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Public sector innovation: value creation or value loss?

Authors: Charlotte Wegener Published:

This paper explores the value dimension of public innovation in the light of practitioners’ values and asks why there seems to be a clash between innovation imperatives and workplace practices in the public sector. The paper contributes to the research on public innovation from a practice perspective by providing evidence from an ethnographic field study

This paper explores the value dimension of public innovation in the light of practitioners’ values and asks why there seems to be a clash between innovation imperatives and workplace practices in the public sector. The paper contributes to the research on public innovation from a practice perspective by providing evidence from an ethnographic field study on innovation in social and health care studies in Denmark. These studies are part of the vocational education and training (VET) system, which combines coursework at a college and internship in the elder care sector. The study is thus cross-organisational and involves two key welfare areas characterised by rapid change, and in which innovation imperatives are substantial. The analysis shows that values are, to a large extent, articulated and acted out when practitioners encounter innovation imperatives. At the same time, in a range of ways, practitioners initiate innovations grounded in their values. The main point put forward is that the value dimension of public innovation must be understood not only in terms of value creation (economic or non-economic), which frontline practitioners are required to contribute to, but also as value-based practices and clashes between practitioners’ values and the values associated with innovation imperatives.


The phenomenon of innovation is becoming increasingly important for both societies and public workplaces (Høyrup, Bonnafous-Boucher, Hasse &Lotz & Møller, 2012 p.39). Yet, some researchers argue that there is under-developed appreciation of what public sector innovation might mean in practice and how it can best be supported (Bessant, Hughes & Richards, 2010). Many researchers identify two fundamental criteria for innovation: newness and value (Høyrup, 2010). What constitutes being new and valuable, however, rests on community values and expectations (Engeström, 1999) as well as individuals’ desires, needs and requirements (Billett, 2009) .

To illuminate the character and centrality of practitioners’ values in what constitutes the value dimensions of innovation, this paper elaborates on a model proposing that the value dimension of public innovation must include practitioners’ values in their everyday work (Wegener & Tanggaard, 2012) .

To unfold the argument, this paper explores a specific occurrence observed in the empirical field, which I have termed “value clashes”. This term indicates that the innovation imperative articulates real changes and differences in understandings, habits and ways of working. When practitioners encounter innovation imperatives, they interpret, modify and integrate the innovation concept in diverse ways, and these processes are, to a large extent, constituted by the practitioners’ values and the way in which they interpret value dimensions inherent in the innovation concept. Likewise, these practitioners initiate new ways of working in practice on the basis of their values, and these new ways, albeit sometimes subtle and unrecognised, contain potential for innovation on larger scales. Thus, this paper takes a broad view on the concept of innovation and explores it as “anything that seeks to do something new, or address a concern that would not otherwise be met.” (Price, Boud, & Scheeres, 2012).

The structure of the paper is as follows; firstly, the value dimensions of innovation are framed in a public sector context and secondly, the perspective of practice and practitioners is presented. After explaining the design of the study, practitioners’ statements about work and their activities in practice are taken to the fore to illuminate value clashes within these practices. In conclusion, a discussion section will highlight implications and practical consideration.

Exploring value-aspects beyond economic benefit

Recent years have witnessed an intensive effort to apply and operationalize the concept of innovation from private domains into the public sector, and a main concern is to define public value (Halvorsen, Hauknes, Miles & Røste, 2005; Hartley, 2005; Mulgan & Albury, 2003). When introducing the innovation concept to public domains, the value to which innovation should contribute cannot be measured directly on the basis of the bottom line. Within public service organisations, innovations are aimed at producing benefits for individuals, but also at providing public goods and services, establishing collective efficiency, and creating collective rules and purposes (Hartley, 2005). Hartley notes that analysis of innovation needs to consider not just the immediate improvements in service quality and fitness for purpose, but wider issues of public value. It is thus necessary to understand public value in terms which are broader than economic and immediate effects (Hartley, 2005; Kristensen & Voxted, 2009).

