6. Appraising current efforts

This chapter examines the innovation system of the Public Service of Canada through the four lenses of the model, in order to obtain an understanding and appreciation of the impact of current initiatives, drivers and developments.



The previous chapter provided a model for considering the different determinants of innovation in a public sector innovation system. Each of these determinants can then be used as lenses through which to view an innovation system – using each of them as the primary view, what is seen of the varied activity occurring? This chapter considers the Public Service of Canada’s innovation efforts through those four different lenses of this framework, in order to make sense of the cumulative impact of the different initiatives, activities and agendas in place.

The range of encouraging activities already in place is indicative of the considerable investment and action taken to ensure the Public Service is able to draw on innovation to achieve better results for Canadian citizens. Some of these initiatives are likely to make a significant difference in how innovation is understood, engaged with and practised.

However, more needs to be done if the Public Service of Canada is to fulfil its own ambition to become a truly innovative public service. The public sector innovation system has already evolved significantly, but there is still further to go. In its consideration of the Public Service’s current innovation efforts through the lenses of the model, this chapter attempts to explore and identify potential areas where additional effort might be useful.

The model, as presented in the previous chapter, is not intended to be prescriptive. Rather, it introduces a framework to help appreciate and understand the aggregate impact of the diverse initiatives and factors at play across the system. The model is also meant to provide individual system actors with a means of gauging the system’s robustness, to enable them to appraise their own contributions and assess what else might be needed.

The need for ongoing assessment will be particularly important as the desired “level” of innovation performance will continually adjust and change over time. Accordingly, the “right” settings and the “right” activity will not remain fixed. The model should therefore be used as a means of reassessment as circumstances and the appetite for innovation change, in order to guide the adjustment of activities into the future.

It should be noted that one of the most problematic aspects of an emerging, and thus fragmented, innovation system is that it can be difficult to ascertain what is definitively a part of the system, and what is not. Factors that may not at first appearance seem to relate to innovation (e.g. anything that changes the risk appetite or culture, such as a crisis, a scandal or a major implementation issue?) can affect the system. In addition, innovations, being novel, will not always be immediately recognised. Identifying all components that are (or might be) relevant across a fragmented system with only a loose understanding of innovation is therefore highly challenging.

This examination therefore attempts to identify the elements likely to be the most pertinent to the practice and infrastructure of innovation. This exercise is not, and cannot be, exhaustive, as any system involves myriad processes often occurring at once. Instead, the intent is to present the overall picture, rather than identify every single nuance. A natural consequence is that some existing activities and elements have been omitted, missed or could be interpreted differently. However, the overall aim is to provide a starting point for considering the general strengths and weaknesses of the system.

Given current activity, the following broad assessments can be made:

  • Clarity: Important steps have been taken that are contributing to a stronger sense of clarity about innovation and its importance. However, there is less clear evidence that these steps will be sufficient in order to help fully integrate innovation into the broader ‘story’ of the Public Service of Canada and how people understand it.

  • Parity: Significant efforts have already been made in regard to parity, and these should be recognised (and learned from). More might need to be done to raise awareness of what is now possible, in order to combat legacy perceptions and defaults that presume something cannot be done. In other respects, there is still opportunity to do more to help challenge the dominance of the status quo in terms of what is considered possible/appropriate.

  • Suitability: In many ways, the issue of suitability is the area where the least is known about what works, and thus what needs to occur. The activities already underway may be sufficient, but this is an area that will need to be observed and tracked over time to see whether sufficient steps are being taken.

  • Normality: This is an area where central initiatives can set the parameters/provide the license, but much of the responsibility will need to be reinforced across the system, in different agencies and by different actors. Various elements are in place, but their effectiveness will need to be observed over time.

The following section examines each of the lenses in detail including current strengths and potential gaps.

Lens 1: Clarity

Is a clear signal being sent to system actors about innovation and how it fits with other priorities?

A number of recent developments have contributed to a much stronger and clearer signal about innovation, its importance and its role:

  • The explicit identification of experimentation in the Mandate Letters from the Prime Minister to Ministers spelled out the expectations and requirements for greater innovation in the pursuit of government priorities.

  • The Federal, Provincial and Territorial Declaration on Public Sector Innovation (see Box 6.1) outlined a national public sector consensus on the importance of innovation, its value and opportunities for collaboration and shared learning.

  • The establishment of the Deputy Minister Task Force on Public Sector Innovation (TF-PSI) (see Box 6.12) and its companion, the GC Entrepreneurs (see Box 6.15), highlight the importance of innovation for senior leadership, and help demonstrate their willingness to try new things and commit dedicated resources.

  • The Impact and Innovation Unit (Privy Council Office) and the Innovation and Experimentation Team (Treasury Board Secretariat) both send an important structural signal from central agencies about how innovation is regarded as integral to the work of the public service.

  • The establishment of the Impact Canada Initiative (see Box 6.5) illustrates that innovation is not incidental to the core work of government, but central to how it will be achieved.

These changes, along with an array of smaller initiatives and activities, illustrate a definite shift in the operating environment, and a move to having a stronger and clearer signal within the system about innovation. As a result, it will become progressively harder for any civil servant within the Public Service of Canada to remain unaware of the increased focus on innovation.

However, this signal has yet been integrated into more operational aspects. This may just be a matter of time and effort to ensure that the signal remains consistent and strong. Alternatively, additional action, emphasis or clarification may be required.

Box 6.1. Federal, Provincial and Territorial Declaration on Public Sector Innovation

On 14 November 2017, the Federal, Provincial and Territorial Clerks and Cabinet Secretaries signed the following declaration outlining the actions they would take to support innovation in the public sector across Canada.

“To achieve meaningful and lasting results for the people we serve, governments need to work in new and inventive ways with a greater focus on what works and what doesn’t. Innovation can do more than just drive strong economic growth. It has the potential to solve the big challenges that we face as Canadians.

Innovation, experimentation and openness require constant effort–even if they present risks. We need to be ambitious, nimble and collaborative to achieve meaningful and lasting results. We need to rely on the diversity, ingenuity and creativity of Canadians to solve real problems. In times of considerable change and uncertainty, the greatest risk is refusing to take chances and try new things.

Following this third annual Clerks and Cabinet Secretaries Conference on Policy Innovation, we, the Federal, Provincial and Territorial Clerks and Cabinet Secretaries, commit to taking the following actions to support innovation in the public sector:

  • Seeking out and applying new insights, ideas, tools and technologies to complex problems by working within and across governments to continuously improve policies, programmes and services;

  • Experimenting and measuring results by identifying what works and what doesn’t, so that we can invest where we can have the greatest impact;

  • Sharing knowledge and data with citizens in an open and transparent way, while learning from them and incorporating their expertise and input into our work;

  • Putting citizens first by collaborating with all sectors of society including Indigenous peoples, the non-profit and private sectors, and civil society to co-design and implement better policies, programs and services;

  • Exploring opportunities to work together on prizes, challenges and other outcomes-based funding mechanisms; and

  • Continuing the dialogue on innovation and experimentation across Canada by sharing experiences and knowledge, making linkages and establishing partnerships.

