Innovation in public services through collaboration between public and private stakeholders

13 Aug 2019 | Published by Chesney Callens and Koen Verhoest

Illustration: Colourbox

Delivering innovative services is not only important to increase the competitiveness of private for-profit companies, but is also a way for the public sector to achieve a higher level of user satisfaction and to solve wicked problems in the complex societies of today. Innovation creates new and creative solutions for complex problems that break with the past (Sørensen & Torfing, 2011). The innovation concept itself is multifaceted. Innovation in manufacturing organizations is different from innovation in a municipality; policy innovation is different from innovation in service delivery. Moreover, some innovations are more radical in breaking with the past than others, and the newness of an innovation can refer to new to the world but it can also be relative to a certain actor or organization. The process of digitalization creates opportunities for more radical innovations in public services. Information and communication technologies (ICT) can be both the focus of the innovation – like for example e-health services – but can also enable the process of innovating public services itself, by for instance creating new ways of integrating and analyzing data.

The creation of innovations is usually not the responsibility of one individual (i.e., the hero innovator). It has been shown that both organizational and institutional pressures shape innovations (Osborne & Brown 2013). Moreover, in recent years, public administration scholars have argued that public service innovations are stimulated through collaborations between public actors, and by involving private stakeholders, such as citizens, users, interest groups, private companies and non-profit actors. Bringing together the resources, viewpoints and ideas of multiple stakeholders is promised to lead to more and more radical forms of public sector innovation. This is coined as ‘collaborative innovation’ (Sørensen & Torfing, 2017). This process entails bringing about synergy between the different sources and knowledge of the involved actors, transformative learning between these actors about problem definition and potential solutions, as well as commitment-building between these actors in order to secure the further testing and implementation of the innovation. Central in studying collaborative innovation are questions about how to structure these kinds of collaborative arrangements and to manage the interactions. Both kinds of research questions are central to the TROPICO Work Package 7, where we study under which structural and managerial conditions different kinds of partnerships lead to innovative service delivery in five different European countries.

Collaboration between public and private stakeholders can be structured in multiple ways. There are contractual partnerships between public bodies and one or more private companies, selected based on public procurement procedures, with limited involvement by citizens or other private stakeholders, like public private partnerships. But government and private stakeholders also collaborate in more expanded and diverse innovation-oriented networks, which are either initiated and led by public actors (network partnerships) or private stakeholders (societal partnerships). Each of these partnerships bring their own opportunities and constraints in terms of how they are managed. Recent studies into contractual public-private partnerships (PPPs), shows that the predominant focus on procurement-related logics (such as contractual stimuli) was overrated and that collaborative logics (network management and information-sharing) were equally important in generating innovation (Callens, Verhoest & Boon 2019 – unpublished paper). Furthermore, when studying  public-private network partnerships (i.e., collaborations between a more diverse set of actors, initiated and led by government) scholars found that also the diversity of opinions and perspectives of participants, the degree to which the innovation was a priority for the participating organizations, the extent to which individual participants have freedom to act as they see fit, and the trust between participants are important conditions of successful collaborative innovation. Hence, the emergence of innovative public services in such partnerships is not only a matter of network-level conditions, like structure and management, but also of conditions which relate to the participating organizations (e.g. their innovation-orientation and learning capacity) and of the individual participants (e.g. trustworthiness and expertise), which represent these participating organizations (see also Stevens, 2018).

TROPICO Work Package 7 aims to look further into the degree to which these conditions can foster ICT innovations, and what makes some ICT innovations stand out in comparison to others. Although we have some clues as to which conditions might foster innovation in collaborative endeavors such as contractual partnerships (e.g., PPPs) and networks, we still need to see how this affects the ICT component of the innovation. Will there be an urge to use exotic technologies because actors want to leave their mark, or will there be a trend towards using technologies that already have proven their use? Moreover, what is the impact of using ICT in collaboration processes?

Last but not least, since innovation in service delivery is directly related to the users of service delivery, how relevant is the involvement of these users in the process of collaborative innovation? For example, what knowledge do the users bring into the project and in which stages are they involved? How does this match with the end result, namely the innovative services? Many scholars and practitioners have already claimed a normative stance on user involvement, but the inherent complexities of collaborative partnerships might contest these assumptions.