In a public sector context, innovation has a potential role to play in strengthening social development and social cohesion, focusing on both economic and social developments. Innovation is seen to hold the potential of prevention of marginalisation, increased social security and the development of health care systems (Shapiro, Haahr & Bayer, 2007) as well as combining effectiveness and quality (Digmann, 2006). Within educational research, innovation is regarded as a competency which can contribute to a better world (Darsø, 2011) and as the transformation of creativity into something valuable for others in a given social practice (Tanggaard, 2011). Innovation imperatives thus address diverse problems, often interweaving economic and social purposes.

The public sector is sometimes accused of not being innovative (enough), and some researchers state that the public sector is characterised by numerous barriers to innovation. These barriers result in random innovation driven by a few isolated individuals, and innovations locked in the social practice in which they were invented (Bason, 2011, p.15; Mulgan, 2007). However, as the analysis in the paper indicates, these are not necessarily weaknesses, but might be regarded as strengths. Random innovations might turn into sustainable change because they were invented out of necessity and actual needs in the actual practice. Likewise, an innovation might be locked within a specific practice precisely because it is part of a value-based change process among the actual practitioners. When diagnosing the public sector as “not up to the job yet” (Bason, 2011, p.15), we run the risk of ignoring important aspects of value creation within practitioners’ daily work. There might be good reasons for rejections of innovation, one of them being that there are important values in the practice that practitioners want to retain. Additionally, practitioners’ value-based activities with innovation potential may never be acknowledged as innovation in the quest for radical change.

A practice and practitioner perspective on innovation

A major part of the literature on public innovation deals with governmental or managerial perspectives with the aim to develop frameworks for different types of innovation and suggest support models for effective strategic leadership (e.g. Bessant et al., 2010). Research on innovation that emerges from the everyday practices of practitioners has not been widely explored (Price, Boud & Scheeres, 2012). However, as Schatzki (2002,p.53) argues:

…an account of the progression of the social site that leaves out the creative contribution of individuals – working alone or in teams, in disciplines or as part of a wider scene of cultural, technical and intellectual production – overlooks an absolutely crucial site for innovation, rearrangement and reorganization.

The dynamics of change and innovation thus involve the study of actual practices where practitioners talk, interact and conduct their work. Innovation is not just a question of the individual being or becoming creative or not, or being more or less open minded toward the innovation imperative. Innovation is regarded as emerging, negotiated processes of learning and participation, including both personal values and involvement with the social spaces of innovation. Researchers concerned with practice and practitioners in welfare domains emphasise the sometimes chaotic, dynamic and fluid quality of innovation (Ferlie, Fitzgerald, Wood & Hawkins, 2005). From the perspective of practitioners’ values, innovation cannot solely be measured in terms of processes leading to new articles and the implementation of new processes. Kemmis (2010, p.25) terms this latter understanding “the technicist view of practice” and argues:

This view is particularly apparent in the recent „evidence-based practice? movement, which, in my view, demeans practice by its resolute focus on measurable outcomes or outputs at the expense of many of the other features of practices […]. 

In its zeal for measuring practice, the evidence-based view makes practice almost unrecognizable from the perspective of professional practitioners whose intentions, values and commitments are crucial in the conduct of their work.

Accordingly, as this paper suggests, there is substantial innovation potential within daily work practices, and research focusing on the practitioner perspectives and daily work practices might provide knowledge of importance for management strategies beyond measurable evidence. When innovation is regarded as integrated in work practices, practitioners become key stakeholders in decision-making processes, and in the organisation and development of professional roles and tasks (Chiatti, Fry & Hanson, 2011; Ferlie et al., 2005; Hanson, Magnusson, Nolan & Nolan, 2006) . Before giving voice to these stakeholders, however, the methodological decisions and key terms of the study is outlined.


The empirical material derives from a Danish research project in the field of social and healthcare education and consists of interviews and ethnographic field observations of work practices at a social and health care college, at elder care homes where students work as trainees, and at three municipal authorities which employ the students over the entire period of their studies. The design of the study is based on a theoretically informed hypothesis that cross-organisational activities between educational institutions and workplaces create potential for innovation (Tuomi-Gröhn & Engeström, 2003). Sixteen interviews were conducted with teachers, student supervisors, consultants and managers. The observations were carried out over the course of six months, one or two days a week, at daily work practices at the college and elder care centers, including teaching activities related to students’ internships, student and supervisor interactions during work, assessment interviews, coffee breaks, different kinds of collaborative meetings and training activities for health care workers.

