Innovation and Innovativeness for the Public Servant of the Future: What, Why, How, Where, and When

  • Roberto VivonaEmail author
  • Mehmet Akif Demircioglu
  • Aarthi Raghavan
Living reference work entry


This chapter aims at clarifying the concepts of innovation and innovativeness for public servants. It first explains what public sector innovation is and how it differs from private sector innovation (what question). Then, it discusses why public sector employees and public organizations need to innovate (why question). It also highlights how to support innovativeness of public servants, by addressing the innovative skills that can be improved (how question). In particular, are there any specific conditions and drivers for innovation in public service? This chapter also discusses which types of jobs and workplaces require more innovative skills for the public servant of the future (where question) and briefly explores evolving opportunities and challenges in the workforce (when question) to predict what the public servant of the future will look like.


Public sector innovation Public service Motivation Skills 

What Is Public Sector Innovation?

Public sector innovation is a broad concept. It comprises many dimensions, and any univocal definition would not be thorough and agreed upon (Fernandez and Pitts 2011; Kattel et al. 2013; OECD 2015a, 2017). Thus, in order to fully understand what public sector innovation is, one must firstly grasp the two basic notions of “public sector” and “innovation” (Arundel et al. 2019).

Defining the public sector is a complex task. For instance, from an institutional standpoint, the public sector can be considered a set of organizations owned by the state or under political authority; however, from a functional point of view, the public sector is composed of organizations that serve the public interest (Wegrich 2014). These two views produce confusion since they overlap with definitions of nonpublic sector organizations. Indeed, most private sector and nonprofit organizations are subject to political influence and serve public interests to various degrees. At the same time, some state-owned organizations undertake activities that are hardly distinguishable from business. Moreover, current trends such as decentralization, privatization, partnerships with private actors, and New Public Management practices render the distinction between the private and public sectors more and more blurred (Bozeman 2004; Christensen and Lægreid 2018; Koch and Hauknes 2005; Rainey 2009). Therefore, the distinction between the private and public sectors is not dichotomous but rather falls along a spectrum, with several areas of ambiguity. For the purpose of this chapter, the public sector is defined, in a “strong” way, at the extreme point of the spectrum composed of organizations that are (i) state-owned, (ii) under direct political authority, (iii) operating in non-market environments, and (iv) serving the public interest by producing non-market impacts (Christensen et al. 2007; Rainey 2009; Wilson 2000).

Regarding the second concept, “innovation” refers to “something new” because innovation is necessarily about originating novelty, so it differs from improvement (Osborne and Brown 2011, 2013). Following this line of reasoning, Green et al. (2001) define innovation as “doing something new, i.e. introducing a new practice or process, creating a new product […] or adopting a new pattern of intra- or inter-organizational relationships.”

Nevertheless, innovation is more than mere novelty. Innovation is something new that works (Mulgan 2007; Mulgan and Albury 2003), and the innovative process must yield some results. Eggers and Singh (2009, 17) affirm that “innovation is not just about generating good ideas. A good idea is only the first step; organizations then need to implement the idea and produce results.”

This focus on the results of innovation has been widely investigated in private sector literature. For instance, Baregheh et al. (2009) review definitions of innovation in business environments. Based on commonalities found through a content analysis, they state that “[i]nnovation is the multi-stage process whereby organizations transform ideas into new/improved products, service or processes, in order to advance, compete and differentiate themselves successfully in their marketplace.” This definition is valuable for understanding innovation more generally as it shows that “innovation” has at least three dimensions:
  • Goals: innovation can have different goals and therefore can be directed to obtain different results (e.g., organizations can use innovation to generate improvements and advance in their environment, to find new ways of doing things and differentiate themselves from other actors, or to solve problems and sustain their ability to survive and compete).

  • Process: innovation is a multistage process that entails different moments. The simplest characterization of the innovation process is a three-phase process composed of idea generation, implementation, and diffusion.

  • Types: innovations are very different to one another and can be defined according to their type. Building on Windrum (2008), six innovation types can be identified, namely, services innovation, service delivery innovation, process innovation, conceptual innovation, policy innovation, and systemic innovation. Van der Wal (2017) adds another type of innovation: rhetoric innovation. Torugsa and Arundel (2016) and Demircioglu and Audretsch (2018) consider that the more types an innovation encompasses, the higher the complexity of the innovation. For example, “if an innovation improves the organizational process, the way employees provide services, and employee policy thinking, the innovation is characterized as complex” (Demircioglu and Audretsch 2018, 3).

