Who to lead government innovation? – Study

By Si Ying Thian

A study on civil servants in Bangladesh found that those with higher cognitive empathy and risk-taking propensity are more likely to implement innovative ideas in the public sector.

Highlighting the tendency to focus on organization- or team-level factors, researchers highlighted the need for government agencies to analyse person-centric, individual factors on implementing public sector innovations. Image: Canva

Public sector employees who are more inclined to take risks and have high cognitive empathy, as well as low emotional empathy, may be more successful at implementing innovative projects, found a recent study.  


In an article published in the Research Policy journal July this year, researchers found that public sector employees who scored above the 25th percentile score for cognitive empathy and risk-taking propensity were more likely to successfully embark on innovations compared to those below the score. 


On the other hand, it also highlighted that employees with higher emotional empathy were less likely to successfully implement their innovations.  

Implications for public sector innovation 


When it comes to identifying innovation champions, the findings suggest that managers should select individuals who score highly for the previously mentioned traits to lead innovation efforts within their workgroups or organisations, and find systematic ways to reward pro-innovation behaviors. 


Notably, the study also found that employees who underwent design thinking training came out with higher risk-taking propensity than those who did not. 


For developing countries like Bangladesh with limited training resources, the researchers recommended using short scales to select candidates for design thinking training to maximise the quality and cost-effectiveness of such programmes.


In the study, the scales were obtained from widely tested measures used in past research and subjected to robustness checks. 


In contrast to the tendency for public sector innovation to focus on organization- or team-level factors, the study pointed to the need to analyse person-centric, individual factors on public sector innovation implementation. 


In addition, the study challenged the claim that empathy is always central to innovation. Instead, the researchers attempted to explore how different forms of empathy can lead to different outcomes.

Mechanism at work: ‘Balancing act’ is key 


The paper suggested that employees ranked high on cognitive empathy and risk-taking propensity, and low on emotional empathy would be be “better able to overcome barriers to implementation.” Emotional empathy refers to feeling another’s emotions, while cognitive empathy refers to more holistically understanding another’s perspective.


Those with higher cognitive empathy can more easily implement projects by “engaging in ‘framing’ and ‘fixing’ activities,” said the researchers: using persuasion to change the minds of stakeholders and modifying one’s approach to implementation, respectively. 


As innovation moves to the implementation stage, innovators are likely to encounter pushback from other stakeholders. This is why innovation leaders need to manage competing demands across stakeholders and get their buy-in.


“As the innovation process advances, newly revealed innovation barriers pertain less to user interactions and more to interactions with a wider array of other actors including colleagues and various decision makers. 


“Indeed, innovators frequently manage the competing perspectives of various actors, addressing and anticipating these actors’ disparate needs and preferences, while trying not to lose sight of their original vision,” the researchers explained.  


On the other hand, those with higher emotional empathy are more likely to be influenced by the negative emotions of others, thereby making them more vulnerable to emotional exhaustion.  


“As more innovation barriers are revealed, an employee with higher emotional empathy is more likely to catch negative emotions from others, experience greater emotional exhaustion, and, as a result, be less likely to engage in discretionary ‘fixing’ activities.” 

Study design 


The study was conducted among 422 public sector employees from Bangladesh who undertook a design thinking bootcamp led by the Prime Minister’s Office under its a2i initiative


Aimed at encouraging innovation in public service delivery, the bootcamp provides a five-day training program. After the programme, participants are expected to implement an innovation project within 12 months.


As of 2019, a2i had trained over 70,000 civil servants from 43,000 government offices. 


In this study, participants completed a survey designed by the researchers after they attended the five-day training. The survey contained questions about their demographic, items related to the three variables and several other control variables.  


To assess whether participants implemented their innovations, the researchers reconvened to assess the implementation outcomes once projects had been completed within the 12-month period. 


Concluding the study, the researchers said: “This study highlights the importance of individual traits in public sector innovation implementation.  


“By revealing that risk-taking propensity and cognitive empathy positively influence innovation implementation, while emotional empathy has a negative effect, these results have important implications for public sector innovation processes.  


Accordingly, we hope that this study inspires further research into individual-level public sector innovation performance.” 


Bangladesh’s a2i is currently rolling out its own unique approach to digital public infrastructures, GovInsider reported previously. 


Source: research policy 

“Design thinking and public sector innovation: The divergent effects of risk-taking, cognitive empathy and emotional empathy on individual performance” 


Authors: Vassallo, J.P., et al.