Innovation in government: lessons from the Netherlands  

By on 03/05/2022 | Updated on 04/05/2022
The level of innovation in Dutch government organisations is higher than those self-reported by Nordic countries Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland. Photo of The Hague by R Boed via Flickr

Innovation is needed in government to streamline processes, improve services, and enhance employee satisfaction. But it is much easier said than done. We take a look at the lessons from the Netherlands – including cultivating an innovation climate and accepting that failure is part of the course – and consider why working with foreign partners is a missed opportunity

The inaugural Dutch Government Innovation Barometer 2021 found that 85% of government institutions implemented one or more innovation in 2019 or 2020.

The study – run by the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations with support from the Dutch Association of Public Management – involved representatives of central government ministries and affiliated agencies and administrative bodies, local government, water boards, national museums and other institutions taking an extensive questionnaire.

For the purposes of the study, the Dutch government adopted the OECD’s Observatory of Public Sector Innovation’s definition of innovation in the public sector – implementing new approaches and applications that work at creating public value – and focused on the innovation of products, services, processes, and interactions with citizens.

According to the report, the level of innovation by Dutch government organisations is higher than those self-reported by Nordic countries Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland in similar surveys. In those countries between 77% and 81% of government organisations implemented innovations in the same two years.

So, what makes government in the Netherlands better at implementing innovation? And how do the results compare with Global Government Forum’s Responsive Government Survey?

Given the timing of the Barometer, a high proportion of the innovations came about as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic – including enabling civil and public servants to work from home effectively, and ensuring certain government functions and organisations’ services could continue through lockdowns. Such innovations include a digital portal that gives care providers, healthcare insurers and other stakeholders insight into healthcare capacity, online court hearings, and virtual tours of state museums.

Read more: Necessity is the mother of innovation: turning burning platforms into launchpads for reform

But there were also a broad array of innovations implemented in the Netherlands that were not directly connected to the pandemic. These included:

  • A digital register providing businesses with an up-to-date insight into applicable licences and regulations
  • An interactive interface for job seekers
  • A mathematical tool for calculating the highest risk of fire in the next eight hours
  • A public-private partnership between a water board and horticulturalists, enabling the former – with the aid of weather forecasts and a signalling system – to store surplus rainwater in their reservoirs and have it available for irrigation in case of dry weather
  • Deploying drones – in real time or using photography – for inspections and monitoring tasks in rural areas

In the Dutch Government Innovation Barometer report, comparisons are made in particular with Denmark. For example, a similar survey found that in Denmark, innovations more often come about as a result of external incentives, such as laws and regulations, restructurings, and budget cuts. In the Netherlands, meanwhile, the reason is much more often that organisations themselves spot opportunities – often helped by knowledge of successful innovations in other organisations or through understanding new technologies.  

The barometer shows that process innovation was the most common type – having been implemented in 76% of cases – followed by interaction with citizens (61%), services (52%), and products (39%).

As for the results achieved through innovation, enhanced efficiency came top, at 65%, followed by improved quality (60%), enhanced employee satisfaction (42%), political objectives met (39%), and citizens and customers having more influence (29%).

For comparison, the emphasis in Denmark was found to be more on improving quality.  

Technology was an important part of the innovation in nearly 60% of Dutch government cases. And in 67% of cases, the technology used was either entirely new to the organisation or was being used in a radically different way.

Most innovations – 48% – were inspired by others but adjusted for the organisations’ own purposes, while 30% were developed by the institution from scratch.  

And the innovations often involved collaboration, most often with private sector companies (48%), but also with other government organisations (35%), citizens and customers (24%), and, to a lesser extent, foreign partners (9%).

The survey found that 60% of Dutch government organisations engage in knowledge sharing and actively spread information about innovation.

Cultivating a ‘powerful innovation climate’ – and accepting mistakes

The study found that organisations’ innovation capacity varies widely, even between those that have similar tasks and sizes “suggesting that the ability to innovate is much more about organisational culture than it is about external circumstances”.

