Encouraging innovation to improve service delivery: Pierre Schoonraad connects the dots

By on 09/12/2018
Pierre Schoonraad - Bringing people together to understand every side of a problem.

Pierre Schoonraad is a man on a mission: bringing people together to understand every side of a problem, he works to champion innovation across the public sector. He tells Matt Mercer about lessons, leadership and life at the Centre for Public Service Innovation

Pierre Schoonraad is not one for the quiet life. Although his relaxed lifestyle is very much shaped by the warm climate of his native Pretoria, the great outdoors, red wine and the occasional braai, he takes a far less laid-back attitude to encouraging innovation in South Africa’s government.

Schoonraad, you see, is not someone who opts for the meek acceptance of things as they are. Instead, he prefers to see them how they could be: this, to him, is the essence of innovation. “Every innovation and every innovation process is something different to what’s gone before,” he points out. “Personally, I hate definitions, so I never try to define ‘innovation’. But if you’re not happy with the status quo then you should do something about it: this is what innovation really comes down to.”

It’s good to talk

It’s this ethos that has served as the cornerstone of South Africa’s Centre for Public Service Innovation (CPSI), an organisation set up in 2001 to “develop innovative, sustainable and responsive models for improved service delivery”.

For Schoonraad, CPSI’s chief director of research and development since 2008, the organisation’s core role is not to produce weighty reports or support new research. Instead, he says, CPSI has been at its best when it brings people together to discuss anew the common challenges that traverse departmental boundaries.

“We always talk about people working in silos; so we focus on connecting people and enabling them to learn from each other,” he explains. “In doing this, we have seen quite a number of solutions being adopted by practitioners. So the actual act of bringing people together – those who share the commonality of having to tackle the same challenge – is of fundamental importance, because it builds a common cause which seeds a culture of innovation.  It shows you can work in the public sector and innovate.”

To illustrate his point, he cites the example of a recent outbreak of invasive aquatic plant species taking residence in parts of the country’s water supply. To help identify a solution, CPSI gathered together representatives from water and sanitation, environmental affairs, tourism, transportation and even law enforcement. “Just by getting officials around the table to discuss the same challenge creates the enabling environment for them to start sharing their solutions,” he says.

“It was only through these discussions that we realised that the invasive plant species were becoming so prevalent because of the use of recreational boats which would be taken by their owners from one stretch of water to another. The simple low-cost solution was to spray a bio-degradable herbicide on the boats and trailers before they enter and after they leave the water.  An App was then developed to track compliance, report incidents and connect skippers to an emergency response system. Connecting people was what created the opportunity for a whole toolkit of solutions to emerge from the experts.”

He goes on to say, though, that identifying the right people to gather around the table is crucial. “When you bring professionals together, everyone has their own piece of the puzzle, but you can’t forget the end user. Particularly when it involves service delivery, you need to bring those responsible for delivering the services face to face with the citizens who are receiving it. Only then will you get the focus where it belongs – the people who receive the service – whilst actively involving them in finding or co-creating new solutions.”

Moving on from ‘humble beginnings’

Interestingly, the focus on facilitation was not front and centre when CPSI was set up some 17 years ago. Schoonraad describes the “humble beginnings” of starting life as a non-profit belonging to the government: the team was created to establish partnerships with the private sector and NGOs, driving innovations that could then be brought into the public sector.

However, to increase CPSI’s impact, the mission pivoted towards establishing a cross-government culture: one that could stretch from Pretoria’s corridors of power through to the frontline of public service delivery in the townships and informal settlements that still lie outside many of the country’s towns and cities.  

“We’re looking to build a stable community of innovation practice,” says Schoonraad. “Not so much the specific projects, but a platform that can work across different departments and is anchored on an annual basis through a knowledge-sharing conference and an awards programme that helps inspire competition and spotlight best practice.”

Breaking bad barriers

South Africa has, of course, undergone tumultuous political times in recent years. A change of president in February, when Cyril Ramaphosa succeeded the controversial and long-serving Jacob Zuma, spotlighted the deep-rooted challenges of inequality, unemployment and rudimentary public services. These continue to haunt a country endowed with rich natural resources and huge economic and social potential.

Schoonraad agrees that much remains to be done, noting that these issues highlight the intense need for government to work better and achieve improved results. But he adds that a key barrier to turning these objectives into reality has been an absence of consistent, high-quality leadership.

“You need that consistency, and you need leaders to understand that they are not the innovators but rather the enablers of the innovators,” he says. “They are the ones who are setting the vision.” But they should “then step back and let the middle managers and practitioners do their thing without fear. Leaders need to get the message across that it is okay to play around with one or two possible ideas. They are responsible for ‘de-risking’ the experimentation until a proven solution emerges or the idea is discarded.”

