Disincentives to collaborate? The Government of Canada Employee Innovation Program

Last week the Government of Canada announced a new program intended to promote innovation in the workplace. Generally speaking, any effort to drive innovation should be applauded- however, the role of incentives in promoting innovation and motivating individuals to participate is an elaborate issue. Strategies and tactics should be approached with caution, with creativity, and be aligned to the audience and the objective at hand.

Seeing the details of the government’s Innovation Program will be important, but my hunch is that as of yet, there are no details. I personally think they will be hard-pressed to not trample all over the essence of the ideation process. The simplest ideation process would include divergent and convergent aspects of engagement/input with a common thread of collaboration throughout. Simply put, great ideas tend to come from collaboration. Without some structure within their Innovation Program that can support collaboration while juggling potentially lucrative awards, there is a very good chance that many public servants will work in isolation on their cost-savings ideas.

1. Fundamentals Are Good

With innovation and bringing innovation to the public sector marketplace, I think that you need to start with the fundamentals underlying motivation. That is – before you start handing out financial incentives – make sure that you value all of the contributions that are made (give suggestions honest consideration, have a plan to implement the right ones, communicate and be open with participants about your plans, etc.).

Motivation for the average public servant may or may not be encouraged by direct monetary benefit, but our experience suggests that public servants will consistently be motivated if they trust that their contributions will be respected by management and initiative sponsors. This has been validated through what non-participants in our innovation campaigns have told us. To that end, the top two reasons that we have found that people do not participate in innovation exercises are a lack of time (about 30% of non-participants cite this as their reason) followed closely by “I do not think anything will be done with my contributions” (about 25%).

As long as public servants do not universally trust that their contributions to an innovation exercise are going to be valued by campaign sponsors and leadership, I would assert that enticing them with money won’t change things dramatically. Most likely, those that are already innovating will continue to do so but will suddenly expect direct monetary rewards for it.

2. Careful What you Wish for

Many, including Dan Pink, feel that incentives are actually disincentives when it comes to motivating people. He puts forward a compelling case in the video below. It is an excellent use of 18 minutes to listen to what he says and the facts he brings forward to support his argument. After you watch this (and perhaps find yourself motivated to read his book on motivation), one could say that something like the Government of Canada Employee Innovation Program is the last thing that you want to put in place if your goal is to promote actual innovation.

3. Narrowing the Focus

There is no question that cost savings are a top of mind issue for this government and I would venture to say for taxpayers as well. Hence, having public servants to focus specifically on that area strives to address the immediate concerns and priorities of government. However, it is a narrow window that will be (I assume) tightly tied to traceable dollars. Such direct and narrow focus risks constricting innovation around a range of other important areas, many of which would indirectly support cost savings. Off the top of my head, broad themes of innovation that may get lost in the focus on cost savings could include:

  • Service Improvement
  • Productivity and efficiency
  • Community and workforce/workplace

4. Short-circuiting ideation

Without a program in place it is impossible to ascertain the process that the government will be following with their Employee Innovation Program. Perhaps it will be highly detailed with a very specific process that public servants will need to follow or perhaps it will be more freeform. The key thing is that the details of the program will determine just how collaborative of an approach it can support.

The official release from the Treasury Board points to “individuals or teams”, but news clips from Treasury Board President, Stockwell Day, along with the media’s interpretation lean towards an individualistic exercise. Ultimately, if the structure of the program is built for individuals and does not support group contributions in a straightforward and effective way, it will short circuit the ideation process.

It is rare that a truly great idea arrives fully-formed and robust. To build a structured approach around ideation involves bringing people together such that a core idea is refined and improved through contributions from a number of participants. Not taking this into consideration within the EIP would be a hindrance and the individualistic rewards structure risks seeing public servants hoarding their ideas rather than sharing, growing and refining them. In my opinion, given that I focus on public sector innovation pretty much 7/24, this would be bad.

The last thing that I would want to do is stifle public sector innovation. In principle I think it is terrific that Minister Day wants to engage, promote innovation and reward public servants. I just think that this is a case where the road to be chosen risks being paved in such a way that stifles innovation rather than supporting it. Instead, I hope that this spurs discussion and action, as it is an opportunity to create a real government-wide program for innovation that will be thoughtful, inclusive, and long-term.

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Nina Adrianna

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Geordie. I’ll be interested in hearing from you and others on the actual roll-out and how it’ll affect bueaucrats. We are similarly promoting innovation in the BC Government and it will be useful to contrast strategies (maybe even work together more).


I love Dan Pink’s idea…some is kind of counter-intuitive but if you think more, makes a lot of sense. I work hardest when it is something important to me that I think can make a difference. And I think most people are the same

Geordie Adams

Thanks Nina and Steve. And Steve, our engagements would validate what Dan is saying. The best innovation exercises have not had lucrative prizes but objectives that participants relate and well thought out and communicated “follow through” plans by management.

John A. Weber, PMP

This is one of those things that falls into the category of oxymoron. I have known about this concept for years and have seen it successfully executed as a Project Manager at State Agencies. The right blend of culture and personality needs to be in existence, but it is possible! To this I say da ha!

The corellary is also true. If you can’t get someone to do something for free, you you can’t sell it to them for money. So I really think it demonstrates that at the heart of the matter people really want to do good things to help their neighbors or humankind in general.