Other dimensions are also relevant to analyzing innovation, such as the degree of novelty and the source of innovation (Koch and Hauknes 2005).
  • Degree of novelty: innovation can be a completely new idea, revolutionary with respect to the current paradigm, or a simple change along the current trajectory of development. The degree of novelty is often referred to as the dichotomous distinction between radical innovations and incremental innovations. According to Demircioglu and Audretsch (2018, 4), “radical innovation refers to disruptive (not incremental) innovation that has a significant impact on the organization and the public sector environment,” and it is different from complex innovation. For example, the Open University in the United Kingdom is a radical innovation because it drastically changed the public sector and the environment of higher education in the United Kingdom and the world (Albury 2005; Demircioglu and Audretsch 2018), but it may not be a complex innovation as it does not impact multiple dimensions of the most significant innovation. However, introducing a toll charge in a city is not a radical innovation as it does not disrupt the public service or public sector, but it may be a complex innovation as this innovation may affect more types of innovations (e.g., “policy thinking, the way they [employees or organizations] provide services, the way they [employees or organizations] interact with stakeholders, and administrative and organizational processes” (Demircioglu and Audretsch 2018, 4)). Overall, public organizations need incremental, complex, and especially radical innovations (Bugge and Bloch 2016; Albury 2011; Sahni et al. 2013).

  • Source of innovation: “source” refers to the actor or organization originating the novel idea, whether governmental actors (e.g., high-level management and ministers), other actors such as universities, industry stakeholders, and members of the public, leadership (i.e., upper and middle management), or lower-level staff, at the team or individual level (Arundel and Huber 2013; Demircioglu 2017; Demircioglu and Audretsch 2019). To develop an innovation typology, innovations can be top-down-external (e.g., ideas emanating from the government), top-down-internal (e.g., ideas emanating from organizational leaders), bottom-up-external (e.g., ideas emanating from members of the public), and bottom-up-internal (ideas emanating from employees and their workgroups) (Demircioglu 2017, 2018b). Nonetheless, while there have been several attempts to disentangle the unique contributions of different actors, several studies argue that innovation is rarely generated by a single source, and sources should not be considered as stand-alone. Rather, innovation often occurs in a dynamic system through the collaborative efforts of different actors (Sørensen and Torfing 2011; Torfing and Triantafillou 2016).

Public sector innovation integrates the two concepts innovation and the public sector in a twofold relationship: innovation can happen through and/or in the public sector (European Commission 2013). Innovation through the public sector refers to actions undertaken by the public to boost private sector innovation. Edler and Georghiou (2007) name this kind of action as innovation policy tool. Examples of these instruments shaping the innovativeness of the private sector are divided into supply-side tools, such as fiscal measures or grants to support industrial R&D (Urbano et al. 2019), and demand-side tools, such as systemic policies or public procurements of innovation (Edler and Georghiou 2007; Edquist and Zabala-Iturriagagoitia 2012). Innovation in the public sector refers to changes undertaken by the public sector with the goal of sustaining or improving its ability to create public value and thus to retain its legitimacy (Demircioglu 2017; Verhoest et al. 2007).

While the concept of public sector innovation appears in studies of innovation in general, public sector innovation is fundamentally different from private sector innovation (Koch et al. 2006), as the ethos of bureaucracy and the ethos of innovation are in conflict. For example, while the bureaucrat’s ethos includes stability, predictability, and rule abidance, the innovator’s ethos values experimentation, entrepreneurialism, and audacity (Van der Wal 2017). Similarly, public organizations and employees working in public organizations are typically risk-averse (Bozeman and Kingsley 1998; Rainey 2009). Therefore, innovating in the public sector comprises several challenges at various levels of analysis and which are different from the challenges facing innovation in the private sector.

The first level of difference resides in goal definition. While the private sector’s main goal is usually to satisfy shareholders by increasing profits, public sector organizations need to compromise among countless stakeholders and opposing interests, resulting in frequent goal ambiguities.