“The organisational climate is decisive,” it says. “Organisations with a powerful innovation climate innovate more frequently, more broadly and more successfully.”

In practice, the most successful government institutions “have a cohesive and organisation-wide approach to innovation”. In addition, innovation is “more naturally implemented” by teams that have a wide range of knowledge and skills and by organisations that accept that innovation requires taking risks. “The main difference between organisations boasting a powerful innovation climate and organisations with a limited innovation climate is the way they handle mistakes… Investing in a safe learning climate is crucial. Management and politics must provide room for innovative experiments and accept they may fail,” the report says.

This chimes with the results of Global Government Forum’s Responsive Government Survey. Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, GGF and PA Consulting conducted a survey of more than 850 civil servants across nine countries to assess levels of confidence in their respective civil service’s agility and responsiveness to change. The resulting report was published in January this year.

Read more: Seven things we learned from the Responsive Government Survey

Like the Dutch government’s own survey, it also found that there is a healthy culture of risk-taking in the Netherlands’ government organisations, with not a single respondent disagreeing that experimentation is made possible, and proactively encouraged or that staff are rewarded for pursuing opportunities for positive change, even if there is risk of failure.

However, GGF’s survey also found that only one-third of civil service leaders agreed that people are given dedicated time to pursue new ideas and solutions, with half disagreeing. Nevertheless, according to the Barometer, innovations are most often initiated by the organisations’ own employees and managers, suggesting that they are good at generating ideas for improving processes and services even if not given ample time to do so alongside their core tasks.

According to the Barometer, employees’ contribution was one of the main factors promoting innovation, along with range of skills and knowledge within the team, collaboration both within the organisation and with business, and new technologies. The factors that were seen to be hindering innovation, on the other hand, were limited financial means, laws and regulations, and a strong focus on operational continuity.

“Organisations must invest in acquiring good [innovation] examples,” the report says. “These may be examples from their own sector, or from other government sectors, but they may also be acquired from abroad.”

In summary, the report found that “collaboration, external orientation, and the employees’ networks are crucial to achieving innovation” and stressed the importance of acquiring good innovation examples from organisations’ own sector, other government sectors, or from abroad.  

Crisis of confidence?

The results of GGF’s Responsive Government Survey (RGS) appear to back up the findings of the state-produced Barometer in many respects, showing particularly that Dutch organisations are confident in their ability to adapt to change – which will at times involve implementing innovation. But there are differences too.

The RGS results show that the Dutch generally believe that being able to adapt to change is part of their long-term strategy, with more than 80% of the survey respondents strongly agreeing.

Read more: ‘Bursts and explosions of creativity’ and being risk smart: lessons from responsive governments

In addition, chiming with the Barometer, a majority (72%) of Dutch RGS respondents agreed that their organisation excels at learning and responding rapidly to meet evolving citizen and end-user needs. There is a caveat though – perhaps surprisingly, only half of civil service leaders agreed with this statement, a lower proportion than among leaders in any of the other eight countries surveyed (Australia, Canada, Denmark, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, the UK, and the US).    

One of the results of the RGS that seems to go against the findings of the Barometer relates to tech and digital. Whereas the Barometer found that innovations often have a key technological component, none of the Dutch leaders that took part in the RGS agreed that “digital is embedded in the development of new policy and services” and only one-third agreed that “the technology we require for effective collaboration and solution delivery is available or can be developed in time to support our requirements”.

Overall, many Dutch government organisations do seem to have cultivated a climate that encourages innovation. What is clear from the Barometer is that innovation is most often driven by the employees themselves and in collaboration with other organisations.

But there is one key area that is highlighted as a missed opportunity. “It has become clear that organisations are frequently inspired by good practices in their own country, but that little is being done with good practices from abroad. They deserve more attention, as it is obvious that much can be learned that way, too,” the report says.

If you’d like to share an innovation implemented by your government or organisation that your peers overseas might find useful, please leave a comment below or email [email protected].

Like this story? Sign up to Global Government Forum’s email news notifications to receive the latest news and interviews in your inbox.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.