Canada is a resilient, inclusive, diverse and outward-looking country. These are our strengths. But we must build on them and be even more inventive if we are to succeed in the face of rapid social, economic, environmental and technological change. Rapid innovation is now the norm in the scientific, business and social sectors. Embracing this innovation is no less important in the public sector and is crucial to building inclusive, sustainable communities.”

Source: Government of Canada (2017).

Actors understand what innovation means

Innovation is of obvious importance, however it is not yet clear that there is a shared understanding of what innovation actually means. Some of this definitional/conceptual uncertainty will be resolved by ongoing communication from the centre of government and senior leaders about what innovation means to them. Other areas of uncertainty will be resolved as more and more people become involved in the innovation process. There are, however, potential areas where these approaches may not be sufficient.

Actors outside of the public sector, for example, may not have a clear idea of what the Public Service means by innovation. Furthermore, in the absence of a clear, shared understanding of innovation within the Public Service, it is unlikely that those outside the sector (industry, not-for-profits, other potential partners and stakeholders) will find it easy to engage in collaboration on innovation-related matters (potential opportunities, problem areas, etc.). This may lead to mismatched expectations that could harm innovation efforts.

Additionally, as the practice of innovation becomes more sophisticated in certain areas, it is likely that some people will possess a very nuanced and developed appreciation of the subtleties of innovation and the associated vocabulary, while the greater population will have a more basic understanding of the term and its significance. Thus, there is potential for confusion as the available language used to talk about innovation develops faster than the collective understanding and practice of innovation.

For instance, as a natural consequence of the focus on experimentation, new language has been introduced (see Box 6.2) under the broader umbrella of innovation. However, this has also contributed to some confusion, as the two related but distinct concepts have become conflated or muddled for some.

Box 6.2. Experimentation direction for Deputy Heads – December 2016

In December 2016, the Treasury Board Secretariat and the Privy Council Office issued a direction reinforcing the Government’s commitment to devote a fixed percentage of programme funds to experimenting, and providing context and directions for Deputy Heads on how to implement this commitment.

The direction defines experimentation as testing new approaches to learn what works and what does not work using a rigorous method that could feature:

  • deliberate, thoughtful, and ethical experimental design;

  • comparisons between interventions and base cases to capture evidence (e.g. randomized controlled trials, A/B testing, counterfactual experiments, baseline performance data, pre- and post-tests);

  • randomized assignment to test and control groups, whenever possible;

  • rigorous impact measurement and causality assessment; and

  • transparent publication of positive, negative and neutral results.

Source: Government of Canada (2016).

This particular tension will likely resolve itself over time as experimentation becomes more embedded, and aided by key actors with the public service, particularly in central agencies (e.g., TBS, PCO). However, as the language under the innovation umbrella expands (e.g. behavioural insights, impact investing/innovative finance, experimentation, design thinking, foresight, entrepreneurship,) there is potential for further confusion to arise.

The inclusion of innovation examples in high-level reports may help promote understanding, although there does not appear to be an easy way for those within the Public Service, or those without, to acquire a comprehensive overview of innovative activity occurring across the system.

Direct experience and engagement with innovation will likely remain an effective means of reducing lack of clarity about what innovation means. While there are a growing number of innovation-related projects or initiatives where novel approaches are being used or are appropriate, it will still likely take time for most public servants to have “hands on” experience with innovation. Relying on top-down directives to ensure such engagement may not result in a “critical mass” of understanding within the system about innovation, what it means, what it looks like and why it matters.

Additional clarity can come from empowering actors with the knowledge and skills to better assess the opportunities for innovation in their own context. Innovation teams and labs, for instance, may be a more systematic way of achieving this (see Box 6.3).

Box 6.3. Office of Energy Efficiency Social Innovation Lab

“Relationships, possibilities then action”

The Social Innovation Lab within the Office of Energy Efficiency (OEE) at Natural Resources Canada works to co-create service transformation by applying new policy methods and approaches. The lab avoids putting a methodology at the centre of its work, and instead places a lot of emphasis on the “human” element and understanding the context, the relationships and how the lab can best add value. Only through understanding the people involved and the context can the lab’s team begin to understand the needs and then the possibilities for change.

Among its projects, the lab has contributed to initiatives in a range of areas:

  • The lab works to engage Canadians through their smartphones on energy efficiency awareness and action. This involved collaborating with Carrot Insights to reward Canadians for increasing awareness of the Energy Star symbol that identifies high-efficiency products.

  • The lab has taken a cross-jurisdictional approach to improving the uptake of EnerGuide labelling and reporting in the housing sector.

  • The lab works to improve awareness and uptake of fuel-efficient vehicles.

These projects have not only provided a means for the OEE to explore new approaches, they have also given the lab an opportunity to test and develop its offering, and understand how it can best help to embed continuous improvement and innovation into core service delivery.

The lab also acts as a source of advice on experimentation and facilitation for other staff in OEE, Accordingly, all staff in the lab have been trained in learning organisation practices through the learning organisation community of practice.

The lab adopts a developmental evaluation approach in order to ensure that it is continually learning and self-assessing as it operates. Established in early 2016, the lab and has taken time and investment to develop expertise, an understanding of the operating environment and the operating model for the lab. One challenge for the lab has been helping to expand understanding of what “results” are – that they include learning, insight, capacity building and knowledge, all of which are then used to inform future projects. In short, results are not just a matter of achievements, they involve preparing the organisation for the future.

Finally, the Social Innovation Lab demonstrates how innovation labs can help take a sometimes ambiguous and abstract concept (innovation) and help turn it into something very real and tangible that has real world significance and resonance for both staff and stakeholders.

Source: Interviews.

It may be though that additional effort is needed to equip, empower, expose and engage public servants and external actors before public sector innovation becomes meaningful at a system-wide, rather than individual or organisational, level. It will also be important for on-the-ground learning about innovation to feed back into the shared understanding of innovation.

Actors understand innovation in relation to other priorities and agendas

The current emphasis on innovation at the political level, from senior leadership, and within key central government agencies, is acting to establish that innovation is an important agenda. However, it is not yet apparent that the initiatives in place will be sufficient to contextualise innovation among the array of other agendas.

For instance, the Results and Delivery work (see Box 6.4) is about ensuring that government priorities are delivered on. However, a results and delivery approach by its very nature will have an implicit bias to existing understandings and ways of seeing the world, and thus may be in tension with innovation. It can also be a powerful contributor to innovation, by helping to identify areas where current approaches are failing to deliver on expectations and priorities, but this is by no means automatic.

In the presence of an ongoing and consistent emphasis on innovation, the why, when and how of innovation, in relation to other agendas, may become more obvious to the actors involved. This should not be assumed though, and it may be an area where additional consideration is required.

Box 6.4. A results and delivery approach

The Canadian Government is committed to delivering real and meaningful results for Canadians. Fulfilling mandate letter commitments is essential but not sufficient. The government’s goal is to improve outcomes for Canadians, which means reporting on short, medium and long-term results. The government is currently implementing a results and delivery approach, which builds on existing best practices in Canada and globally. It is characterised by three activities:

  • defining programme and policy objectives clearly (i.e. what are we trying to achieve?);

  • focusing increased resources on planning and implementation (i.e. how will we achieve our goals?);

  • systematically measuring progress toward these desired outcomes (i.e. are we achieving our desired results and how will we adjust if we are not?).