Second, the public sector is not market-oriented: while it is sufficient for businesses to measure the performance of their innovations in terms of a change in position in the marketplace (e.g., by increasing market share, profits, or stability), innovations in the public sector often produce non-marketable outputs (Rainey 1999). Non-market impacts, such as enhanced public trust, access to services, transparency, citizen engagement, and social equity, are difficult to measure in objective ways. These results usually become more visible over the long term, so that creating accountability for successful innovations becomes more complex.

Third, organizational structures in the public sector are usually more complex than those in private sector; moreover, structures are made more confused by an unclear governance philosophy. Indeed, although a vast literature has analyzed the shift from traditional bureaucracy to New Public Management and then to network governance, these philosophies are often mixed within one organization (Kruyen and Van Genugten 2019).

Fourth, leadership in the public sector is usually weaker. Top managers are usually under direct scrutiny from politicians, and their ability to champion innovations may be bounded by political acceptance and stability. In contrast, management in the private sector is usually more autonomous and responds to a narrower array of shareholders (Koch et al. 2006; Rainey 2009).

Fifth, public servants are motivated toward innovation by a different set of reasons compared to private sector employees (Bysted and Jesper 2015; Demircioglu and Audretsch 2017). While the latter usually innovate because they expect monetary bonuses as a reward for successful innovations, public servants are typically more cautious of political repercussions for failed innovations, and their motivations to innovate come from desires for prestige and professional recognition (Koch and Hauknes 2005; Wilson 2000). Figure 1 shows these characteristics of public organizations.
Fig. 1

Features of public sector innovation – public/private sector differences

Why Do Public Servants Need to Innovate?

After explaining what public sector innovation is and the features of public sector innovation, an important question remains: Why do public sector employees need to innovate? As mentioned above, innovation in public sector organization differs significantly from private sector innovation and often results in increased difficulties. Nevertheless, innovation is fundamental in the public sector (Harris and Albury 2009).

For instance, innovation is required to go beyond business-as-usual bureaucratic processes, which make things complex to understand and solve (Arundel et al. 2015). Public organizations need to innovate to achieve higher levels of output with decreased levels of input, in accordance with the focus put on efficiency by New Public Management reforms or the reductions in available funding due to recent economic crises and government retrenchment (Suzuki 2017, 2018; Suzuki and Demircioglu 2019). Moreover, long-term challenges, such as climate change and demographic transitions, require a shift in the approaches used by governments (Albury 2005, 2011). At the same time, the changing societies (e.g., family structures, levels of employment, wealth inequalities) require new or improved services, while the digital era has increased expectations for service delivery (Dunleavy et al. 2006). Thus, in order to meet societal needs, governments should find ways to increase citizen engagement in a logic of co-design and co-production of new services.

Due to diminished budgets and a lack of relevant skills, the public sector needs to collaborate in a systemic way with businesses and nonprofits to successfully generate and implement innovations. Moreover, the public sector needs innovation to promote itself, improve its legitimacy (Verhoest et al. 2007), and attract and retain talented people (Demircioglu 2017). Finally, as innovation at the national level increases nations’ economic growth, development, entrepreneurship, prosperity, and spillover effects to other sectors (Acs et al. 2017; Audretsch and Lehmann 2016; Audretsch and Link 2018; Leyden and Link 1992), bureaucracies and bureaucrats are also expected to innovate.

The abovementioned reasons to innovate are diverse, and they also depend on the level of analysis since reasons change from the government level to the organizational level and individual level. While at the organizational level the public sector can innovate in order to improve efficiency or legitimacy, at the highest level, the general public sector has different reasons to pursue innovation. For example, governments face severe challenges that require a change in public intervention. Public sector innovation is therefore essential for tackling these grand challenges.

