Innovation in the Public Sector


Reference groups
Institutional mapping
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University of Haifa
University of Maastricht
University of Manchester
Vinnova, Sweden
Comenius University Bratislava
University of Alcalá
Manchester Metropolitan University
University College Cork
The Mykolas Romeris University


PUBLIN is part of the Programme for research, technological development and demonstration on "Improving the human research potential and the socio-economic knowledge base,1998-2002" under the EU 5th Framework Programme. -


On the PUBLIN research project

Main objectives

The main objective of PUBLIN has been to develop a consistent and general basis of understanding of the main processes of public sector innovation and policy learning.

As part of this PUBLIN was asked to

  • contribute to the development of the theoretical foundation for studies of innovation in the public sector
  • pinpoint innovation strengths and weaknesses in contemporary public service organisations and policy making institutions
  • examine the influence politics, management, evaluations, cultural traits and entrepreneurship has on innovation in public organisations
  • analyse networks, knowledge flows and sources and drivers of learning and innovation in public organisations
  • give new insight into the learning processes underlying development in public sector bureaucracies
  • consider the effects of public innovation in the broader societal context of socio-economic development models (i.e. go beyond traditional objectives as "increased efficiency" and include factors like social cohesion, the environment, welfare needs, the quality of life and more)

On the basis of this PUBLIN has given concrete advice on how public authorities may organize learning and innovation processes in the public sector, while taking national characteristics and differences between the various policy and innovation systems into consideration.

See separate page for summary of findings and policy recommendations.


From the original presentation of the Publin project:

Docors shaking handsPUBLIN will see innovation in the public sector in the wider social context in which the institutions are embedded, including the interaction with and dependencies of innovation in private, market-based organisations, and the structure of incentives for these institutions to innovate.

PUBLIN will examine the influence politics, management, evaluations, cultural traits and entrepreneurship has on public sector innovation and learning performance, i.e. on a range of behavioural and administrative changes in public organisations.

In doing this the project will analyse networks, knowledge flows and sources and drivers of innovations in public organisations. Moreover, PUBLIN will study how and by what means innovation is managed in public organisations.

The PUBLIN project will primarily focus on functional innovation. Broadly these types of innovation may be delineated by considering

  • what the innovating institution does,
  • how it does it, and
  • why it does it - considering its rationale and general objectives.

PUBLIN will primarily focus on five types of innovation,

  1. innovations involving changes in characteristics and design of service products and production processes - including development, use and adaptation of relevant technologi
  2. es,
  3. delivery innovations - involving new or altered ways of solving tasks, delivering services or otherwise interacting with clients for the purpose of supplying specific services,
  4. administrative and organisational innovations - involving new or altered ways of organising activities within the supplier organisation,
  5. conceptual innovations - in the sense of introducing new missions, new worldviews, objectives, strategies and rationales. These innovations are particularly important to institutions operating under social or public objectives as they furnish a link between the social objectives of the policy and institution and the operational and economic goals and functions of the agency in question. This type of innovation includes major parts of the impacts of the process we denote policy learning,
  6. system interaction innovations - new or improved ways of interacting with other organisations and knowledge bases.

It should be noted that PUBLIN will not simply apply the innovation concept of private sector innovation to the public sector. The innovation concept to be used takes into account the special circumstances of public sector organisations, notably the tasks and obligations handed down which is translated in a rule set and standard operating principles.

In the public sector, efficiency or profit is not the overriding concern it is for private sector organisations. It is one of many considerations. Public sector employees, operating under a broad set of goals and public responsibility, pursue goals within the frame of a narrow mission. They have a fair amount of discretion in dealing with demands from parliament and politics. All this will affect innovation activities likely to be pursued.

Older woman with nurseOn the other hand, functional innovations in the public sector-consisting of changes in the characteristics of the services delivered, their production and nature of delivery-do depend for their identification and implementation on factors equal to those for innovation in the private sector: the identification of a problem, capabilities and competences (which consists of knowledge and organisational capabilities), management of internal and external relations, compatibility with organisational goals and institutional leadership.

A central assumption of the project however is that functional innovation in public sector organisations is strongly linked to three other types of innovation:

  1. administrative innovations (new procedures, policies and organisational forms),
  2. new ways of interacting with other actors (system interaction innovation, changes in governance) and
  3. conceptual innovation (new ideas and beliefs)

which is why we will analyse the four types of innovation as interrelated-the actual interrelation being the object of study. PUBLIN will thus be sensitive to the specific innovation context, which is different to that of companies in the private sector, although the difference to some extent is a difference in degree.

This difference is also the reason why PUBLIN will not draw exclusively on the study of innovation (focusing on private sector innovation) but will combine it with organisational science, in particular public administration, management science (public management), sociology, and political science.

Policy learning

PUBLIN will take a close look at the learning processes underlying policy development in public sector bureaucracies.

The project will distinguish between three types of policy learning:

  • technical learning about instruments: how they may be improved to achieve set goals;
  • conceptual learning: when a shared view on a problem and what to do about it changes; it is called conceptual learning because it is accompanied with the development of new concepts (such as integrated environmental policy) and a re-evaluation of existing policy values
  • social learning: when the shared view of appropriate roles of policy actors and the rules for interaction change based on new ideas about social interaction and governance.

Other benefits of the work

PUBLIN will contribute to:

  • the knowledge base for the development of new instruments for public sector innovation
  • an analysis of the need for new indicators for the measurement of innovation in the public sector
  • new insight into processes that might be relevant for private sector innovation
  • policy learning on the regional, national and European levels
  • knowledge about the similarities and differences between innovation processes in different parts of Europe
  • the knowledgebase for the development for a public sector innovation policy and new administrative structures

Moreover, the project will seek answers to a large number of research questions, among others:

  • What is the influence of evaluation and evaluators on public sector innovation?
  • Does public sector innovation depend on policy entrepreneurs capable of managing change?
  • What is the source of innovative ideas in the public sector; do innovative ideas come from the outside or are they internally generated with the help of others?
  • Is policy learning necessary for public sector innovation and how does policy learning come about?
  • What influence does politics (both external politics and internal politics) have on innovation outcomes? The relationship between private and public innovation
  • The role of external advisers, including consultants and researchers


The PUBLIN site is published by NIFU STEP Studies in Innovation, Research and Education. Editor: Per M. Koch, NIFU STEP, Hammersborg torg 3, N-0179 Oslo, Norway, phone +47 22 86 80 21, fax: +47 22 86 80 49.