The approach means measuring and reporting not just government activities, but also the government’s impact on issues that matter to Canadians. This results and delivery approach will help to ensure that the government is having a positive impact on Canadians and that it is on track to implement its commitments.

The results and delivery approach is based on careful planning, performance measurement, solid empirical evidence and more open collaboration with stakeholders and Canadians.

Source: Government of Canada (2018a).

The relative position of innovation in the various agendas of government may also need to be better communicated to actors who are outside the Public Service, but who are still part of the innovation system (industry, not-for-profits, etc.). Activities such as the Impact Canada Initiative may help in this regard by highlighting both areas of concern and areas where innovative activity is sought. However, there might be other approaches the government/Public Service can use to signal where and how innovation is wanted.

Box 6.5. Impact Canada Initiative

The Impact Canada Initiative (ICI) is a whole-of-government effort that helps departments to accelerate the adoption of outcomes-based approaches to deliver meaningful results to Canadians. It provides a prominent example of efforts to highlight the need for and value of innovation in achieving government priorities.

The ICI promotes a range of innovative approaches, including:

  • Challenges: the ICI issues prizes to reward those can first or most effectively find a solution to a defined problem. It also makes use of structured, open competitions to solicit proposals to fund the best ideas with the potential to solve thematic problems.

  • Pay-for-Results: the ICI uses customised instruments to shift the focus towards issuing payments based on funding recipients who are achieving positive and measureable societal outcomes (e.g. social impact bonds, pay-for-success mechanisms).

Initial areas of focus have included:

  • Smart Cities Challenge (with Infrastructure Canada): this initiative empowers communities to improve the lives of their residents through the use of data and connected technology.

  • Clean Tech Impact (with Natural Resource Canada): this initiative seeks breakthrough technology solutions to support clean growth and the transition to a low carbon economy.

  • Responding to Canada’s Opioid Crisis (with Health Canada and other federal partners): this initiative accelerates action on innovative approaches to harm reduction and treatment

  • Improving Indigenous Outcomes (with Indigenous Services Canada): this initiative improves service delivery through the co-creation of new and meaningful partnership models with indigenous communities and civil society.

Source: Government of Canada (2018b).

Actors understand the roles played in the innovation system

As the system evolves over time and develops in sophistication, a clearer understanding of the respective roles and demarcations in the lines of responsibility is likely to develop. These roles will likely evolve as a greater appreciation develops of what is needed and what different actors are best placed to offer. As new capabilities are developed or as new pockets of expertise, specialisation or support emerge, more formal governance arrangements around innovation may become appropriate.

However, while there may be clear lines of responsibility around certain initiatives, much innovation will occur in the “white space”, the space between those lines of responsibility. Innovation often occurs at the edge, where the spheres of influence are blurred and it may not be clear who, exactly, is responsible. Formal guidance around roles will prove insufficient in such spaces, as the willingness to contribute and collaborate will be shaped by relationships (their strength and their quality) rather than mandate. This relational aspect will likely depend on more informal aspects of activity, such as networks, collaboration and joint exploration.

One consideration here might be the mapping of different possible roles that are (or can be) played, similar to what has been done in Denmark with the eight innovation archetypes (see Box 5.3 in Chapter 5). It might also be appropriate to more formally identify how different actors fulfil different functional roles and/or the capabilities that they are best placed to offer, as well as how they will be resourced and supported. More deliberate reflection on what might be expected, and what private and third sector actors can offer may also be appropriate.

Actors see how innovation fits with the shared history and context

Understanding how innovation fits with the shared history and context is also something likely to mature over time, as the innovation system develops and more activity occurs. As discussed in Chapters 2 and 4, it is fair to say that innovation does not yet overlay entirely comfortably with the history of the Public Service of Canada, despite a history of innovation and its pursuit. Formal commitments such as the Declaration will assist, but are unlikely to change the understanding quickly. Despite repeated inclusion, the integration of innovation into the dominant narrative about the Public Service has not yet occurred. It is unlikely then that current activity is going to contribute significantly to changing this perception. It may be appropriate to consider an approach similar to that used in Denmark (see Box 5.4 in Chapter 5), where innovation was more explicitly integrated into the self-perceived identify of the public sector. This might also be assisted by greater recognition of the role that innovation has already played in the story of the Public Service of Canada.


A number of important steps have contributed to a stronger sense of clarity about innovation and its importance. However, there is less clear evidence that these steps will be sufficient to fully integrate innovation into the broader “story” of the Public Service of Canada and how people understand it.

Lens 2: Parity

When considering what action to take, do actors accord innovative options an equal weighting as existing or traditional courses of action?

Some significant recent developments have contributed to greater parity between innovation and business-as-usual operations:

  • The Blueprint 2020 Internal Red Tape Reduction Tiger Team and their process to review internal tape and their recommendations for reducing unnecessary hurdles to the working of the Public Service.

  • The introduction of the Experimentation Commitment in the Government’s Mandate Letters, and the associated Experimentation Direction, has provided a structural force for questioning existing ways of doing things.

  • The Deputy Minister Task Force on Public Sector Innovation, and its focus on core systems transformation and disruptive policy solutions, provide a high-level driver for new thinking.

  • The PS Renewal Agenda works to ensure continued excellence in public services, and thus helps to question whether existing practice is the best option.

  • The Policy on Transfer Payments (see Box 6.6) and the Impact Canada Initiative both allow for non-traditional options for using government funds to solve problems.

  • The New Directions in Staffing policy is designed to simplify and streamline staffing, provide more variety in hiring processes, and introduce agile approaches to staffing and policies.

All these initiatives provide evidence that actors can and should question the status quo in search of alternative approaches. However, it is possible that many of these initiatives or approaches will still be viewed as special cases or applicable only to particular issues, rather than an ethos that applies more broadly. At the same time, many of those in management positions may not feel that parity is appropriate, given the need to deliver on existing identified commitments, rather than spending time on the potentially fruitless exploration of untested ideas.

One potential risk in the area of parity – one that has not yet been realised but has a clear potential to emerge – is that there will be increasing clamour for the centre to change perceived barriers and make it easier for things to be done. Pressure to remove nominated blockages or impediments may lead to responses from the relevant areas of the Public Service and the removal of the perceived blockages. However, if the nominated blockages are not the actual source of the issue, their removal will not change the underlying innovation dynamic, and the problem will remain. This may result in continued pressure for something to be done, leading to additional changes or the removal of further perceived blockages. This cycle creates a risk that change will occur faster than the system’s ability to learn about the potential impacts. This could lead to overreach in certain areas, with the potential for pushback once the results become apparent (e.g. if an experiment was undertaken without the requisite supporting expertise). Such a dynamic may have formed part of the ongoing imbalance between excessive control and excessive freedom observed in the historical innovation journey (see Chapter 2).

Out of the four lenses, parity may be the area where there is the most danger of the Canadian Public Service being overly responsive in some areas, while not doing enough to make a real difference in many others.

Processes are open to challenge

The Public Service’s openness to doing things in new ways has been demonstrated in a number of important initiatives. Perhaps one of the most significant of these from a procedural viewpoint is the new policy on transfer payments, which opens up the ability for agencies to use incentive-based funding over a five-year pilot period (see Box 6.6).