The interview questions focus on daily work and collaboration, and the question about innovation focus in part on discourse, and respondents were asked whether innovation is a topic at the workplace, if so in which contexts this takes place, and who exactly uses the term “innovation”. Attention was also paid to experience, and respondents were asked whether they have participated in innovative initiatives or can identify areas where innovation has taken place. Finally, the respondents were asked what they feel innovation means, as well as whether (and potentially, why) they view it as a relevant concept.

The aim was to generate a rich material basis for understanding the variety and diversity of experiences, discourses and activities in the field (Tanggaard, 2011).
The preliminary thematic analysis took a grounded theory point of departure. According to Charmaz and Henwood (2008), grounded theory can be used in conjunction with numerous qualitative approaches such as ethnography and discursive analysis, and it fosters a view on individual behaviour as embedded in social contexts (p.241). Although informed by theory in the design of the study, the analysis did not focus on comparing the empirical data with established definitions of innovation or assessing particular activities as more or less innovative. Instead, I coded with gerunds (a verb form ending in –ing) to code for actions and activities (Charmaz, 2011) with the aim of exploring what was happening in the interviews and field observations. In the following section this analytical grip is indicated by using headlines with gerunds.

Analysis: Experiencing value clashes

The first section of the analysis illustrates how the innovation imperative is rejected because of value clashes and how, at the same time, it seems impossible to take another stance. The teacher, Susan, rejects innovation because she associates it with unwanted values, and the district director, Helge, argues for a “no alternative” perspective, presenting innovation as ubiquitous. In the second section, the care worker, Grethe, and her colleagues reinterpret innovation for a specific purpose, namely gaining status. Thirdly, the trade union consultant, Inga, argues for the benefit of involving many perspectives into innovation processes, and the teacher, Leonard, facilitates such a process despite concerns about mixed agendas. Finally, the student, Anna, is practicing value-based care work and advocating for the core value of just being present when it is needed, and the care center manager, Vivian, shows how such an approach can turn into sustainable organisational innovation.

Rejecting innovation and defending values

In the following quote, innovation is rejected because of value clashes. A teacher at the social and health care college states that innovation is “everywhere”; I then ask her why she thinks the concept is prevalent these days:

Susan:            It is because it fits in with that New Public Management-thinking, right? Turning everything into a big business.

Charlotte:      Do you feel it is a business term?

Susan:           Yes, I think so.

Charlotte:      Is it about economics?

Susan:             Yes, it is about economics.

 In my opinion, the extensive cuts in public welfare are objectionable.

Within our field, it is crucial that everyone encounters a human attitude. Not like today… the way social benefits are being distributed in the home care sector. It is “catalogues” and “services” and “clients”. Everything is clientised. It is the business language that’s conquering the care world. I do not welcome that. We need our own vocabulary. You cannot, you should not make money on welfare and human care.

Susan’s statement reveals a close association between innovation and economic cutbacks, and the cuts are described as a threat to the welfare state as we know it, which she finds unacceptable. This statement suggests that innovation is imposed from the outside, affecting the care world with not only economic restrictions but also with a vocabulary that ruins future possibilities for a human attitude toward the care work and the care recipients. The quote exemplifies how a practitioner’s engagement with what is encountered is not merely in response to the pressure of the world. Instead, it is also shaped by the desires, needs and requirements of individuals (Billett, 2009, p.213) . When, in the present study, practitioners reject innovation, a recurring argument is that the concept is foreign to their domain of work, associates innovation with (New Public) Management thinking and brings unwanted values into the care sector. The innovation concept is associated with product development and bottom lines: “It’s more about money than it is about people”, one practitioner says, and another states: “We just made extensive savings, and now we are supposed to be innovative.” Thus, the innovation concept fits into an economic discourse, a change that adds value, but these values are unwanted, and the innovation imperative is thus rejected. However, there seems to be no alternative as this field note indicates:

I arrive at the elder care center to meet with the manager Alice and ask for permission to do field observations. Her door is closed, and while waiting, I have a chat with Helge, the director of the district. He says that innovation should begin with acknowledging differences.