Nevertheless, innovation at lower levels, such as individual innovativeness of public servants, has been deemed lacking in the public sector. Particularly, there are many barriers that hinder individual-level innovation, such as the size and complexities of organizational structures, professional and public resistance to change and risk aversion (Albury 2005; Demircioglu 2018b), an absence of resources and technical barriers (Koch et al. 2006), and leadership failure and regulatory requirements (Wipulanusat et al. 2019). In spite of these barriers, individual-level innovation in the public sector often means that public sector employees must become courageous champions of the innovation process (Bankins et al. 2017; Sørensen and Torfing 2011). This process of individual entrepreneurship is valuable for public servants, as it allows them to improve their understanding of complex problems, their strategies for innovation, and their ability to attract new resources by networking (Berman et al. 2017; Kim 2010; Morris and Jones 1999). Governing networks are also fundamental to advance and sustain collaborations in a systemic way, which is relevant to the innovative capacity of public servants (Lewis et al. 2018).

As public sector organizations strive to survive and improve their ability to meet societal needs, public sector employees should not be regarded as “passive containers taking up new technologies” (Koch and Hauknes 2005). Their personal and professional development should be linked with organizational change, just as public sector managers are expected to lead successful organizational change (Campbell 2017; Fernandez and Rainey 2006; Kelman 2005).

How to Improve Innovativeness of Public Servants?

Given the constraints and features of public organizations mentioned above, how can public sector employees innovate? In other words, how to improve innovativeness for public servants? When organizations change, there should be mechanisms that allow public servants to keep up. Indeed, the innovative behavior of public sector employees can be improved through managerial and leadership practices in public sector organizations (Fernandez and Moldogaziev 2012; Hansen and Pihl-Thingvad 2019). In order to produce a higher level of innovation, public servants should have greater stimuli to innovate. Stimuli, which can be referred to as work motivation, are divided into two main categories (Hollanders et al. 2014): incentives to innovate coming from the outside (e.g., coming from the working environment) and inspiration to innovate coming from the inside (e.g., measures that incentivize public servants’ innovative attitudes). Table 1 summarizes the strategies to improve innovativeness that will be explained below. Public administration scholars often refer to these motivational leverages to improve innovativeness as conditions (or drivers) to innovate when concerning external motivation and as empowerment practices when concerning intrinsic motivation. For example, evidence suggests that supporting employees’ motivation toward improvement and experimentation leads to higher degrees of innovativeness (Demircioglu and Audretsch 2017; Wipulanusat et al. 2019).
Table 1

Improving innovativeness of public servants

External stimuli

Internal stimuli

Political will

Granting power and autonomy

Pro-innovation leadership approach

Accepting failed innovations

Organizational support for innovation

Rewarding success

Attitude of supervisors

Enhancing collaborations


Favoring training and social media

Regarding the conditions for innovation and external factors affecting motivation, a public servant’s willingness to innovate is determined by a set of environmental factors affecting job structure and organizational environment. Political will for innovation and policy directions straightforwardly affect the innovative behavior of public managers and employees. Leadership approaches to innovation may substantially alter the overall innovativeness of public servants (Bekkers et al. 2011; De Vries et al. 2016). Pro-innovation attitudes and political orientations may significantly influence the adoption of innovations (Damanpour and Schneider 2008). For instance, when managers formally recognize innovation through ad hoc awards and when innovation is directly supported through specific funds, the innovation climate can be improved (Albury 2011; Borins 2001; Demircioglu and Berman 2019). A positive innovation climate can increase employees’ career satisfaction (Wipulanusat et al. 2018) and reduce their turnover intention (Demircioglu and Berman 2019). In addition, organizational support for innovation leads to two opposite innovation cultures: on the one hand, a climate of “idea rejection” creates a culture of high risk aversion and rigidity; on the other hand, a climate of explicit encouragement for innovation creates a culture of positive creativity (Anderson et al. 2014; Unsworth and Clegg 2010). Top managers and leaders are not the only influencers of innovation; the supportiveness of supervisors at lower levels has also been found to improve employees’ innovative behavior (Janssen 2005).

Empowerment practices aim at improving intrinsic motivation and its relationship to creation; this means that the innovativeness of public servants also depends on their inner desires, on their enjoyment of job tasks, and on their ability to understand one another’s standpoints (Gagné and Deci 2005; Grant and Berry 2011). The range of internal stimuli affecting intrinsic motivation to innovate is broad. For instance, higher degrees of discretion in pursuing job tasks can be achieved by relaxing controls and decentralizing autonomy; discretion and autonomy are fundamental to enabling creativity and innovativeness in public servants (Demircioglu 2017, 2018b; Fernandez and Pitts 2011). Additionally, public servants tend to be more risk-averse due to fear of repercussions for failed innovations (Bloch and Bugge 2013). They do innovate, but they perceive innovativeness as extra work that should be compensated, so a system of rewards (monetary and non-monetary) can also improve innovative behavior (Bysted and Jespersen 2014).