Box 6.6. Policy on Transfer Payments (Generic Terms and Conditions for innovative transfer payments)

The Treasury Board Secretariat is giving departments new options for distributing government grants and establishing contribution programmes that aim to resolve existing problems. The new TBS approach, entitled Generic Terms and Conditions, applies to all departments and agencies covered by the Treasury Board Policy on Transfer Payments. This new policy enables agencies to use incentive-based funding, prizes/challenges and micro-funding over a five-year pilot. These tools will help the Government of Canada make the transition from funding based on tasks and activities to funding based on the achievement of concrete goals.

Source: Government of Canada (2018c).

Another example is the work done to cut red tape through the Blueprint 2020 Internal Red Tape Reduction Tiger Team (see Box 6.7). This significant exercise was not just limited to innovation; it also helped consider how internal bureaucracy and administrative barriers could be moderated.

Box 6.7. “Cutting Internal Red Tape: Building a Service Culture”

From the report by the Blueprint 2020 Internal Red Tape Reduction Tiger Team, September 2016:

Key findings

“Judging from the scope and intensity of the input received, internal red tape is a significant issue for public servants in all departments and in all regions. Public servants broadly recognize that in a large, complex organization such as the federal government, rules help ensure good stewardship, governance and accountability. However, while they recognize the need for rules, public servants noted that the current rules, policies and guidelines are difficult to find and, once found, difficult to understand. This judgement applies to both Treasury Board policies and the vast number of rules created by departments to supplement them.

When asked to describe their experiences with internal red tape, they identified a broad range of things that hinder their ability to perform their jobs. Internal red tape is much more than just the rules; it encompasses the behaviour around the rules. It manifests itself in difficulty getting clear instructions, with siloed information, experiencing poor client service and, ultimately, process overload. It is worth noting that recent technological solutions that had been introduced–such as MyKey, performance management, and the travel portal–were cited as sources of frustration.

Deeper dives into the underlying causes of internal red tape found broad repeating themes. Departmental processes and procedures are often more elaborate than required by Treasury Board policy. Transactions generally follow similar cumbersome processes, irrespective of the level of risk, and existing flexibilities are rarely used. And fear of audit is often cited as a driver for procedures and demands for documentation. This has created an environment where client service takes a back seat to process. And finally, both functional specialists and clients stated that they feel powerless to change the system.

Key recommendations

  1. 1. Improve the rules – Use the current Treasury Board Policy Suite “reset” exercise to streamline rules and clarify accountabilities. Departments should then review their internal departmental policies to ensure they are not duplicative or creating unnecessary burden.

  2. 2. Focus on the user – Make it easier for public servants to follow the rules by providing information, guidance, training and tools that meet the needs of users, including both functional specialists and their clients. Ensure that any technological solution is designed with the user in mind, is user tested and has a feedback loop for improvement.

  3. 3. Improve service performance – Develop robust performance measures that prioritize client service standards to counterbalance the focus on rule-following and compliance. A service strategy for internal services is critical if internal red tape is to be reduced.

  4. 4. Change the culture – Resist behaviours and incentives that drive red tape, such as the tendency to react to events by layering controls and processes. Allow for flexibilities and adaptable practices that respond to the level of risk for a transaction. Reward desired behaviours.”

Source: TBS (2016).

Such procedural steps help to ensure that the legitimacy of existing processes is not taken for granted – that innovation is, and should be, a consideration.

In terms of creating demand for processes to be challenged, the Experimentation Commitment provides a structural means to ensure that agencies reflect on how some of their spending is currently dispersed, and ask whether there might be alternative options. This could, in time, provide one of the most important means for ensuring processes are open to challenge, as a continual supply of innovative initiatives pushes up against processes tailored for more conventional approaches.

Another consideration in regard to challenging processes is that as new innovative approaches are tried, new barriers, blockers or hindrances will emerge or be identified. These barriers may not always be easy to articulate (e.g. attempts to exploit sharing economy notions might run into unstated assumptions and working processes). Nor might it always be easy to make the case for change, given that the benefits will be unproven, as opposed to the costs and risks which are more likely to be well defined and articulated. This may be particularly the case for actors outside the public service proper, but who might still have ideas and proposals with significant public benefit. Such actors are unlikely to be familiar with or fluent in the process language of the public sector.

Given these issues, more open and deliberate processes, such as explicit mechanisms of challenge that allow for the identification and consideration of unexpected issues, might be appropriate.

Bottlenecks can be circumvented

Innovative proposals can sometimes be inadvertently or deliberately constrained by approvals processes and management oversight. As identified in Chapter 4, middle management has been flagged as a concern due to its tendency on occasion to avoid engaging with innovation sufficiently. While this behaviour can function as a bottleneck, it will often be unintentional. Many innovative proposals are unlikely to fit neatly with existing projects or areas of defined responsibility, and it may be difficult for a manager to find the time or energy needed to work out what to do with an idea.

Instruments such as agency Dragons’ Dens (competitive idea-pitching events) and ideas management approaches (see Box 6.8) can sometimes help address these bottlenecks. Such channels can favour particular styles of presentation, however, and may limit the range of people involved.

Box 6.8. Environment and Climate Change IdeAction Fund

The Environment and Climate Change IdeAction Fund is a departmental innovation fund designed to provide employees with resources such as expert advice, support from senior management and funding to start innovative projects that will improve the department or service to Canadians.

Source: Interviews.

More informal events such as Policy Ignite, which provides a forum for people to flag and pitch ideas, can also be valuable as a means of getting issues and ideas greater exposure and potentially circumventing bottlenecks.

While often valuable, these mechanisms are either less helpful at a whole-of-system level, where issues may arise across agencies, or where issues should be considered from a formal perspective rather than relying on informal channels. The Deputy Minister Task Force on Public Sector Innovation and the GC Entrepreneurs may be better placed to act as a means to surface ideas and issues that may otherwise find it difficult to access the right decision-maker.

Though not explicitly intended as such, the GC platforms (Box 6.9) could be seen as one mechanism for providing open forums, and thereby a potential mechanism by which bottlenecks can be circumvented.

Box 6.9. GC platforms

The Public Service of Canada has established a number of platforms for internal information sharing and collaboration. These include GCconnex and GCcollab.

GCconnex is an internal government platform for networking, sharing information, collaboration and a range of functional matters. GCcollab is an outwards-facing version of the platform that provides a forum for sharing, connecting and collaborating with external stakeholders. The platforms use open source software, and can thus be built upon by other public services if desired.

This review used the GCconnex and GCcollab platforms as part of its information gathering and sharing process, in order to help connect with public servants and hear from a wider range of participants on their views on public sector innovation.

The platforms provide a demonstration of a slow but sure transformation, with small, consistent steps representing a gradual shift towards significant change.

It may be advisable to leverage more existing communities of practice or cross-agency networks to play a formal role in surfacing ideas and issues that might otherwise be likely to encounter bottlenecks.

Allies can be found

The GC platforms are also likely to be instrumental in helping those who have identified an opportunity for innovation to find allies. By being open, such channels can help elements of the broader system self-organise and create pressure or develop the case for change. Similarly, networks, communities of practice and events that encourage interaction, information sharing and the mixing of different perspectives (including those from outside the public sector) can also be valuable. However, such mechanisms are predominantly informal channels or event based, at present (e.g. see Box 6.10).

