Innovation Under Crisis: Lessons for the Public Sector

Writer and researcher Beatrice Francesca Orante shares her thoughts on what public sector innovation looks like during times of crisis.

Writer and researcher Beatrice Francesca Orante shares her thoughts on what public sector innovation looks like during times of crisis.

Find more from Beatrice on LinkedIn and Twitter.

One of the more interesting responses I have seen to the COVID-19 pandemic were mobile markets, which reduced the trips people made to purchase basic necessities. Local governments also bought produce from farmers and fisherfolk to distribute as relief and some organizations rallied networks to design and release affordable personal protective equipment for hospitals.

Two things about these early responses interested me: first, these are simple solutions that significantly changed existing processes; and second, they were people-centered in that they involved networks and communities and benefited multiple sectors.

The imperative for the public sector to innovate existed before the current pandemic. When it shut down countries, governments not only had to creatively respond to a new threat, they also had to mitigate its possible long-term effects. Just as innovation and creativity were crucial in addressing the immediate effects of COVID-19, they will be equally important as governments emerge from this crisis.

What does public sector innovation look like in times of crisis?

  1. More than digitalization

There are plenty of responses that use mobile applications, drones, and other forms of technology. There are also cases where less technological solutions are more effective.

The local government of Odiongan, a town on one of the Philippines’ western islands, used calamity funds to buy farmers and fisherfolks’ products to distribute as relief. In total, local governments employing this strategy have bought over 1.58 billion pesos (more than 31.7 million USD) of produce as of May 2020.


Innovation is often associated with “digitalization” because of the ubiquity of automation and computers and the advances by governments around the world. While governments should definitely maximize emerging technology whenever possible, public-sector innovation does not have to be restricted to technological advances. In the example above, generating ideas that will deliver the most positive impact was more important.

        2. Reimagined services and roles

Due to the pandemic, what was once considered “normal” had to change. As we all envision a new world, governments must also reimagine services. The way public-sector organizations have responded so far may give us some clues to what this may look like.

Many of the successful innovations introduced during the pandemic applied new lenses to public services. Local governments can convert industries to produce personal protective equipment, thus keeping micro, small, and medium enterprises open while satisfying new demands.

Public-sector organizations can also bundle interventions. Online and mobile markets and delivery services, for example, give vendors a platform to continue their operations, reduce the number of people going to markets, groceries, pharmacies, and give tricycle drivers income.

       3. A return to basic good governance 

At the heart of any innovative public-sector organization are people who exhibit mindsets critical to both good governance and design thinking. These include being solution-oriented, collaborating with the organization and its constituents, and maintaining a citizen-centered focus. The intersecting traits have been useful for studying the situation, creating safe environments for staff and citizen participation, and systematically pursuing ideas.

One of Taiwan’s initial responses was to generate big data using their national health insurance and customs and immigration databases, which generated real time alerts for case identification. Technology like QR codes and online reporting of travel histories and health symptoms also contributed to their strategy. These were all founded on public trust, built on strong data privacy laws and credible information campaigns.

New Zealand has been notable for its communication strategy, particularly the introduction of the concept of “bubbles” to describe the people someone can interact with safely. It helps citizens understand how to socialize and foster a sense of responsibility for others’ safety. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been leading the efforts to educate the public and rally the “team of five million” with her frequent Facebook Live sessions.

Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo has also been praised for her leadership. Robredo has consistently collaborated with a network of businesses and civil society organizations to provide interventions like locally-designed and manufactured protective equipment. Her office also developed the Community Mart program, which connected market vendors and displaced tricycle drivers to an online shopping platform.

What will it take to innovate under crises?

We will continue to grapple with the effects of COVID-19 for the foreseeable future. As we begin to recover, we will look to the public sector to develop more solutions while continuing to build a better future. This is a daunting task, but organizations and leaders can learn from the experiences of innovation practitioners.

  1. Collaborate

Public-sector organizations should not work alone. They can use or build networks to access resources, knowledge, and expertise. Vertical and horizontal coordination will be crucial in developing and implementing the appropriate solutions at every level of government. Though the initial reaction to COVID-19 has been to isolate and shut down borders, governments and international organizations must share data and technology and coordinate responses to contain the current pandemic and prevent and mitigate future crises.

Aside from inter-agency or intergovernment cooperation, the public sector should also work with citizens. In the past months, grassroots organizations and informal networks have addressed gaps in public services and maintain a sense of community. The public sector can sustain these groups, listen to their ideas, and direct their energies to community-driven innovation.

       2. Iterate, learn, iterate again

Introducing a new idea has a greater potential for failure so learning from it is key to innovation. Unfortunately, governments do not have that luxury. “Citizens, let alone politicians, rightfully expect the operations of government to be dependable,” the OECD wrote in a working paper.

Successful innovation requires public-sector organizations to change entrenched mindsets, the most important of which is a fear of failure. An overly restrictive form of accountability can scare off even the most creative employee. Managers will have to support their staff and often cover for them when mistakes happen.

At the same time, teams can mitigate risks through small-scale tests. Organizations can also establish sandboxes to allow teams to experiment and improve based on the information and lessons from these trials.

       3. Keep an eye on the bigger picture

The current crisis has forced the public sector to concentrate on immediate solutions, but even as they do this, they must already look at building the future. By remaining purpose driven, public-sector organizations will avoid resorting to quick fixes.

Interventions during the pandemic can even be used to launch more long-term solutions. Because public transportation was limited, Paris initially implemented policies to make the city more accessible to pedestrians and cyclists. However, Mayor Anne Hidalgo, an advocate for sustainable cities, said she intends to make this permanent. The city will go even further by reducing parking spaces, reduce speeds along the Boulevard Périphérique, and possibly adopting a 15-minute city blueprint.


Observers have often said that COVID-19 is highlighting and multiplying the systemic issues such as poverty, inequality, struggling healthcare systems, and climate change. Governments have tried individual responses, but they also need to start tackling these problems with large-scale and permanent solutions.

       4. Maintain a citizen-centered focus

Every organization aspiring to innovate should focus on developing products and services with positive impact. This is doubly important for public-sector organizations that are mandated to protect people’s interests. Whether it is a policy or program, public-sector organizations must take into account what citizens need or even involve them in the process.

Design Thinking frameworks and processes place a premium on empathy. Designers have to understand how customers think, their needs and aspirations, and the challenges they face by interviewing them or immersing themselves into their lives.

Just as designers spend their time learning from the customers, public servants must also get to know the people they serve. This could be as simple as interviewing them or experiencing a public service from their perspective.

Another option is to empower citizens to propose their own solutions. Public-sector organizations can start crowdsourcing initiatives and platforms to draw out ideas. Hackathons can also generate more technology-focused innovations.

Rather than halt public-sector innovation, COVID-19 pandemic has actually pushed it further because of the greater urgency. Organizations that have been successful in developing and implementing innovative solutions focused on human elements like providing the services constituents need and exhibiting traits of effective public servants.

As we transition to the so-called “new normal,” the public-sector must continue finding innovative and creative solutions. In doing so, institutions and citizens must work together to imagine and create their desired future. Whatever ideas come out of this process must not lose sight of its purpose: make the “new normal” a better one. 

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