Inter-agency collaborations and enlarged partnerships (with private sector, nonprofit organizations, and universities) result in mutual learning, which allows public servants to better comprehend problems and to expand their ability to innovate with creative thinking (Demircioglu and Audretsch 2019; Roberts 2000). In order to make collaborations more likely, successful, and systemic, public servants need to be able to take an entrepreneurial role and become enablers of the innovation process (Bovaird 2007; Windrum and Koch 2008). Systems that promote access to more specific levels of knowledge and skills enhance innovative behavior since public servants can understand problems in a more complete way, which is conducive to better outcomes (Fernandez and Moldogaziev 2011). Finally, because the use of social media for work purposes can enhance employees’ competence, autonomy, and relatedness and thus their motivation and job satisfaction (Demircioglu 2018a; Demircioglu and Chen 2019), employees using social media wisely and for work purposes can have higher levels of creativity and innovation.

Areas Where Public Servants Can Be Innovative

There are several areas where a future public servant can be innovative; however, the three segments are of particular importance. Technology, citizen engagement, and working methods will see an increasing need for an innovative mindset and applications in future. The following is a brief explanation of the trends observed in each of these areas.


Technology offers a wide scope for the future of public service. In order to make optimum use of technological developments to transform the public service of the future, innovative skills will be required. It will be possible and required to design citizen interactions with the government through effective digital tools. This would make such interactions more fluid with citizens getting responses in real time instead of waiting for hours, days, weeks, or even months, as is the case in many countries today. Almost all citizens around the world complain about administrative burden, which can be defined as “costs that individuals experience in their interactions with the state” (Moynihan et al. 2014, 45). For example, even for some basic services, “[c]itizens must complete applications and reenrollments, provide documentation of their standing, and avoid or respond to discretionary demands” (Moynihan et al. 2014, 46; see also Herd and Moynihan 2019). Therefore, using technology can reduce administrative burdens.

Moreover, technological expertise and applications can give governments an unprecedented edge in the global economy. For example, Estonia is known for achieving excellence in digital governance. An interesting program initiated as part of this process was e-residency. The goal of the program was to attract large numbers of foreign investors to the country and encourage them to register their companies there. The project was launched in 2014, and by 2015 nearly 8000 e-residents from 120 countries had registered nearly 291 companies in Estonia. By 2016, there were more than 9400 registered e-residents and 495 registered companies (Oros 2016). In the future, many countries will follow suit, and we, while administrative burdens decrease, public servants, will be expected to unlock unique potentials in policy implementation through technological innovations.

Citizen Engagement

In addition to using digital tools effectively, public servants of the future will need to develop better ways of addressing the diverse concerns of the public. Their approach will require customizations depending on the segment being addressed; strategies for approaching and addressing the concerns of different age groups, genders, and special groups will require analysis based on real-time data and actual concerns shared by the public. Identifying new and better ways of communicating with these groups, and particularly young people, will become increasingly essential for effective delivery of public service and civic knowledge integration (Ertas 2015; Soe 2018).

Working Methods

Since current trends in public sector demand leaner and more efficient processes, public service roles would change in tandem with changing workplaces. Public servants will have to innovate to perform within a changing work environment while being receptive to the changing contexts in which the future public service will be expected to operate. This would require a more entrepreneurial approach to work whereby officials will need to cut across departmental silos, cultural perceptions, traditional norms, and personal biases to identify quick and effective solutions to persistent problems (Van der Wal 2017).

A crucial question that governments around the world face today is what kind of skills public servants will require in the future to be more innovative in these three (and other) areas of public service. This question arises as several factors continue to transform public service globally. Technology, data-centricity, and public accountability are reshaping the vision, mission, roles, expectations, work, and workplaces in the public sector like never before (Chaskin and Greenberg 2015; Van der Wal 2017). Governments are transforming, and so is the definition of public service. Given the pace of current changes, it has been predicted that by 2035, the nature of public service and the roles taken up by public servants will have changed drastically (Carr 2019). Therefore, public sector employees should be prepared for these changes by consistently developing skills that enable them to be efficient, innovative, and better prepared to meet the needs of citizens.