Box 6.10. Policy Community Conference

The Policy Community Conference is a place for policy makers and shapers from across the federal Public Service and beyond to gather and learn, connect, and explore topics around modern policy making. The 2018 Conference was a two-day event that included topics such as “Experimentation in Action”, exploring medium-term policy, developing policy in a digital world and how to listen for unheard voices. The Policy Community provides a forum for information sharing, including around innovative activity occurring across the public sector.

Source: Government of Canada (2018), “Policy Community Conference”, https://policomm-commpoli.gccollab.ca/#about.

Further consideration could be given to how to facilitate the building of coalitions around emergent issues, particularly at a cross-agency level. It may be appropriate to have explicitly identified innovation networks or forums where those concerned with such issues are more likely to find like-minded collaborators.

Risk and uncertainty can be navigated

As identified in Chapter 4, risk aversion is an endemic feature of the Public Service of Canada (and probably many others). Risk aversion is therefore likely to be the most powerful factor limiting the consideration of innovative options and, thereby, resulting in a preference for the status quo.

There have been ongoing efforts across the system to help reframe the discussion on risk. These have included messages from senior leaders, as well as more formal mechanisms.

Given the embedded nature of risk aversion and the strength of the feedback systems (e.g. formal oversight and scrutiny mechanisms, the media, political debate) that emphasise risk aversion, it is likely that additional action will be required here. Risk aversion has a number of structural contributors; therefore structural responses (e.g. the experimentation commitment) are unlikely to be sufficient on their own, except in limited areas/particular pockets.


Some significant efforts have already been made in regard to parity, such as the New Directions in Staffing policy. These should be recognised and learned from. It is likely that some of the options for innovation that have already been opened up or enabled have not yet been fully appreciated or exploited. The Public Service might therefore need to do more to raise awareness of what is now possible, in order to combat legacy perceptions and defaults which presume that something cannot be done. There might also be an opportunity for networks (including the GC Entrepreneurs) to act as channels for sharing and disseminating existing fixes. In other respects, more still needs to be done to help challenge the dominance of the status quo with regard to considerations of what might be possible or appropriate.

Lens 3: Suitability

Are the current capabilities, systems and infrastructure suitable for the available options?

A number of major initiatives relate to the question of suitability:

  • The Canadian Digital Service was established specifically to build better digital services and help replicate successful digital solutions across government.

  • The Deputy Minister Task Force on Public Sector Innovation has a mandate to look at core systems transformation and disruptive policy solutions.

  • GC Entrepreneurs is a group created to provide a testing ground for new roles and skills.

  • The operations of various public sector innovation labs provide entry points across the public service for the testing, application and integration of new methods, techniques and ways of relating with stakeholders.

  • Talent Cloud is an experimental initiative being tested to shift human resource planning to a more contemporary digital approach.

  • Cross-sector partnership initiatives such as the Carrot Rewards App provide potential mechanisms to quickly obtain rich insights into the perspectives of citizens on a wide-range of policy and service issues, and thus their expectations of government.

There are also a number of change initiatives, technology-related activities, or policy-based explorations of emerging issues that will also have bearing on whether or how the Public Service of Canada develops its suitability for a dramatically changing operating environment.

These will all be important steps. Given the scope of the challenge, it is likely too early to say whether these will be sufficient. The Deputy Minister Task Force may be best placed from a system-actor perspective to have regards as to tracking the current portfolio of initiatives and their impact.

Learning from those keeping pace with external change

The Canadian Digital Service (see Box 6.11) is an example of an agency explicitly geared towards engaging with or matching external rates of outside change. While the Canadian Digital Service is relatively new, it could provide a model for how the Public Service can work to keep pace with the outside world (in a manner appropriate to government) in other areas.

Box 6.11. Canadian Digital Service

The Canadian Digital Service works with federal organizations to design, prototype and build better digital services. It has a focus on solving problems using design, agile methods and proven technologies that place the user at the centre of its work. They take successful digital solutions and help replicate them across government.

As change is affecting all aspects of the Public Service, it might be advisable for agencies and organisations to identify peers that they can learn from/with, in order to help them keep pace. There might also be an opportunity for more central system-wide intervention in this regard to help foster such activity.

Socialising technologies (and their implications)

The Deputy Minister Task Force on Public Sector Innovation (see Box 6.12) and the companion GC Entrepreneurs are important avenues for helping to socialise new technologies. Just as the original Deputy Minister Committee on Social Media and Policy Development helped provide senior leaders with a forum for identifying and considering the ramifications of social media, the Task Force could help provide a means by which new technologies are identified and discussed, and thereby act as a prompt for the ramifications of these technologies to be considered. This will likely have spillovers across the system, as the interest in these technologies becomes seen as validated or legitimate, and will thus spur additional investigation, exploration, or experimentation.

Box 6.12. Deputy Minister Task Force on Public Sector Innovation (TF-PSI)

In November 2017, the Deputy Minister Committee on Policy Innovation (DMCPI) became the Deputy Ministers Task Force on Public Sector Innovation (TF-PSI). The Task Force focuses on realising the government’s priorities on policy and programme experimentation and innovation. Its refreshed mandate is driven by two major themes:

  • Core systems transformation: understanding the nature of barriers public servants face with outdated systems and processes that prevent innovative solutions and experiment with solutions to remove these barriers across the federal Public Service, with emphasis in the areas of Grants and Contributions, Procurement, and Human Resources; and

  • Disruptive policy solutions: developing an understanding of new-to-government disruptive technologies and encouraging their adoption (e.g. artificial intelligence, Blockchain); crowd sourcing and co-designing solutions with Canadians through public engagement vehicles such as the Impact Canada Initiative and developing interdepartmental solutions to find solutions to identified Results and Delivery Unit deep dive policy priorities.

New skills and increased capacity are required to accelerate progress on core systems transformation and disruptive policy solutions. The Task Force is therefore being paired with Policy and Program (GC) Entrepreneurs, who are being recruited to bridge gaps and help the TF-PSI deliver on its priorities.

The Entrepreneurs initiative aims to provide mid-range level employees with an opportunity to upskill their leadership capacity and gain exposure to cross-cutting policy projects. The projects will focus on initiatives that deliver measureable impacts on policy and programme challenges cutting across departmental mandates. The projects can be linked to Grants and Contributions, Procurement, Human Resources, Disruptive Technology, Public Engagement and/or Deep Dives. Project priorities will be determined by the TF-PSI.

Source: Government of Canada (2018d).

Another initiative working to socialise new technologies is Policy Horizons Canada (Box 6.13), which helps to identify emergent issues and make them tangible through their research projects. Initiatives run with Policy Horizons such as “Canada Beyond 150”, which introduced about 80 new public servants to new methods including foresight, play a valuable role in ensuring a broader future orientation. Such initiatives should provide a greater understanding and appreciation of the changes that technologies (and their associated paradigmatic shifts) can bring, and why that matters for the public sector.

Box 6.13. Policy Horizons Canada

Policy Horizons Canada conducts strategic foresight on cross-cutting issues that informs public servants today about the possible public policy implications over the next 10-15 years. Horizons’ mandate is to identify emerging policy issues and explore policy challenges and opportunities for Canada, as well as to help build foresight literacy and capacity across the Government of Canada. Horizons’ experienced futurists provide expert advice on emerging issues, foresight and scanning through one-on-one discussions, interdepartmental meetings, and facilitated workshops.

