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Is the public sector creative?

20 April 2022



A research study in Public Management Review explores public sector creativity. It asks the questions:

  • what practices do public servants apply in coming up with ideas?
  • what triggered their creativity?

The findings indicate that public servants are creative and that the pragmatic nature of public sector creativity is focused on keeping things running.

Public sector creativity

Public sector creativity is defined as public servants coming up with novel and useful ideas through various practices. This definition contains two distinct elements:

  • ‘coming up with’ and ‘through various practices’ refers to the processes of creativity 
  • ‘novel and useful ideas’ refers to the outcomes of creativity.

Ideas resulting from creativity serve as the basis for organisational innovations. Creativity is an integral part of the innovation process as it encompasses its front-end, that of idea generation.

Creativity is a process in its own right. Creative processes comprise mental mechanisms in the form of stages of thought that occur when individuals or teams are engaged in an activity to produce an idea.

Triggers of creativity

The process of creativity is initiated by a trigger which can be perceived as the inspiration for the creative process. Triggers can include feedback, rewards, tasks, goals, problems or encountering certain situations. For example, a trigger can be an interaction with a stakeholder or the realisation that a service can be improved.

Creative processes can be triggered by either opportunity identification or problem definition.

Ideas as creativity

Ideas are outcomes of creativity. These ideas vary on multiple dimensions including magnitude. A common distinction for magnitude differentiates between

  • ‘mini-c’/‘little-c’: incremental and everyday expressions of creativity
  • ‘pro-C’/‘big-C’: these are developmental and effortful expressions of creativity.

An example of ‘pro-C’ creativity is reconfiguring a public service from end to end, while ‘little-c’ idea incrementally improves a service delivery operation.

Creativity in the public sector

There is little to no empirical research in the area of public sector creativity, The existing small body of research indicates that public sector creativity differs from its private sector counterparts.

It has been argued public sector creativity is inhibited by

  • reduced incentives due to the absence of market competition
  • receiving resources that are based on monopoly status with little relation between performance and growth
  • asymmetric incentives that punish unsuccessful ideas much more severely than they reward successful ones.

Red tape and strong political interference have also been found to frustrate creativity in the public sector.

About the research

The study involved a qualitative longitudinal digital diary study. It sought to answer the overarching research question:

  • What triggers and practices lead public servants working in public executive agencies to come up with work-related ideas of different types and magnitudes?

This entailed 141 public servants active in four public executive agencies reporting at least once every other week on work-related creative experiences over a period of six months. Respondents were asked to respond to fixed diary questions about:

  • experiences regarding their own novel work-related ideas.
  • experiences regarding novel ideas from colleagues.

What the research found

Public servants are creative and come up with a wide range of ideas. Most ideas were regarded either as incremental adjustments or additions to existing products and processes, however participants did report radical ideas for new products and processes.

In almost half of the shared ideas, public servants showed incremental forms of creativity. This corresponds to a view of the public sector as ‘muddling through’ in which stand-alone innovations are not the norm but rather innovation is a continuous activity.

The majority of ideas were triggered reactively, instead of proactively. This also applies to pro-C ideas. It suggests public sector creativity has a reactive nature. However, reactive creativity should not be perceived as a suboptimal form of creativity as it is critical for solving problems.

What this means

The findings have multiple implications for public sector managers and practitioners. Firstly, they indicate the creative potential of the public sector workforce which should be leveraged to generate novel and useful ideas for the improvement and expansion of public services.

Secondly, they indicate that organisations that have greater managerial freedom can be more conducive to sparking creativity. However, public sector managers should also be aware of specific factors that appear to inhibit creativity, most notably work pressure, lack of social contact and lack of inspiration.

Want to read more?

Public sector creativity: triggers, practices and ideas for public sector innovations. A longitudinal digital diary study – Glenn Houtgraaf, Public Management Review, March 2022

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Published Date: 20 April 2022