As can be seen in Fig. 2, public servants of the future would require the following skills for effective and efficient delivery of public service: (1) “tech-savvy” approach to work, (2) collaborative mindset and flexibility, (3) mobility, (4) data-centricity, (5) emotional intelligence and motivation, (6) autonomy, and (7) social responsibility.
Fig. 2

Skills required for public service of the future

“Tech-Savvy” Approach to Work

Recent approaches by governments across the world have been that of first-generation applications like virtual one-stop portals aimed at enabling greater participation from the public. These have indeed served the purpose of policy implementation and promoted social innovation. However, with the advent of social, mobile, analytic, and cloud technologies (SMACs) and the continuing evolution of artificial intelligence, 3D printing, robotics, and the Internet of Things, the shape of public space is bound to change. Public servants will need to be well versed and proactive in harnessing these technologies (and others to come) to better cater to the needs and expectations of the public (UNDP 2015). One example is the ongoing implementation of OnTrack (developed by the World Bank Institute, Innovation in Governance Team), which enables citizens to provide real-time feedback to governments that are implementing programs financed by the World Bank. Implemented in Bolivia, Ghana, Nepal, and Zambia, the tool uses short message service (SMS), web, and interactive mapping to engage stakeholders. In this case, government officials who are not used to the technology will be required to make an active use of the platform in order to enhance the government’s accountability to their own citizens and to the World Bank, which is funding these projects (Kumar 2014).

Collaborative Mindset and Flexibility

Collaboration is becoming a mantra in public service due to its potential benefits. For example, local governments in the United Kingdom have been able to save nearly 22% of their annual budget and reduce their workforce by 700,000 through greater collaboration across departments. Officers, in this case, were expected to work in constantly changing environments with less resources and higher workloads (Terry 2017). In the future, public servants will be required to achieve more with less and collaborate proactively across departments and with the various stakeholders involved in the policy process, including policy implementation (Agranoff and McGuire 2004; Kolpakov et al. 2016). They will be expected to work with increasing flexibility, including the ability to work in ad hoc and even anonymous project scenarios (Carr 2019).


In 2012, the Public Service Commission of New South Wales, Australia, identified the need for worker mobility within the public sector through an internal survey. The findings of this report suggest that increased mobility benefits both public servants and governments; while public servants get increased opportunities to enhance their skills and understanding of government functions overall, governments see a decrease in turnover costs and an increase in productivity gains (PSC Advisory Board 2012). However, mobility will mean even more in the future of public service. For example, one study of the United States’ federal government finds that employees who are eligible to telework have higher job satisfaction and intention to stay in their agencies than do those employees who are ineligible (Lee and Kim 2018). Public servants will be expected to be able to work from anywhere and at any time (Carr 2019). There is increasing evidence that officials in governments prefer some form of mobility, either within or outside the organization, with women seeking such roles more often than men (APSC 2017). Additionally, supportive leadership and diversity management becomes more important, as they also increase participation in telework programs (Bae et al. 2019).


Public servants will increasingly need data to understand the changing needs and expectations of citizens. For the future role of a public servant, data-centricity would mean that they are able to make more fluid use of data in decision-making (Abramson et al. 2018). In particular, Abramson et al. (2018, 7–8) predict that, in looking toward the future, “artificial and augmented intelligence (AI) will drive new realities,” “data will drive progress,” and “government services will become platform-based.” Therefore, public services should be ready for these changes. In addition, public service across the world is increasingly becoming citizen-centric. For example, in Indonesia, the Jakarta Transport Authority collaborated with application providers like Waze, Trafi, and Google Maps to evaluate the existing traffic patterns in the city. The initiative helped reduce the travel times of local TransJakarta buses by 20% and increased ridership of public transport by 30% (Abiad and Khatiwada 2018). For the public servant of the future, the challenge will not just to collect data about ongoing projects and public feedback but also to make active use of this data in consistently improving public service outcomes (Van der Wal 2017).

Emotional Intelligence and Motivation

In addition to higher levels of technical skills, public servants of the future will be expected to have better skills in people management and the motivation to proactively develop those skills. Many experts have observed that soft skills will become more valued in the future, with the need for public servants to be more adept at “emotional work” than physical work (Dickinson and Sullivan 2014). Public servants with higher levels of emotional intelligence have been found to have greater job satisfaction and organizational commitment and to deliver a better quality of service (Levitats 2016; Levitats and Vigoda-Gadot 2017). In the future, as public service functions across boundaries and silos, the need for officials to be able to remain emotionally resilient to new challenges will increase. This will also challenge the motivation of public service officials, as increasing amounts of work will be outsourced and they will be required to perform within a fast-changing landscape, constantly reassessing their changing role in governance (Dickinson and Sullivan 2014).


The nature of work in the public service is changing with the rising trend of complex problems that call for innovative solutions. Autonomy is slowly attaining universal significance in public sector organizations around the world. It is a key factor for innovation in the public sector. There is a persistent observation that for a public official to be able to address the concerns of citizens quickly and in a timely fashion, it is essential that they have the required amount of autonomy (Luna 2014). Researchers studying the Nigerian Civil Service found that a one standard deviation increase in the autonomy of bureaucrats corresponded to significantly higher project completion rates of 18% (Rasul and Rogger 2018). However, as observed in the case of the United Kingdom’s implementation of electronic healthcare records, a threat to professional autonomy caused by an excessively centralized approach to digitization can hinder success (Giest and Raaphorst 2018). Researchers have identified new structures where the administrative autonomy of professionals may work in the form of a “mutual contract” where a public official “contracts back with the government to provide a service” (Le Grand and Roberts 2018). This trend is likely to grow in the future as public servants will be increasingly working as professionals contracting out services and, as a result, will be expected to exercise independence and a hands-on approach to projects. This expectation of autonomy will increase alongside broader shifts in the public service toward more lean and efficient structures.

Social Accountability

Public service in the future will require a more personal commitment on the part of the public servant to create and sustain meaningful social change. Projects and initiatives will be evaluated more closely for their social impact and the positive and negative externalities that they generate. The public sector in many countries today accounts for almost half the economic activity in the country (OECD 2015b). However, in the future, public sector officials will be under increasing scrutiny for the resources they consume and the outputs they deliver in terms of the larger social good (Khan 2006).

With social media being accessed on a larger scale by governments, a greater segment of the local and global population will have the opportunity to question and criticize the actions and decisions of government officials and their departments in the future. Public officials, as a result, will be expected to exercise transparency and accountability through the responsive and timely communication of decisions, allowing for an inclusive dialogue on policies and program implementation efforts (Head 2007).

When to Innovate? Opportunities and Challenges for Public Servants in the Future

The evolving role of governments will make the work of public servants more dynamic and important. Opportunities brought about by this shift can increase the autonomy and agency of public servants, thus making their jobs more satisfying and meaningful. Shergold (2013) has identified this trend as a shift from New Public Management (NPM) to New Public Passion (NPP), whereby the role of intrinsic motivation to perform in a highly challenging environment for the greater good of society will become crucial.

The inertia in public service to welcoming diverse perspectives is something that has hindered the sector for a long time. However, the new transformation that has already started will enable the sector to open itself to non-career employees, fresh minds, and fresh ideas. New models of collaboration will emerge, which in turn will enhance “futures thinking” – a concept that enables a space for public officials to try, fail, and learn from the process and to adjust themselves within a changing reality. Fertile ground will thus emerge for innovation in the structure, process, and products being developed within the sector. However, the greatest shift will be that of perspective. Sir Gus O’Donnell, former British civil servant and economist, once warned that the public sector should not fall into the trap of hiring “people like ourselves” (UNDP 2015). NPP public servants would have diverse backgrounds and fresh perspectives. The resulting openness to innovation in public service will make it more relevant and responsive to the public.

As mentioned above, public servants would require a different and more advanced set of skills, but although the development of relevant skills in public servants can have positive implications for the sector, it can be time-consuming. The pace at which skills are being deployed may not match the external developments to which the sector may be exposed. Public servants will need to have the passion to constantly update themselves with skills that are in demand at any given point in time (Van der Wal 2017).