He also says that leaders need to be aware and curious about what is happening beyond their immediate horizons. Take the private sector, for example. It, too, seeks to innovate; and Schoonraad says that the speed with which it moves should be of particular interest to all those in government. “In the public sector, an innovation project going from concept to sustainability can easily take up to 10 years, whereas some parts of the private sector look at getting a new product to market every six months or so.”

That said, he is keen to stress that it’s a two-way street. “The downside of the private sector is they get so product-driven, so profit-driven, that they can lose sight of the people behind the product. As an outsider, to me they seem more focused on those things rather than the wellbeing of society or even their employees – so I think the private sector can learn a lot from government in this regard.”

Water woes

One issue that united government and the private sector was the recent water crisis that struck Cape Town. Hard as it was for many to believe, this global city was running out of water.

Although the immediate crisis has been averted – ‘Day Zero’, when the city was forecast to run out of water, has now been pushed back to next year at the earliest – Schoonraad says many lessons need to be drawn from the experience.  “On the positive side, there is the absolute resilience of communities to solve problems. Maybe this is also typical of us South Africans: we have to get to a point of crisis and feel that urgency before we solve it.”

He goes on to say that it also shows the importance of looking beyond your immediate priorities and planning ahead.  “Remember, the crisis was predicted. Climate change models indicated that the west of the country is getting drier. At the same time, population models indicated that there is going to be a up to a 30% migration into the city over a relatively short period. We knew this 10 years ago and with just these two facts in mind, the planning should have been much better – you didn’t need sophisticated foresight exercises to see this coming.” 

Planners could then have brought key players together, viewed all sides of the problem, and identified some innovative solutions long before Cape Town’s plight hit headlines around the world.  

Moving forward

Although Schoonraad has been working at CPSI for over a decade, he shows little sign of slowing down. “We are now actively engaging with all the different entities and departments in creating more dedicated mechanisms to promote experimentation,” he says. “Right now, we have pockets of innovation, rather than innovation across the whole system. That is something that I think we really need to work hard at.”

A personal priority is to better understand how to scale up innovative practices in order to broaden their impact. “Most of us view scaling as the end part of an innovation process, but we are realising that scaling is a ball game on its own,” he says.

“Scaling is something that merits its own approaches. It’s certainly something that I want to understand a little bit better. You can’t stand still. You should always be looking to do things a little differently and improve your own performance.”

Just like government, in fact.

Global Government Forum: Five Thoughts for Better Government


To help our readers get the best out of Global Government Forum, we ask interviewees five standard questions – four seeking practical advice and opinions, and one to reveal something a little more personal. This is an edited version of Pierre Schoonraad’s answers.

Can you name one lesson or idea from abroad that has helped you or your colleagues?

“There have been so many lessons over the years – starting off with Brazil leading the way, with things like multipurpose centres and bringing government services to urban malls and so on. One of the key lessons that we in South Africa have not yet succeeded in implementing is real-time policing, like they have in New York City.”

Are there any projects or innovations from your country that would be valuable to your peers overseas?

“We use our awards programme as a knowledge management tool to share innovative practice. I think the world can learn how these programmes can become feeder programmes for further scaling; that direct link between awards and what you actively facilitate further for a broader impact.”

How can we improve the ways which senior public officials work with and learn from their colleagues overseas?

“The innovation community has always been global: we speak the same language and understand each other almost intuitively, but we always need more platforms for innovators themselves. There are plenty for politicians and executives, but not enough for practitioners. At the same time, we also need as a global community to get better at sharing failures: what has not worked, and for what reason.”

What are the biggest global challenges in your field over the next couple of years?

“This is a tough one. Clearly there are obvious candidates, like climate change and drug resistance – particularly pertinent for us here in Southern Africa. But given the improvement in mobile connectivity and new approaches like blockchain, I think fintech and financial inclusion is a big issue. So, too, is the issue of human movement. Our understanding of human movement patterns is going to change fundamentally within the context of the fourth industrial revolution: people will start to move back to small towns, new global migration patterns will emerge, and movement within cities will fundamentally change.”

What’s your favourite book?

“I’m always bad at picking afavourite book, but one that made an impression on me recently is one on scaling:Sutton and Rao’s book on Scaling up Excellence. It’s a book that has helped me start to plot this landscape of how toscale new initiatives across sectors, and even in different sectors.”

About Matt Mercer

Matt Mercer is a former editor of Civil Service World. He has also worked as a senior editor for EY's global Government and Public Sector team, and recently concluded a three-year stint as senior editor at the Centre for Public Impact – a non-profit foundation set up by The Boston Consulting Group. You can contact him on Twitter @TheMerce1

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