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Reading list for government innovators: the 12 essential books and reports

Published Date: 29 May 2018
Guides to reforming government from the people who have been there and done it

As innovation labs and units spread across government, knowing how to innovate is increasingly critical to public servants’ success. However, skills like creative thinking and policy experimentation are hardly part of the average civil servant’s training — which is why we’ve compiled the essential reading list for government innovators.

Whether you’re a newcomer to the world of public sector innovation or a seasoned practitioner, you’ll find something of interest. The 12 books and reports outlined below provide insight on everything from how to integrate innovation in a pressurised political environment to the best ways to design public services with citizens in mind.

The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs Private Sector Myths (2018)
Mariana Mazzucato, economist and director of the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at University College London

Mazzucato challenges the long-held libertarian idea that innovation is the private sector’s realm, and the state’s role is to simply get out of the way. This failure to recognise government’s role in game-changing breakthroughs, she argues, poses a danger to the field. Take the iPhone as an example: most of the technology that makes it “smart” was pioneered by government: the internet, touch-screen displays, micro-chips and voice-activated virtual assistance. Mazzucato argues that government often takes big risks with little recognition or reward, and, as a result, its capacity for innovation diminishes. As one of the rare books on government that broke out of the technocratic sphere and into the mainstream, this one is a must-read for innovators.

Policymaking in the Real World (2011)
The Institute for Government, UK policy think tank

This report can serve as a useful dose of reality for innovators unfamiliar with the pressures public servants and policymakers work under. Everyone has their own ideas about what policy should be: forward-looking, inclusive, evidence-based, innovative, cross-cutting, collaborative, and so on. But there remains little agreement on how to achieve these ideals, and there are real-world obstacles to innovation in government—  from the pressure-cooker atmosphere of policymaking to the time constraints public servants face. By understanding these structural challenges, innovators and designers will be better-placed to bring innovation into government.

Inside the Nudge Unit: How Small Changes Can Make a Big Difference (2015)
David Halpern, Chief Executive of the Behavioural Insights Team

The UK’s Behavioural Insights Team has accelerated tax receipts by $70 million a month, persuaded an extra 100,000 Britons a year to register as organ donors and improved racial diversity in the police force. Led by David Halpern, the team uses behavioural economics to examine and influence human behaviour, then “nudges” citizens into making better choices. Since its launch in 2010, the Nudge Unit has spawned copycats all over the world, from the US to Singapore to Guatemala. In this book, Halpern details how a small agency on a shoestring budget began using psychology to steer citizen behaviour.

Growing Government Innovation Labs: An Insider’s Guide(2017)
United Nations Development Program

This report focuses on how successful innovation labs were seeded and scaled in Armenia, Georgia, Macedonia and Moldova – all republics born in the last 30 years. This report isn’t a how-to — rather, it’s the story of how labs were pioneered in countries with difficult political landscapes. All four labs have grown into vehicles for culture change in government, having successfully provided better, cheaper and more digitally-focused services for citizens. Their experiences offer a unique perspective to innovators in the West. As one practitioner said: “Unlike the labs in developed countries whose efforts have been described as ‘throwing a grenade at bureaucracy,’ our experience has been that these spaces, operating in an already volatile environment, provide a degree of continuity and stability with a mandate to do things differently.”

The Innovation Blind Spot: Why We Back the Wrong Ideas — and What to Do About It (2017)
Ross Baird, venture capitalist

While The Innovation Blind Spot is primarily focused on private entrepreneurship, its thesis holds true for government innovation. Baird argues that current processes for investment and decision-making are structured from the top down, when they should really involve on-the-ground workers, who are best-placed to push through sustainable social innovation. Investment is currently concentrated in problem-solving for a wealthy sliver of the world, while problems related to public health, education and food security continue to get worse. Because of these “blind spots”, Baird argues, we’re missing out on untapped potential and exacerbating divides between the rich and poor.

Playbook for Innovation Learning (2018)
Nesta, UK innovation foundation

In this exhaustive report, Nesta provides 35 diagrams, frameworks and models for public servants who wish to delve more deeply into innovation thinking. The report is intended for practitioners with several years of experience who want to learn more methods and tools, but beginners will also find it useful. Each model — from The Four Levels of Capacity-Building to The Innovation Skills Hierarchy — is discussed in great detail. The playbook can also serve as a practical tool for innovators, designers and civil servants tasked with teaching or training others in innovation and capacity building.

WTF: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us (2017)
Tim O’Reilly, activist and founder of O’Reilly Media

If you’re gripped by hysteria over automation and job-stealing-robots, Tim O’Reilly’s book is for you. The leading Silicon Valley thinker believes that government and business must harness technology as a solution to intractable problems, rather simply use it as a cost-cutting tool. But in order to do this, government must figure out how to shape it, regulate it and ensure it reflects our values. Big data, sensors and artificial intelligence could create the economy of the future – but if we fail to take ownership of technology, O’Reilly warns, we’ll fall prey to another period of war and instability.

Exploring Policy Innovation (2018)
The Brookfield Institute, Canadian innovation thinktank

While this report serves as an overview of the policy innovation landscape in Canada, it’s also a useful resource for those starting out in public sector innovation. It describes in simple terms the tools, techniques and approaches innovators and designers need to impact policy. The Brookfield Institute argues that public servants need time and space for experimentation, and provides tips for how to make that time in the traditional policy development cycle.


When the State Meets the Street: Public Service and Moral Agency (2017)

Bernardo Zacka, policy researcher

Policymakers craft the rules and regulations that govern our societies, but it’s local public servants and frontline workers who must interpret the implications of policy. In this book, Zacka argues that government does not pay enough attention to the myriad challenges faced by social workers, police officers and teachers, among others. They represent government’s human face to ordinary citizens, but are often dismissed as soulless bureaucrats because of the difficult balance they must strike between government agent and citizen advocate. The solution, Zacka argues, is for the state to better understand what citizens want from government. He outlines how policymakers can begin making decisions from the bottom up and design services with the public in mind.

Denmark’s Innovation Barometer (2017)
Centre for Offentlig Innovation (COI), Danish innovation agency

This dual-language report outlines findings from what is likely the world’s most comprehensive country-wide survey of public sector innovation. According to the COI, the Innovation Barometer incorporates research from 1,255 public offices. The findings are fascinating: the COI discovered that 73% of public sector innovations are inspired by or copied from others’ solutions, and 69% of innovations benefitted from the support of a political leader. These findings have wider implications for the innovation ecosystems of other countries.

What Next for Digital Social Innovation (2017)
European Commission, Nesta & others

This report is for innovators who want to get into the nitty-gritty of how to apply digital solutions to social problems. It details the most ambitious ways innovators are using digital tools to solve complex problems, from disease to the refugee crisis. The authors contend that governments are only taking advantage of a small fraction of the possibilities of digital technologies, due to policymakers’ continued lack of understanding and engagement. This report outlines how to use technology to develop services by citizens and for citizens, build collaborative approaches to preserve the environment and create new participatory economic models.

Leading Public Sector Innovation: Co-Creating for a Better Society (2010)
Christian Bason, CEO of the Danish Design Centre

Christian Bason, the former head of MindLab, is one of the leading voices in public sector innovation. In his seventh book on the topic, he posits that governments have reached a critical juncture. Faced with pressing transnational problems they cannot solve alone — such as climate change and the refugee crisis — their best hope is to collaborate with innovators to find solutions. In practice, this will mean integrating design principles into policymaking, investing in citizen engagement and working more closely with the private sector to address complex problems. The book includes practical tools for involving citizens in policymaking through design thinking and tips for how innovation should be integrated into all levels of government.

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