Source: Policy Horizons Canada (2018), www.horizons.gc.ca.

This is an area where closer engagement with research institutions and private sector firms (including larger technology players as well as start-ups) is likely to be vital. The review did not examine the extent of engagement in this respect, but indicative signs from discussions suggest that this is an area where further development could be pursued.

In addition, while the activities identified are important and encouraging, given the scope of change, the speed at which technology is changing and the myriad ways in which such change might have implications for the work of the Public Service, it is questionable whether they will be sufficient. While some positive signs have been observed in a number of domains (e.g. in relation to exploring the implications of artificial intelligence, or engaging with Blockchain technology), more might be done, especially given the size and breadth of the Public Service.

Exploring new operational models

Numerous efforts are underway to explore new ways in which the Public Service could operate. These range from the small, to the large and to the in-between (Box 6.3). The most significant, GC Talent Cloud, is still nascent, but is audacious in scope in that it offers a vision for what a truly contemporary system might look like (Box 6.14).

Box 6.14. GC Talent Cloud case study

At the beginning of 2012, Deloitte released its GovCloud concept, which proposed the restructuring of government workforces to meet the changing needs of citizens in complex environments. Drawing inspiration from the concept, Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) with its IN.spire Innovation Hub set out to test a new form of workforce planning – the GC Talent Cloud. The idea was for the GC Talent Cloud to become a new digital platform for pre-qualified talent with a competency validation process and an easy searchable system.

Thus, a vision of a digital repository of pre-qualified talent emerged, where the curation and distribution of talent is optimised for fast placement for project-based work. The GC Talent Cloud project proposal envisioned that talent in the future would be drawn from the repository using a term-hiring mechanism, ensuring the protection of workers’ rights. The credentials of those in the GC Talent Cloud would be validated and preserved in a way that reduces duplication, increases credential integrity and vastly increases the scope of the talent available to hiring managers. As talent becomes available more flexibly across the public sector, it would serve to improve the innovation system as a whole.

To test this approach, a research pilot was designed to test the parameters of the GC Talent Cloud concept. The Treasury Board Secretariat of Canada took the lead on this project given its potential impact across the federal public service. At present time, work is underway to build the GC Talent Cloud platform while addressing key issues, such as workers’ rights, labour relations, rights and benefits, etc.). Pilot projects with departments to use the GC Talent Cloud are also being created.

As is often the case, the outside partners further away from the context of innovation testing are more supportive. In the case of GC Talent Cloud, Deloitte is interested in seeing a public sector proof of concept case going through. Inside the Public Service, the Government of Ontario has shown support and interest in developing the model further.

Source: Interviews.

It is likely that the commitment to experimentation will spur further questioning of existing business/operating models within government. The core systems transformation mandate of the Deputy Minister Task Force on Public Sector Innovation should also assist in this regard by providing a forum where a whole-of-system view can be taken. However, much of this innovation will be fundamentally challenging, and will clash with well-established structures, processes and associated investment/funding commitments. Exploring new business models will rarely be a comfortable process and will either need high-level sponsorship and protection, or some degree of autonomy for initial shielding as learning occurs.

Keeping track of changing expectations

Tracking changing expectations was one area where the review did not find a great deal of activity, and therefore suggests itself as an area where more attention should be devoted. The Carrot Rewards partnership (see Box 4.1 in Chapter 4) is probably the closest in terms of pointing to a potential pathway ahead. By providing access to a large and diverse population, it provides an example of how digital platforms can quickly provide insights into citizen expectations (or current understandings) of a range of issues. Further investigation of how citizen and stakeholder expectations of government can be understood is warranted. In the absence of this, the Public Service of Canada’s suitability to deal with new demands requiring innovative responses is likely to be inhibited, as the need for change will not be understood or sufficiently felt.


In many ways, the issue of suitability is the area where the least is known about what works, and thus what needs to occur. The activities already underway may be sufficient, but this is an area that will need to be observed and tracked over time to see whether sufficient steps are being taken.

Lens 4: Normality

Is innovation seen as integral rather than as an occasionally accepted deviation from the norm?

As noted in Chapter 4, innovation is not currently perceived as the norm. However, the following range of activities may help to change this perception:

  • The Declaration and the Deputy Minister Task Force on Public Sector Innovation provide a sign from leadership that innovation is expected.

  • The Free Agents programme and the GC Entrepreneurs demonstrate that innovation is a valued skillset.

  • The Clerk’s Annual Report to the Prime Minister often recognises and highlights instances of innovation.

  • The ongoing PS Renewal work helps to emphasise that renewal (change and innovation) is an ongoing part of the Public Service’s story, and the annual Innovation Fair provides a forum for recognising and sharing innovation.

  • The development of networks helps share and promote innovation across areas of practice.

  • The ongoing Innovative Management Award from the Institute of Public Administration of Canada recognises and promotes innovative activity occurring in the Public Service.

A range of actions occurring in pockets may also help foster normality around innovation, in particular initiatives around skills and hiring.

In practice, it may be difficult to achieve the right balance in the area of normality. Some aspects that function as natural levers for highlighting the value and importance of innovation (e.g. forms of recognition or dedicated roles) may also create a sense of specialness around innovation. In order to normalise innovation, it must be recognised, but by recognising it, there is a risk that innovation is singled out as not normal. This may be an unavoidable tension that resolves itself over time, or it may instead require additional effort to ensure that innovation becomes seen as part of everyone’s role.

Behaviours to support innovation

Innovation labs are likely to assist in helping inculcate a broader set of innovation supportive behaviours. Labs will often be at the forefront of exploring new methods and techniques and new forms of engagement, and thus are likely to often need to find ways of working that accommodate them. Labs therefore may be able to function as a test-bed and a source of inspiration for new behaviour sets that are more suited to engaging in innovation.

Another major intervention that could help identify and reflect on the behaviours most suited to supporting a more innovative Public Service is the establishment of the GC Entrepreneurs (Box 6.15). The Entrepreneurs are in a unique position in that they have dedicated time to reflect on innovation, are being exposed to new thinking and issues where innovation is required (e.g. disruptive technology), and are receiving innovation training. This group, then, is an extreme test case in some ways, going beyond the work of the Free Agents or the Impact and Innovation Unit’s Fellowships, making them well placed to consider what innovation behaviours may be appropriate for the Public Service of Canada.

At the same time, the Entrepreneurs, as designated innovation “resources”, are in a position where they may be viewed as “special” and therefore the antithesis of normality. It is likely that the success of the Entrepreneurs with regard to normality will depend heavily on their ability to act as conduits for learning and to function as nodes within wider networks – to be seen as resources rather than new members of an innovator class.

It may be helpful for there to be explicit reflection about existing behaviours that are preferenced in the work of the Public Service of Canada, and whether or how they might sometimes conflict or compete with behaviours that are more supportive of innovation.

Box 6.15. GC Entrepreneurs

The GC Entrepreneurs (GCEs) are a group of employees from across the Government of Canada with the opportunity to sit on the Deputy Ministers Task Force on Public Sector Innovation for a period of up to 18 months. This cross-departmental committee is mandated to play an action-oriented role in experimenting with emerging tools and approaches and helping provide public servants with the skills and knowledge to achieve better results for Canadians.