The changing nature of public service roles from being permanent to temporary and performance-based might expose officials to higher degrees of political pressure. It could make it increasingly difficult for the public service to hold on to the fundamental values on which it was based in the past. Incentives in public service might fall as a result of these developments, making it harder for the sector to compete with the private sector in terms of retaining talent. While performance has and will become an increasingly important parameter, performance pay will bring up new challenges for the sector. Efficiency gains from performance pay have been questioned and continue to raise new challenges (Katula and Perry 2003; Perry et al. 2009). Public servants will be required to not prioritize short-term achievements at the expense of long-term goals for the sake of benefits. The sector would expect employees to stay away from “excessive responsiveness” to policies and the resulting accusations of politicization of service (Shergold 2007).

At the other end of the spectrum is the role of public officials as active commissioners of services to external partners. This role transition would bring along opportunities for innovation and co-creation, leading to rising demands for transparency and accountability (ISS 2014). As a result, developing effective people management skills in an age of increasing digitization can be a major personal hurdle for public servants (Deloitte 2016). Although processes may be simplified with the help of AI and the application of other advanced technological solutions, developing skills for negotiating and communicating the need for and the process of impactful governance programs to all kinds of stakeholders would be a major challenge in the future. However, despite presenting a challenge, enhanced communication strategies may involve innovative thinking on the part of the public servant, thus reinforcing their role above and beyond the potential that can be achieved with the help of technology.

As a result, data would drive a large part of how public servants achieve their tasks in the future. However, it would not be restricted to the current trends of collection and usage but might potentially expand into discussion of whether it should be collected at all. Rising concerns about data privacy have led to strong legislation around the world (e.g., the General Data Protection Legislation (GDPR) in Europe and the legal game changer in California, United States, that bans public servants from using facial recognition in the state). Considering the uninhibited power that data gives its owners, ordinary citizens would increasingly expect public servants to exhibit accountability toward the data collected and used. In the future, the role of public servants in using data for decision-making would fall under scrutiny by a bigger chunk of stakeholders and critics. Innovative ways of mitigating such concerns and optimum use of data for enhancing policy design and implementation would gain greater appreciation in the public service (Manzoni 2017).

The “Uberization” of government workforce, which can be defined as “the process where a high-tech middleman replaces past intermediaries with little more than apps and peer feedback systems” is another trend that will increasingly challenge the role of public servants in the future (Van der Wal 2017, 166). As is already observed, those willing to work for the government will be hired primarily for shorter tenures, based on the requirements of new or ongoing projects, with little or no benefits. In the United States, for example, 42% of human resource managers in local governments reported hiring temporary workers in 2015 (Kellar 2015). Expecting a continuation of this trend would mean that the duration and incentives traditionally promised to public servants may potentially diminish in the future. Being prepared for such changes would mean working more for less while strengthening one’s skills to match and deliver for select government projects. Being driven by talent, experience, and passion rather than incentives and certainty will be key to the success of public servants in the future.


Public servants need to become more innovative in order to champion positive change in public sector organizations and meet organizational and societal goals. Improving the innovativeness of public sector employees requires a clear understanding of the breadth of the concept of innovation and the various dimensions that can be leveraged. It also requires awareness that innovation is different in the public sector compared to the private sector. Public employees can be empowered with different strategies; at the same time, their working environment can be rendered more supportive for innovations.

The public service of the future is expected to become imbibed with better opportunities and even more complex challenges than today. It will witness a change not just in the relationship of the service to the government but also in its engagement with the different stakeholders who may support or hinder implementation of governance in multiple ways, either directly or indirectly. Public servants of the future will be required to do more with less while building efficiency and trust in the process. In addition to breaking down silos and existing mindsets around the delivery of public services, officials will be expected to proactively innovate and drive changes to better serve the citizenry. Driven by a passion to serve the public, future officials will be thus expected to be innovative.



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Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  • Roberto Vivona
    • 1
    Email author
  • Mehmet Akif Demircioglu
    • 1
  • Aarthi Raghavan
    • 1
  1. 1.National University of SingaporeSingaporeSingapore

Section editors and affiliations

  • Zeger van der Wal
    • 1
  1. 1.National University of SingaporeSingaporeSingapore

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