– We have this group about new building activities. The will is there and a desire to innovate. The economy is good, the ideas are multiple, and it’s great fun.
Alice arrives and invites me in.

Heading for her office, the director continues:

– The main problem with innovation is employee inertia. They tell me that they are exhausted, but this is not my fault. I tell them: I can only assure you that changes will accelerate, and you are welcome to join in. If not, you might just climb down and look for some other place where changes are not part of the agenda. However, I don’t know such a place.

Alice replies to me:

– I have told Helge that we are not going to initiate anything new for the time being. We also need to get things finished.    

This dialogue indicates that employee experiences of moving too fast or being forced to adapt to rapid changes may be a reason for rejecting innovation imperatives. Additionally, rejections and a feeling of overload may arise if managers do not agree on organisational priorities, and if the processes of change take the form of beginnings, one after another, without any conclusions or evaluation.

Democratising innovation – or bypassing practitioner perspectives

Practitioners’ daily, local work practices and their problem solving activities may take the form of innovation, which is often overlooked in traditional notions of product and process innovation (Evans & waite, 2010; Hillier &Figgis, 2011). However, these forms of innovation require that people get access to working creatively (Tanggaard, 2011). This access can be claimed, denied or granted as will be illuminated in the following section. Interpretations of innovation take several forms and often with the purpose to express value consideration. These social and health care professionals are on a training course to become student supervisors, and invite me into a dialogue on innovation:

Grethe:       It’s very modern. But what does is mean, Charlotte?

Charlotte:  I want to find out what is means in social and health care education.

                   Interpretations are diverse.

Hanne:     Then we are innovative, I think. We just make up our own interpretation.

Karen:     We must include it in our vocabulary. We need to show that we are moving

                 with the times and keeping up appearances with the private sector.

As this dialogue indicates, innovation is not necessarily on the agenda because practitioners feel there is a need for changes in practice. Rather, there is a need for more legitimacy, which is supposed to be enhanced by getting access to a private sector innovation discourse.

The centrality of access to innovation is also evident when a trade union consultant replies to my question: “What does innovation mean – according to you”:

Inga:           I think of innovation as detached from welfare technology. Often, it is coupled to all

                    that welfare technology, but right now I just make that decoupling.

                   I regard  innovative processes as creative processes. We once did a study

                   which showed that early school leavers are more innovative and creative

                  than people with  longer educations.

Charlotte:  Really?

Inga:         Yes. We would like our members, the social and health care workers and

                  nurse assistants, to approach their work

                 with an out-of-the-box-mindset, with a nuanced approach and openness to other

                 solutions than the common ones.

                 This is the way we think about the translation of innovation. We would like our

                 members to be more involved in projects out there at the workplaces.

Charlotte:  Yes.

Inga:         Yes, because they take part in big projects with other perspectives. Often, however,

                  our members are being bypassed

                  and they are not invited into steering groups and reference groups.

This consultant explicitly focuses on social innovation, not neglecting technology, but leaving it out of the conversation in order to shed light on the potentials for innovation through care workers’ involvement in projects. Additionally, she finds the innovation concept useful when conceptualising care workers’ learning processes and desired competencies.

Often, provisions for vocational and professional education fail to take sufficient account of those who engage with initiatives that attempt to motivate or direct their learning in particular ways (Billett, 2009). As suggested by the union trade consultant, empowering care practitioners includes allowing them to play a key role in the renewal of the organisation and defining their own new roles and tasks. As the trade union consultant notes, care workers’ access to projects adds value to the development processes because they bring other perspectives.

The second part of her argument deals with value creation in the daily work processes. Her point is that “innovation” conceptualises a desired skill; that the care workers develop an open and curious mindset.

