. 7. Second case study mission to Canada (October 2017). The second mission focused on undertaking critical instance case study research surrounding cases identified in the previous phases. Interviews with case owners and main beneficiaries were undertaken with case-specific interview approaches employing both deductive and inductive questions. Additional research was conducted to further investigate and explore system elements and activities, and to present and validate the preliminary findings. During the mission, one team member also conducted participatory observations within the Central Innovation Hub and key innovation networks. The preliminary findings were posted on the online platforms in order to identify gaps in the work.

  8. 8. Validation of preliminary findings with OECD member country delegates (November-January 2018). The network of OPSI National Contact Points provided feedback on the findings with a focus on whether they resonated with their country’s experience.

  9. 9. Systems dynamics analysis and model development (January-February 2018). Based on the triangulated data, three levels of analysis – individual, organisational and system – were identified and the main issues of concern were outlined in the context of Canada. This resulted in four main understandings about the system. A preliminary model for public sector innovation and scenarios based on systems dynamics were developed.

  10. 10. Third mission to Canada and validation of the system comprehension (February 2018). This phase involved focus group interviews with key organisations in the field of public sector innovation and a validation workshop with the Policy and Program Entrepreneurs of the Deputy Minister’s Taskforce on Public Sector Innovation. This was followed by the drafting of the report and the validation of the model by country delegates at the Public Governance Committee (February-April 2018).


Charmaz, K. (1996), “Grounded theory”, in J.A. Smith, R. Harre and L. van Lamgenhove (eds.), Rethinking Methods in Psychology, Sage Publications, London, pp. 27-49, www.sxf.uevora.pt/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Charmaz_1996.pdf.

OECD (2017), Fostering Innovation in the Public Sector, OECD Publishing, Paris. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264270879-en.

Strauss, A. and J.M. Corbin (1990), Basics of Qualitative Research: Grounded Theory Procedures and Techniques, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Yin, R.K. (2011), Applications of Case Study Research, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA.

End of the section – Back to iLibrary publication page