Handbook of Innovation in Public Services
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Handbook of Innovation in Public Services

Edited by Stephen P. Osborne and Louise Brown

Leading researchers from across the globe review the state of the art in research on innovation in public services, providing an overview of key issues from a multi-disciplinary perspective. Topics explored include: context for innovation in public services and public service reform; managerial change challenges; ICT and e-government; and collaboration and networks. The theory is underpinned by seven wide-ranging case studies of innovation in practice.
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Chapter 22: Innovation in complex public service systems

Mary Lee Rhodes


Understanding the nature of innovation in public services as complex systems requires some upfront definitional work – which may give pause to the reader with limited time to spare. To provide some incentive for the wary (and weary), the following arguments are put forward in this chapter. To start with, the argument from Osborne (2010, p. 415) that ‘a systemic approach is required’ to study contemporary public services sets the stage. While Osborne suggests an open natural systems perspective for this approach, we will argue that complex adaptive systems (CAS) models – specifically those proposed by Siggelkow and Levinthal (2003) and their collaborators – are shown to be consistent with empirical studies of innovation in the public and community and voluntary sectors. This allows us to compare the findings from the empirical studies with those from the CAS model-based research to highlight those features of innovation in public services that are likely to prove most fruitful for developing robust theory that can be tested empirically, as well as via model-based simulations. Furthermore, there is reason to believe that ongoing research into the ‘rules’ that enable complex organizational systems to operate at the ‘edge of chaos’ (Kauffman 1995; Brown and Eisenhardt 1998; Miller and Page 2007) could shed light on how public service managers and the systems they influence could be better positioned to adapt to changing circumstances and achieve improved outcomes through innovation.

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