These desired skills are also evident in the teacher Leonard’s work. He is the main resource on a training course for social and health care workers about rehabilitation, which is part of a municipality innovation project aiming at citizen empowerment. In the following scene he has a chat with his colleague, Mette, after a day of teaching:

Leonard tells Mette that he really sympathizes with the way the municipality defines rehabilitation: Setting goals for the care in collaboration with the citizen. This course contributes to focusing on the professional aspects of the practices, he says. Mette wonders why they have not worked like that before, because she has been teaching it for years. Leonard replies that he has looked through the student case assignments from school, and they do not seem to address rehabilitation. Additionally, a newly trained care worker cannot change a culture. He knows from other training activities that is takes years to create new routines, and it requires both training of resource persons and many practitioners as well as political pressure.  However, this is also a dilemma, he says, because heavy pressure for cut backs means that citizens are not involved voluntarily. Currently, the citizens must collaborate or they will get no care. That leaves the care worker in a difficult position, Leonard says and continues:

When economy comes to the forth to this degree, problems arise. However, the participants are still exited. They are changing culture and they are not afraid to admit former mistakes. They really are in a process of new comprehensions.

The social and health care workers at Leonard’s course are from the same municipality as Helge’s exhausted employees. How is it possible to create two such different stories about practitioners’ encountering innovation imperatives?  Firstly, the care workers at the course get access to processes of change. Secondly, the imperative is grounded in actual work practices, and thirdly, it seems that Leonard manages to create an atmosphere of mutual investigation. Similar conclusions are drawn in action research on innovation where participants are described as occupied with actual problem solving in a complex, demanding and dynamic context, while, at the same time, the practitioners associate innovation imperatives with big, revolutionary changes (Hillier & Figgis, 2011). This means that practitioners might reject innovation because it is associated with radical and rapid change while, at the same time, they are actually creative in ways that hold potential for innovation. The last part of the analysis will illuminate this occupation with the actual practice and can be interpreted as the smallest, most subtle activity with innovation potentials. It also highlights a common value clash in the practice of social and health care educations.

Hurrying or taking the time needed

The following field note is about Anna, who is about to finish her internship period at the elder care center. Anna, her two supervisors and the manager are gathered around the table to give Anna her last feedback before she returns to school. I am present too as a field researcher:

The manager asks Anna how she likes it here, and Anna replies:

Oh yes, I have had a good time, and the colleagues are nice, but there is too much hurrying in and hurrying out, just finishing the task and then off for coffee. I don’t feel comfortable with an attitude like that.

The manager replies that she appreciates the transparency and that she does not regard Anna’s complaints as gossip. If she does not get to know about these things, she will not be able to react.

Anna says that she makes a point of talking to the residents and not being in a hurry.  She has noticed that the resident Sigrid starts to tremble when the physiotherapist enters the room, and that he tugs Sigrid’s arm back and forth in a violent manner. They agree the Anna’s supervisor will talk it over with the relatives.

Later that day I accompany Anna on her way to Sigrid’s room. Anna elaborates on the negative attitude towards the residents.

It’s probably because they have worked here for too long. The residents have had a long life, worked hard and deserve respect. I make a point of treating the residents with decency, she says. 

We enter into Sigrid’s room. Sigrid is in her bed, dribbling. Anna sits down, picks up a napkin and tells Sigrid that they will put it in order. Sigrid’s hand is squeezed tightly and Anna takes hold of it and carefully works her own fingers in between Sigrid’s.

– Your grip is so firm, please help me, Anna whispers, repeatedly stroking Sigrid’s arm.

After some time, Sigrid’s fingers loosen up for a second and Anna carefully tucks in the corner of the quilt. We leave the room. In the corridor Anna tells me that is was this arm the physiotherapist tugged at. She couldn’t stand watching it.

