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Embracing Innovation in Government: Global trends 2017


Innovation in government is about finding new ways to impact the lives of citizens, and new approaches to activating them as partners to shape the future together. It involves overcoming old structures and modes of thinking and embracing new technologies and ideas. The potential of innovation in government is immense; however, the challenges governments face are significant. Despite this, governments are transforming the way they work to ensure this potential is met.

Trend 1: Human and machine: pairing human knowledge with innovative tools

Governments around the world are making increased use of innovative tools to anticipate and understand the complexity and uncertainty of societies and nature. From big data analytics to smart cities, drones to social networks, and predictive algorithms to machine learning, technology is enabling governments to better monitor both the physical environment and the daily concerns of citizens. These can support government decision-making and be used in new ways to interact with citizens, in particular by automatically detecting anomalies and forecasting potential crises that require government action. These tools are not autonomous, however. Adept individuals are needed to use them and interpret their results. Several core trends have been observed in this area.

Trend 2: Zoom in or zoom out: scaling government

One of the trickiest aspects of government involves scale. In terms of innovation, this means establishing how to scale an innovation initiative from small to large once it has demonstrated its value. This approach has long been regarded as the optimal approach to innovation, as it provides opportunities to adjust and adapt based on user reactions and lessons learned, and allows potential failures to happen quickly before significant resources are invested. This involves increasing the number of beneficiaries, as well as the level of financial resources, staffing and infrastructure dedicated to ensuring the innovation takes root and succeeds. Increasingly, however, scale has come to take on a second meaning, as technological advances allow governments to re-evaluate what scale implies. On the macro side, it involves the use of data and information from an ever-expanding number of sources, while on the micro side it can imply seeking answers to government problems with sources or tools so small they cannot be seen with the human eye. While the concept of scaling itself is growing, so are the number of governments and partners devising interesting new ways to handle scale and push the boundaries of innovation.

Trend 3: Citizens as experts: redefining citizen-government boundaries

In addition to expanding the technological boundaries of public sector innovation, as discussed in Trend 1, governments are also redefining the boundaries between themselves and their citizens in important ways. Broadly speaking, those innovations that expand and redefine the relationship between the government and citizens help to provide more inclusive, transparent and accountable government, which can further amplify the power of innovation. Innovative governments are enhancing citizen engagement and ensuring public involvement at every stage of the policy cycle: from shaping ideas to designing, delivering and monitoring public services. Ultimately, the goal is not merely to improve the type and quality of services that governments provide, although those are important considerations, but also to transform the culture of government so that citizens are seen as partners who can shape and inform policy and services. Ultimately, this can enhance citizens’ confidence in government, which is generally low, and is decreasing in many countries.

Trend 4: Mass or personalised services: the next generation of service delivery

The world is changing at a remarkable pace and each new advance is accompanied by expectations on the part of its citizens. Governments at the forefront of innovation are re-inventing their operations to better meet these expectations by providing services more attuned to the lives of their citizens, residents and customers, based on a deep understanding of their needs. Traditional government services are often highly compartmentalised and provided to citizens in a disjointed fashion based on government structures, rather than the needs of the people. Innovative governments have realised that a citizen should not have to know the internal workings of large and complex bureaucracies to obtain the services they require. They have begun to change the way in which they do business by providing more holistic solutions that optimise services, according to the needs of citizens, and continuously improve services in response to feedback. This not only benefits citizens, but also enhances the overall functioning of government, by creating new opportunities to partner with other agencies, non-profit organisations and businesses.

Trend 5: Experimental government: small bets with big potential

Government innovations come in all forms and sizes, and are as diverse as the challenges they address. To make innovative solutions possible, governments need to think differently. This requires that governments use existing tools and resources differently, and leverage new tools and approaches to rethink their work in order to generate new solutions for new or persistent problems.

Trend 6: Breaking the norms: rethinking the machinery of government

Great innovations are often the products themselves of innovations in production and process. The final product is made possible by new materials, new production technologies, and new ways of organising work and people. This is also true for government services, where the innovative end product, whether new digital services, new approaches to preventative health care or programmes to address homelessness, are made possible by adjusting the internal mechanisms of government in ways that enable innovation. This trend looks at two key ingredients of innovation that underscore every project in this report: people and money.


Innovation in government is about opening up new ways to impact the everyday lives of citizens, and new approaches to activating them as partners to shape the future of government together. It involves overcoming old structures and modes of thinking and embracing new technologies, processes and ideas. It is based on securing the public’s trust and acting as sound stewards of their resources. Most importantly, innovation unlocks ways to ensure wellbeing, safety and justice for citizens, and serves as a catalyst to spark creativity and action in society far beyond the walls of government.

Governments and civil servant around the world are transforming the way they work to ensure this potential is met, by solving problems using novel and impactful approaches that provide lessons about what may work and what may not. In particular, as discussed in this report, these approaches include:

  • Balancing and augmenting the comparative advantages of human and machine approaches for solutions that exceed the abilities of each of these alone
  • Finding new ways to zoom in or zoom out to scale government services for more impact and to identify new solutions at a scale not previously possible
  • Involving citizens as experts to provide new ideas and stimulate innovation among those most affected by its outcomes
  • Developing mass or personalised services that are user-centred, view citizens holistically, and recognise that individuals have unique wants and needs
  • Fostering the principles and cultures of experimental government to turn the public sector into a testbed for testing innovative ideas
  • Breaking the norms in the areas of government that manage human and financial resources, and which serve as the brains and lifeblood of public programmes.

This report is a collaboration between OECD-OPSI and the Government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and its Mohammed Bin Rashid Centre for Government Innovation (MBRCGI).

Embracing Innovation in Government: Global Trends 2017

Published on 12 February 2017.