Can public services change? Is it possible for public service organisations to be innovative? These questions are at the core of Managing Change and Innovation in Public Service Organisations. Common perceptions remain that public services are resistant to change and that innovation is the sole province of the private, for-profit sector. The possibility of public service organisations embarking on successful change programmes and establishing effective systems for promoting innovation forms the basis of the proposition for this research endeavour.

March, 27 2006   |   Stephen Osborne & Kerry Brown

Public service organisations (PSOs) have existed traditionally in a relatively stable environment typically characterised by small-scale, incremental change and gradual development. However, the twin pressures of shrinking budgets and greater political and economic uncertainty in the contexts in which public service organisations operate have combined to break down the conventional certainties of public service operations. These forces have driven an agenda based on the need to proactively manage change and innovation rather than retain outmoded processes or operate by reacting to external or imposed events.

Yet, little is known about how to successfully implement and manage change and innovation in PSOs. Studies of change efforts have focussed mainly on the private sector and, even then, ambitious change programmes have been found to fail in many studies of change initiatives (Beer and Nohria, 2000). Similarly, many studies of innovation have tended to give attention to innovative practices and processes in the private sector. In order to bring a public service perspective to these issues, Osborne¿s (1998a, 1998b and 1998c) work in community sector and social policy innovation is outlined and expanded to establish a set of possible blueprints and frameworks for understanding and elaborating a system of innovation in PSOs.

The volatile environment of the public service is explored and the critical triggers for change and innovation examined. The issues of assessing the requirements for developing a coherent and appropriate change agenda and programme together with a systematic policy and programmatic response to establishing innovation in PSOs is outlined. The key tools and models for understanding and developing change and innovation programmes are set out and critically evaluated.

Emergent change and continuous change contexts have come to occupy a prominent place as an evolving feature of contemporary public services and these pose particular challenges for PSOs. The ability to adapt quickly to new operating approaches and institutional arrangements is vital but residual traces of traditional frameworks and techniques for managing PSOs, together with the propensity for incremental advances, may work against innovation and change. A way forward for understanding change and innovation in PSOs is mapped to capitalise on the benefits of a well-considered, tailored change programme and a comprehensive innovation system.

Achieving successful change is dependent on a range of factors that come into play at an organisational level. In order to promote change there is a need to:

  • Secure commitment at the top of the organisation;
  • Determine the need for change and substantiate the direction of change;
  • Focus on the tangible structures and processes as well as intangible values and culture of the organisation;  
  • Identify the potential problems related to achieving the change programme;
  • Follow up implementation of the change with a comprehensive evaluation of the outcomes of change.


Change efforts therefore rely on developing effective strategies to:

  • Set clear organisational goals;
  • Adopt appropriate communication strategies;
  • Develop linkages across the organisation;
  • Establish high-quality leadership and management;
  • Engender change receptivity; and
  • Adopt a culture of adaptation to change.


There are a multiplexity of views about the ways to manage change in organisations. However, common themes and frameworks have been identified and their applicability to achieving successful change has been considered. PSOs, in particular, add complexity to the concept of organisational change as these organisations are oriented to public rather than private purposes and do not have the incentive of the ¿bottom line¿ to guide behaviour and test outcomes.

Innovation in PSOs has been pursued as a policy goal in order to reduce the dependence of citizens and organisations on government resources but also as bottom-up demands from citizens and top-down demands from government to provide new and more responsive models of service delivery took hold.

The first step to understanding innovation in public service organisations is to determine the nature and characteristics of innovation and the attributes of successful innovative organisations. Managing innovation then derives from understanding how the innovation process can be adapted to the public service context and fostering a climate of innovation. Innovation at both organisational and individual levels is examined.


Key issues in promoting and supporting innovation in PSOs:

  • Identify the level of intervention i.e. top-down or bottom-up innovation;
  • Assess whether innovation suits planned or emergent approaches;
  • Understanding how risk should be calculated and/or shared;
  • Identify barriers and ways of overcoming these impediments;
  • Classify the approach to learning within the PSO;
  • Recognise the potential problems and work out ways of resolution; and,
  • Identify how the rewards should be allocated.


The typical characteristics of public innovators are identified and critically examined to assist in discerning the types of behaviours that may promote an innovative approach to public services organisation and operation. Characteristics of innovators may include intuition and creativity, critical thinking, an orientation to problem-solving, highly developed leadership skills, ability to engage in social interaction and possesses a well-integrated personality. While these characteristics do not ensure that individuals are successful innovators in PSOs, research indicates that these elements may point to fruitful ways for identifying and developing innovators in PSOs.

The factors that are found to be important in achieving innovation and developing a culture of innovation in PSOs focus on three areas: individual actions; organisational structures; and, organisational environment. Salient issues to consider when applying an innovation framework to PSOs include:

  • Individual agency including innovation champions, supporters and advocates;
  • Organisational culture of innovation i.e. risk-tolerant, learning-oriented and rewards innovation;
  • External orientation based on an ¿open system¿ approach.


It is concluded that the leadership, communication, culture, type of change programme and context are all elements that contribute to the ability to manage change and innovation in PSOs.

However, it is not enough to simply develop and implement a change agenda or establish a set of initiatives to foster innovation. Change and innovation need to be sustained across organisations and over time. Sustaining change is argued to be reliant on developing ¿higher order¿ competencies and capabilities in relation to change. Efforts to build organisational social capital through on-going networks of relationships, both one-way and two-way communication processes, aligning reward and recognition systems to change initiatives within organisations, efforts to build culture and organisational acceptance of change are all ¿higher order¿ capacities that assist in ensuring that change is maintained.

Similarly, building sustainability into organisational innovations and sustaining innovation in PSOs is an important aspect of ensuring that innovation becomes embedded as part of mainstream organisational structures and practices. Approaches that incorporate a mix of cultural, structural and relationship elements are required. Features such as defining achievable and visible goals for innovation, appropriate reward and acknowledgement of success, systematic implementation that allows for regeneration and evaluation and, establishing a culture that supports innovation are important to ensure that innovation is a key plank in the effective management and sustainability of PSOs.



Stephen Osborne is Professor of Public Management and Head of the Public Management Group at the Aston Business School, United Kingdom ( Kerry Brown is Professor of Public Management at the School of Management of Queensland University of Technology, Australia (






Beer, M. and N. Nohria (2000) Breaking the Code of Change. HBS Press: Boston, MA.


Osborne, S. (1998a) Voluntary Organisations and Innovation in Public Services. Routledge: London.


Osborne, S. (1998b) Naming the Beast. Defining and classifying service innovations in social policy, Human Relations, 51(9): 1133-54.


Osborne, S. (1998c) Organisational structure and innovation in voluntary associations: Applying the Aston Measure, Voluntas, 9(4): 345-62. 


Osborne, S. and Brown, K. 2005. Managing Change and Innovation in Public Service Organisations, Routledge, London.



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