This field note illuminates a core aspect in the field under study, namely the encounters between hurrying and taking the time to do what is required.  Being a student, Anna is new to the actual practice, and she evaluates her internship by highlighting this clash of values. Does this field note have anything to do with innovation? From a practice and practitioner perspective it does. Anna encounters practices of hurrying, which clashes with her own values of taking time and being patient. She does not keep her concerns in private, but involves the manager and the supervisor, who promises to take action. We do not know if this will lead to actual new practices at this elder care center. However, initiated by a newcomer, there are potentials for changes in practitioners’ attitude depending on the managers will and ability to follow up.

The following quote from an interview with a care center manager, Vivian, illuminates how Anna’s change initiative, although easily overlooked, may be understood as a creative contribution that holds the potential for innovation of the actual practice:

During the last 18 months the employees have changed their perspective. We have turned away from routines and are now focusing on what is valuable for the care worker. The good colleague was quick and finished her tasks in a hurry. You wanted to work with her, because together you got things done, and then you had time to rest and enjoy yourself in the staff room. We initiated the change by introducing mutual reflections on the residents’ needs, and we keep doing this at all our staff meetings. Every team has drafted objectives for their residents, and they work with their objectives every day. Before, I often heard someone say: “This resident with dementia cries all the time that she wants to go to the toilet. It is so annoying but we can’t do anything about it, because it’s just due to her disease.” Today they know that the wellbeing of residents relies massively on conditions of the practice and how they interact with residents as professionals. This is a revolution, one step at a time.         

The two situations indicate that changes on a very small scale, defending core values within the actual practice, hold potentials for value-based change if supported and nurtured over time.


Almost fifty years ago, Rogers identified what he called a “pro-innovation bias”, which refers to researchers often overlooking important knowledge regarding how innovation is expanded and implemented due to an overriding interest in (retrospectively) successful innovation processes (Rogers, [1962] 2003). In the actual field study and the studied literature that guided the analysis, this bias seems to be just as pervasive within public welfare organisations and in discourses of public innovation. This pervasiveness places additional pressure on producing results and may lead to an uncritical rejection of practitioners’knowledge and experience. In his book The Culture of the new Capitalism, Sennett (2005) argues that organisations have a “tendency to discount past achievement in looking toward the future” and that it makes people skim rather than dwell.

Building on Sennett’s argument, the main point suggested here is that discourses of public innovation may be so pervasive that welfare organisations engage with the innovation concept at the expense of key values, which may be forgotten or even devaluated. From this perspective, value creation emerges through experiences and interpretations of values inherent in work practices and in innovation imperatives. Values are not only universal, general beliefs about the good, the right and the just. Rather, values are wedded to actions in practice, and they come to light when practitioners perform their work and reflect upon it. Thus, innovation cannot be understood in epistemological terms alone. This is not just a question of adapting or rejecting innovation imperatives or changing demands. Encountering innovation imperatives or changing work practices in innovative ways are value-based, ontological activities. This is about being in the world.

Practical implications

What might be the practical implications of keeping this perspective in mind? This paper suggests a democratisation of the concept of innovation and emphasizes the importance of empowering different stakeholders that intervene in innovation processes, including students, teachers, workplace supervisors and managers. This paper points at the necessity to build change and innovation on existing knowledge, routines and values. Sustainable innovation is not about “shaking it all up” or “turning everything upside down”, rather, innovation and questions of values are embedded in and acted out in concrete situations. Questions about motivations and values in professional working life are present when practitioners encounter the innovation imperative, and when their values and visions are included in or excluded from organisational change processes. A practice perspective on innovation acknowledges that practitioners’ values and visions provide guidelines for what may reasonably be changed and what may be preserved. It also acknowledges that practitioners’ access to innovation discourses and intervention initiatives is vital for both desired social change and skills development.

Inviting different practitioners (and thus potential value clashes) into both the public discourses and into organisational innovation processes might increase complexity. However, it also increases the potentials for the anchoring of innovations – and the potential for keeping alive dialogues on values beyond the innovation imperative.



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Charlotte Wegener Charlotte Wegener is conducting a PhD project at The Social and Health Care College in Silkeborg and Department of Communication, Aalborg University, Denmark. She studies collaborative innovation between colleges and workplaces in the field of elder care. Previously, she worked as a staff manager and consultant. Show all articles by Charlotte Wegener
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