Policy Innovation: A Public Sector Unicorn?

By Jesse Darling
June 28, 2016

On June 27, 2016, the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship hosted a workshop at the National IPAC Conference. Delegates from all levels of government came together to discuss critical issues facing the public sector: recruitment and retention of top talent, collaboration, open government initiatives and policy innovation. With the doom-and-gloom of climate change, an underperforming global economy and growing disconnect between people and their government, it’s not a surprise that government is looking for alternatives to business as usual.


Governments around the the world are creating or working collaboratively with innovation teams to help them find new ways of tackling 21st century issues. Mayors and Ministers that recognize this put in place teams, units and funds to structure and embed innovative methods and practices in government.

Their goal?

To catalyze improvements to policy design, develop more inclusive and accessible ways to deliver programs and services, and make government more porous to outside perspectives and voices.

But in reality, how effective are these processes and tools in de-risking policy innovation and enabling public sector transformation? Innovation labs and civic discourse have been actors in shaping public policy for over 100 years. Practitioners have been experimenting and adapting tools, techniques and approaches that seek to unleash the latent potential of civic innovators and public servant entrepreneurs for decades.

After reflection, I wondered if the allure of policy innovation is akin to the tech industry unicorn. Something that we want to believe in, but aren’t quite sure of the winning conditions. Something we want to unlock, but aren’t quite sure how.

At the Brookfield Institute of Innovation + Entrepreneurship, we believe that there are inspiring examples of public sector innovation currently happening within and outside of government institutions. But let’s first unpack what we mean by policy innovation and then highlight models that inspire and influence our thinking.

We believe that policy innovation is about:

  1. Improving policy design, the policy development process, and policy implementation to achieve a specific goal around user needs
  2. Better evaluation of the effectiveness of a real world policy or service and capturing this information through quantitative and/or qualitative methods
  3. Facilitating stronger engagement, dialogue and relationships between the people making policy and the people affected by policy.

Early adopters of policy innovation have begun to develop case studies for us to learn from and adapt to local contexts. Crowdsourcing is an effective method for better understanding the issues that resonate with grassroots and local community members. Labs convene stakeholders to find new insights and take a coordinated approach to providing policy recommendations; open data provides better transparency and information to citizens; entrepreneurship in residence programs seek to change culture within government and the application of design-thinking gets at the core of user-needs when designing policy.

Implementing these innovations within government has been uneven to date. Nevertheless, some big wins make us optimistic that we are at a tipping point, and that we can see a future where new ideas will start to scale throughout organizations as big and complex as government.

So, why do we believe policy innovation is so important?

  1. Policy innovation is vital to improving the effectiveness and efficiency of public services. When incorporating the needs of end-users, policies can be redesigned to be truly transformative and impactful. We expect this from the products and services we buy. Shouldn’t we expect no less from our levels of government?
  2. Policy innovation is crucial to getting Canadians to understand that they are policy agents. By increasing civic engagement in the co-design of the policy process, we will ensure we get #1 right and redefine the relationship Canadians have with their government.
  3. Policy innovation is an exciting opportunity to unlock the potential of civic innovators across the country. Civic innovators work collaboratively to develop solutions to pressing public challenges. These are important allies for a modern, 21st century government. It’s imperative to start building these relationships now.
  4. Policy innovation is essential to attracting and retaining top talent within public service. Giving people opportunities to experiment with tools, resources and approaches used by sectors and industries outside of government is key to building a capable, confident, high-performing workforce that is able to serve the country’s evolving needs.


StopGAP is an incredible Canadian example of civic innovation. A simple intervention

The Brookfield Institute believes that experimenting with different tools and methodologies is critical to overcoming some of the biggest barriers to change and to better prepare government for a fast-paced, complex and globalized environment.

So, is policy innovation a unicorn? I don’t think so. We see evidence of success stories across the local, national and international communities. However, it’s clear that we are still at the early stages of determining which tool or methodology is the best approach to utilize at different phases of the policy development process. To gain a better understanding of how the Institute has experimented with different tools and approaches over the past year check out this website.

We are excited to work with partners to push the boundaries on policy innovation tools and approaches, as well as how to apply it in practice. Please get in touch if you have ideas on how to strengthen this field or have a project you would like to collaborate on.

For media enquiries, please contact Coralie D’Souza, Director of Communications, Events + Community Relations at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship.

Share this Article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *