Public Sector Innovation (with Visionary Leadership Examples From Fast Company Executive Board)

Visionary Leadership,

When consumers think of innovation, their minds often turn first to clever and intriguing technological toys like smart gadgets and AI tools (ChatGPT, anyone?)

But visionary leaders in technology, social impact, and social responsibility know that some of the most important innovation is happening in less widely visible and sexy applications — like behind the scenes in government organizations.

As governments serve people, and public sector companies serve governments, efforts are being made to get services to more people in more effective and equitable ways.

In this article, we’ll look at different types of public sector innovation, with visionary leadership examples from Fast Company Executive Board’s roster of passionate executives.

What is Public Sector Innovation?

Public sector innovation is the process of introducing new and improved ideas, products, services, and processes in the government and public organizations. From new policies and programs to technological advancements and organizational changes, organizations working in this field create sustainable, equitable solutions to benefit communities.

Public sector innovation focuses on addressing societal challenges and improving the well-being of citizens. Targets include poverty, inequality, healthcare, and education. Passionate leaders want to create more efficient and effective ways of delivering public services and addressing the needs of communities.

Types of Public Sector Innovation

A study published in Public Management Review examines these and other types of innovation in the public sector, drawing on data from several countries and many researchers. They include:

  • Systemic innovations
  • Social innovations
  • Service innovations
  • Administrative process innovations

Systemic Innovations

Systemic innovation in the public sector refers to the process of introducing transformative changes to the way governments operate. Leaders create new policies, programs, and organizational structures to address the underlying causes of societal challenges, rather than just treating the symptoms. For example:

  • Results-based management (RBM) is an approach to public management that focuses on setting clear goals, measuring progress, and using data to make decisions.
  • Design thinking, often employed in the private sector, involves learning the needs and perspectives of citizens and using that knowledge to create new solutions.
  • Government organization structure and management are also targets for innovation.
  • Cross-agency collaboration and partnerships and public-private partnerships can help government organizations become more flexible and responsive to changing societal needs.

Systematic innovation can help governments and related organizations become more efficient and effective in delivering services.

Visionary Leadership Example:

Fast Company Executive Board member Susan Gentz is a connector of educators, policymakers, and industry. She brings her experience as a staffer at federal and state (US) levels to bear as a partner at K20Connect, a consultancy in the education market, working with business, school systems, community colleges, and universities to promote innovative learning models and best practices.

Social Innovations

Social innovation in the public sector involves new ideas, products, services, and processes that address social challenges and improve the well-being of citizens. 

Some examples:

  • Community development financial institutions (CDFIs), specialized financial institutions that provide capital and financial services to underserved communities. This can include microloans, small business loans, and affordable housing financing. CDFIs help promote economic development and reduce poverty in low-income communities.
  • Social impact bonds (SIBs) — a type of public-private partnership — help to attract private investment to address social challenges. With an SIB, private investors finance a social program and are repaid by the government based on the program's success.
  • Changes to the way government services are delivered. For example, using behavioral insights into citizen behavior to design more effective policies.

By using new approaches and thinking outside the box, social innovations can help government play a proactive role in addressing the changing needs of society.

Visionary Leadership Example:

Fast Company Executive Board member Nicholas Wyman is CEO and Founder of The Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation (IWSA) America, which connects youth with jobs of the future by “collaborating with governments, nonprofits, and enterprising businesses to address dynamic workforce needs.” He’s written about creating work opportunities for people with disabilities as well as the formerly incarcerated.

Service Innovations

Service innovation in the public sector refers to the process of introducing new and improved ways of delivering public services to citizens. Technology is often the focus here:

  • Online portals and mobile apps make it easier for citizens to access information and services
  • Data analytics to improve decision-making and program evaluation. For example, governments can use digital platforms to provide services like online voting, online tax filing, or online education.
  • Social media and other digital tools to engage citizens
  • Performance management tools to measure and improve the quality of public services.
  • Process improvement methodologies such as Six Sigma, LEAN and Total Quality Management (TQM) eliminate waste, improve efficiency and increase the quality of services and processes.

Service innovations help the government to be more efficient and effective in addressing the needs of citizens and improving quality of life.

Visionary Leadership Example:

Fast Company Executive Board member Sonita Lontoh, board director of Sunrun and TrueBlue, advises companies and governments on digital transformation, disruptive technologies, and the 4th Industrial Revolution. She recently published a piece on customer-centric innovation — a prime example of service innovation.

Administrative Process Innovations

Administrative process innovations in the public sector are new ways of managing administrative procedures within government organizations. Examples:

  • Digitalization and automation. Digital platforms and technologies can streamline and automate administrative procedures, such as online forms, e-signatures, and digital document management. Digitalization reduces paperwork, speeds up the processing of applications and requests, and improves the customer experience.
  • Lean management principles, often used in the private sector, identify and eliminate waste in processes and procedures. This can help to improve efficiency, reduce costs, and improve the overall functioning of government organizations.

Administrative process innovation in the public sector is a vital way to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of government services and the overall functioning of the state.

Visionary Leadership Example:

Fast Company Executive Board member Adam M. Golodner is the founder and CEO of Vortex Strategic Consulting, where he advises companies and organizations on global cyber, emerging technology, and national security issues. Through his membership, he has published on cyber law and technology and trust.

Challenges of Public Sector Innovation

Innovation in the public sector presents some challenges that are shared by visionary leaders in the private sector, but others are specific to government-related organizations.

  • It can be difficult to implement new ideas in a large, complex, and bureaucratic system.
  • Many social problems are complex and multi-faceted, making it difficult to design effective solutions.
  • Many public sector organizations lack the resources and capacity to experiment with new ideas.
  • It can be difficult to change the culture and processes in government organizations to support innovation.

To meet these challenges, strong leadership is absolutely necessary to champion and direct innovation efforts in the public sector. 


In the face of an increasingly dysfunctional public sector in the US, innovative leaders are tackling the challenges with several types of public sector innovations: systemic, social, service, and administrative process innovations among them.

As a member of Fast Company Executive Board, you can get to know these and many other innovative leaders who are making things happen in the public and private sectors. Learn more about the community or see if you qualify today.