With the support of Deputy Ministers and The Privy Council Office’s Impact and Innovation Unit, GCEs work to examine broad trends and emerging technologies with the objective of advancing concrete initiatives in two key mandate areas:

  • advancing transformation in core systems, including human resources and procurement

  • supporting experimentation with disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence and Blockchain.

The first cohort of GCEs is working across departmental lines to advance a portfolio of action-oriented innovation projects with the ultimate goal of improving the lives of Canadians. They also play the role of ambassadors for innovation and change by seeking to unlock talent and entrepreneurial spirit across the public service.

As part of the GCEs’ development process, all 18 members are participating in the Nesta States of Change training. The overall aim of the programme is to support public servants in adopting innovation mindsets and habits that help them become more effective change agents, and to sustain an innovation culture in government.

Linking innovation and regular business

A common means for any system to encourage particular behaviours, practices and activity, is for it to be measured. Innovation, however, is an inherently difficult thing to measure due to its context dependence and the fact that the practice of innovation evolves over time as new things become possible. Given that, softer measures may be appropriate. Encouraging experimentation with the means to assess innovation performance may result in collective benefit (e.g. see Box 6.16).

Box 6.16. Canada Revenue Agency self-assessment on innovation

The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) is conducting a self-assessment to determine the extent to which it is a world-class tax and benefit administration. One of the CRA’s strategic priorities is innovation; therefore, this is one of the areas it is investigating as part of its self-assessment. Given the lack of existing tools to this end, the CRA has developed its own tool to evaluate whether:

  • innovation is integrated into strategic planning and decision-making

  • innovation is operationalised in the organisational design and practices

  • innovation is celebrated and the results of innovation measured and shared.

The self-assessment exercise could provide significant lessons that might be applicable more broadly across the Public Service, and help start a collective discussion about how to gauge the innovation strengths and weaknesses of key players across the system.

Source: Interviews.

Another example of significant work undertaken to highlight innovation as a regular way of doing things is the introduction of the Free Agent programme (Box 6.17). While the programme by its very nature is an exception, as it scales and more actors become involved, it will help to demonstrate that innovation is part of the normal way of doing things. There is a risk that it still contributes to the sense of an “innovator class” rather than innovation being a part of everyone’s job. There may thus be a need for ongoing attention to ensure that innovation is understood as an area where everyone has a role to play, but that as with other core practices (procurement, HR, financial management), it is an area where there will be people with particular skillsets and expertise to offer.

Box 6.17. Free Agent programme case study

The Free Agents programme was one of Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) Innovation Hub’s earliest pilots to test out the feasibility of a new type of workforce. It was supposed to test the market viability, efficiency savings and psychological stress on workers in the gig economy and start building new competency modelling and screening designs.

Free Agents are people who possess successful innovator and problem-solver attributes, and wish to work in a project-based manner. They are able to choose their work and undertake project-based opportunities across the Public Service. They have the freedom to select work that matches their skills and interests which allows them to make a contribution that they find meaningful.

The first Free Agents programme was launched in 2016 in NRCan as a two-year pilot. As many different types of work could benefit from the model, NRCan’s Innovation Hub chose to forego the choice of a specific background or skillset for Free Agents. Instead, the Innovation Hub developed a set of attributes and behaviours that the Public Service innovation community considered valuable for innovation and problem solving in their organisations. These attributes formed the basis for the pilot’s screening process. Candidates who successfully demonstrate these core attributes are offered lateral deployments to positions in a special unit of the NRCan Innovation Hub. This lateral deployment model allows for flexibility in the selection process and assessment methodology. Deployments do not need to clear priorities or undergo a traditional competitive process for appointment. Furthermore, with free agents NRCan has removed the usual hurdles from hiring departments: the free agents are hired and work for NRCan, but are deployed elsewhere. Hiring departments can give two weeks’ notice if the agents do not fit the purpose or the team, while the agents themselves enjoy job security with NRCan.

There was some resistance from corporate structures, because the model did not fit into established mechanisms, and also because the Innovation Hub was not well aware of specific rules relating to IT (e.g. using laptops from department in another), human resources, finance and security (e.g. background checks). One of the more major hurdles was the 15% fee NRCan collected from participating organisations in addition to the wage recovery – there was no precedent for this fee and NRCan lacked the authority to collect it. However, a legal option to do so was ultimately found and is awaiting approval. Another barrier was the job classification system: free agents may have to on occasion undertake tasks at higher levels then their own initial level. While many of these administrative issues are not completely resolved, the system is currently working without any major grievances. “The Free Agents model hacks corporate systems, but doesn’t challenge them in their entirety.”

On a substantive level, the major concern at the initiation of the programme was simple: will there be demand for free agents? The fact that public sector organisations are changing due to digitalisation is a fact, but the Innovation Hub did not know if the pace of change was fast enough to make the need for project-based work visible and targetable in the system. However, word of mouth proved to be effective and knowledge about the programme and its possibilities spread fast. However, deploying agents to projects was not frictionless, especially if the connected tasks were not well defined.

The talent managers of Free Agents found that managers in general do not scope out their needs at the beginning of projects, and do not put a lot of effort in up front in selecting people for specific tasks. “Teams are understaffed in general and managers are just looking for bodies.” This does not fit with the Free Agent model, so NRCan needed to put more effort in from their side to define the role of Free Agents and improve project descriptions on the managerial side. While demand in the beginning reflected requests for more general problem-solving skills, needs have become more prescriptive with calls for more specific skills (e.g. in regard to experimentation). The programme has now outgrown the single department in NRCan and is scaling, having identified a partner department to hire the next 30 Free Agents.

The pilot is currently undertaking a formative evaluation, but initial feedback surveys show that both the Free Agents and hiring managers have benefited greatly from the programme’s activities. In the first year of the pilot, the programme staffed 42 projects in 20 departments. The projects spanned a broad range of business lines including policy development, communications, science and research, and computer programming. Projects ranged between two and 12 months in length; however, the majority (76%) were between six and 12 months.

When candidates enter the programme, many have frequently acted temporarily in positions above their substantive level for long periods. They are frequently encouraged to be innovative; however, during competitive processes they often feel they cannot demonstrate their innovation capacity and believe that doing so actually reduces their chances of career advancement. Once in the programme, job satisfaction and enjoyment are considerably higher for Free Agents compared to the rest of the Public Service. Furthermore, the vast majority of Free Agents report new opportunities to apply existing skills and develop new skills, greater access to the innovation community and higher likelihood of remaining in the public service.

Though still higher than the general Public Service, the Free Agents reported relatively lower levels of agreement with questions relating to diversity, balancing work and personal life, and mental health. Data from the Monthly Survey and journals showed that Free Agents felt some pressure to perform at a consistently high level and ensure no downtime between their assignments. The pilot will use the discussions and insights from these workshops to inform the programme’s approach to diversity, inclusion, and workplace wellness and mental health. The pilot will also investigate how best to address the unique characteristics and stressors of free agency and put in place safeguards to minimise the potential to overburden Free Agents.

Based on the results from a survey of hiring managers, the speed and convenience of hiring a Free Agent represent the greatest value provided by the programme. Managers’ overall satisfaction with the pilot was very high (90%) and the vast majority would hire a Free Agent again (84%).

On the whole, the Free Agent model is a great way to expand the capacities of the existing system within the boundaries of a legacy system. However, as outlined by one of the interviewees: “What is the right scale for Free Agents? I don’t know the answer to that. It is growing because of demand, but is it enough or is it just a not-good-enough answer”.

Source: Interviews.

Other initiatives, such as the Impact Canada Initiative will be very important in demonstrating that innovation is integral to the work of achieving and delivering on government priorities. However, similar to Free Agents, such initiatives will encounter the tension of both demonstrating that innovation is linked with high-profile projects, but that it is also relevant and expected in the day-to-day workings of the Public Service.

It may be helpful for recognition efforts to ensure that innovation is identified across the whole spectrum of the work of the Public Service, and that the stories of “day-to-day” innovation are accessible and shared, along with instances of innovation being instrumental in high-profile work.

Socialising innovation

How is innovation being showcased and introduced to both public servants and to stakeholders and partners (and even citizens more generally)? Two of the major means by which innovation appears to be socialised are the Clerk’s Annual Report to the Prime Minister and the annual Innovation Fair (Box 6.18). Both of these exercises help to highlight instances of innovation and contribute to a broader awareness of how innovation is occurring across the Public Service.

Box 6.18. Innovation Fair

In 2018, the fourth annual Blueprint 2020 Innovation Fair was held. The fair takes place in cities across the country with participants taking part through webcasting. It provides an opportunity and a forum for networking, learning from others and sharing of innovation in action across the Public Service of Canada.

The theme for 2018 was “user experience”. It explored how to better understand an end-user’s motivation in adopting a service or a product.

Source: Government of Canada (2018e).

Such high-profile measures are important. They can help cut through the day-to-day noise within the system, and provide a sense that innovation is something expected and potentially routine.

However, it will be important to socialise innovation through a range of channels. One instance of how new methods and their use have been socialised at a more functional level is the behavioural insights work of the Impact and Innovation Unit (Box 6.19).

Box 6.19. Behavioural insights in the Public Service of Canada

The work of the Impact and Innovation Unit includes a behavioural insights practice. The work helps government agencies use behavioural insight techniques and methods to better achieve outcomes. As part of this practice, the team supports two networks: a Behavioural Insights Community of Practice and a Behavioural Insights Network. The community has been established to advance the research field of behavioural economics across the Canadian Public Sector. This horizontal community invites practitioners to share information, research methodologies and experimentation results. The network brings together federal, provincial and local governments together to push for innovation in the use of behavioural economics.

In addition to these two channels, a new Impact and Innovation Unit Fellowship has been established with one focusing on behavioural insights. Through the Fellowship, the Impact and Innovation Unit will hire behavioural insight experts to help conduct projects in collaboration with various departments. The fellowship model will allow for distributed learning to occur as the fellows undertake work with agencies, but will also allow for that learning to be connected back to the centre through their link with the Impact and Innovation Unit. This should allow for much faster learning, as well as helping to socialise innovation practice more rapidly across a range of agencies.

Source: Interviews.

Another example is the work of the Innovation and Experimentation team within the Treasury Board Secretariat. The team conducts regular outreach activities to help identify queries and possible areas of confusion, as well as to harness lessons about experimentation occurring across the Public Service. Such regular outreach can provide an important means of helping to socialise processes that may at first seem very technical and different, and help them become part of the norm.

It is an open question as to whether enough is being done to help socialise the innovation occurring within the Public Service to external partners and citizens. Public sector innovation can often appear or become invisible to citizens. (If it works and does as people expect, then it can quickly fade into the background, whereas if a service is seen as old or insufficiently innovative, it will likely be noticed and remarked.) This may not be a disadvantage. However, there may be a need for proactive outreach about innovative activity to enhance recognition of efforts within the Public Service of Canada, and to ensure that the Public Service is seen as a competitive and interesting employer when competing for skills and capabilities.

Upholding innovation

Upholding innovation is in many ways reactive, as it is impossible to tell whether innovation is really being upheld until it is under duress. In the current phase of the innovation system, innovation is clearly on the ascendant. However, as the history of the Public Service demonstrates (see Chapter 2), challenges do arise. For the Public Service, this is likely to be in the form of a mistake or waste (perceived or otherwise) connected to innovation or experimentation, pushback against an innovation that is (unexpectedly) seen as conflicting with core values, or political criticism. Given that these challenges can be foreseen, even if there is no certainty as to when and what form they will take, it might be valuable to implement a form of proactive war-gaming among the central actors to see how this might play out. This process should reflect the fact that sometimes criticism will be entirely legitimate – mistakes will be made and sometimes those mistakes should not have been made. On other occasions, the criticism may seem unjust, but will still need to be engaged with.


The issue of normality is an area where central initiatives can set the parameters or provide the license, but much of the responsibility will need to be reinforced across the system, in different agencies and by different actors. The various elements are in place, but their effectiveness will need to be observed over time.

A system needs to be seen over time

There is a lot of different activity occurring across the system. This chapter has examined this activity at a particular moment in time and made assessments about the present state of things, or what might happen in the immediate future. However, many of the developments are quite recent, the system is evolving quite quickly and there is significant uncertainty, as much remains to be learnt about the system and what works. Given this, there are limitations to what an overview of the system can teach about what needs to happen next.

The next chapter presents different scenarios that explore how the system might perform over time. These illustrations examine how system dynamics might play out under different situations, and help provide insights into what might be needed to assist the innovation system reach the desired level of performance.


Government of Canada (2018a), “The Mandate Letter Tracker and the Results and Delivery approach”, Ottawa, www.canada.ca/en/privy-council/services/results-delivery-unit.html#toc2.

Government of Canada (2018b), “About the Impact Canada Initiative”, Ottawa, www.canada.ca/en/innovation-hub/services/impact-canada-initiative/about.html.

Government of Canada (2018c), “Enabling the innovative use of Transfer Payments”, Ottawa, www.canada.ca/en/treasury-board-secretariat/services/innovation/enabling-innovative-use-transfer-payments.html.

Government of Canada (2018d), “Deputy Ministers Task Force on Public Sector Innovation Mandate Letter”, Ottawa, www.canada.ca/en/innovation-hub/services/mandate-letter.html.

Government of Canada (2018e), “2018 Blueprint 2020 Innovation Fair”, www.canada.ca/en/privy-council/campaigns/2018-blueprint-2020-innovation-fair.html.

Government of Canada (2017), “Federal, Provincial and Territorial Declaration on Public Sector Innovation”, Ottawa, www.canada.ca/en/innovation-hub/services/Federal-Provincial-Territorial-Declaration-Public-Sector-Innovation.html.

Government of Canada (2016), “Experimentation direction for Deputy Heads – December 2016”, Ottawa, www.canada.ca/en/innovation-hub/services/reports-resources/experimentation-direction-deputy-heads.html.

TBS (2016), “Cutting internal red tape – building a service culture: Final report by the Blueprint 2020 Internal Red Tape Reduction Tiger Team”, internal working document, Treasury Board Secretariat, Ottawa.

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