Thomas Wihlman, kulturjournalist

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Stream 20: Professional work in the Nordic welfare states

Employee-driven innovation in welfare services, discussion paper on consequences

Author Thomas Wihlman, School of Health, Care and Social Welfare, MälardalenUniversity, Sweden, e-mail


In a study in welfare services in Swedish municipalities employees were found whoenthusiastically would like to contribute to EDI, but there were several hindrances tothis. Their managers had a positive attitude, but the attitude from senior management towards the employees and their possibilities, was rather restricted, although they didnot dismiss the idea of EDI.Lack of time was a problem for the employees as well as communication withcolleagues. Organizational structure was by senior management deemed as oldfashioned, even tayloristic, not encouraging engagement, idea discussions,cooperation and reflection. There was the absence of a holistic approach. HRM andlearning were not used systematically to support innovation. For management budgetkeeping was the priority, not innovation. The potential for employee-driveninnovation thus was not fulfilled. The study raises questions of how the concept ofinnovation was interpreted and if innovation as a concept needs to be adapted to thepublic sector, not being so heavily influenced by its business tradition. Furthermore,the impact of New Public Management, NPM, on innovation in the municipalities isdiscussed.


Employee-driven innovation, EDI, is one of the areas within innovation that recentlyhas aroused interest (Høyrup et al., 2012). It has been shown that there are severalbenefits from EDI. Employees are at center of the action in for example a publicsector unit, from their contact with the user or the clients, not at least in welfareservices where employees frequently have to meet challenges in their contact withcustomers. Additionally, if employees are given autonomy to handle the challengesthis may also lead to wellbeing and also may lead to more innovations (Rasulzada,2007).For a research project in welfare services a starting point for the participating fourmunicipalities was their experience that innovation was not taking place, even thoughinnovation strategies had been formulated and the importance of innovationcommunicated to managers and employees. 27 semi structured interviews were heldwith employees in 8 different units of welfare services, 6 with middle managers and 5with senior managers. Also strategic documents related to innovation were studied.Kesting and Ulhøi (2010) have described the drivers of EDI such as managementsupport, creating an environment for idea creation, decision structure, incentives andcorporate culture and climate. They also argue that many radical innovations havebeen employee-driven (ibid). However, the employee-driven innovations encounteredin this study are however mostly incremental, but they are fairly new and mayeventually develop into radical innovations, as described by Fuglsang and Sørensen(2011) when describing the concept of bricolage. For this reason I do not find it usefulto differentiate between radical and incremental innovations here, it is most likely thata climate for innovation in general purposely could be sought after.Innovation was found mentioned in strategic documents in all municipalities. One ofthe municipalities had also adopted an innovation strategy. However, this strategymay be described as a mix between strategy and an action plan. When the interviewswere made the Swedish government finalized the National Innovation Strategy(Government Offices of Sweden, 2012). In a separate critical discourse analysis (Wihlman, forthcoming) it was found that when it came to public sector innovationthis strategy and other vital national documents were influenced by NPM. TheNational Innovation Strategy approached public sector innovation from theperspectives of steering and efficiency, formulating a strategy based on thepolicymaker´s problem definition (Bacchi, 2000).The ambition here is to describe some of the results from our study with a particularemphasize on hindrance found and how this affects employees. The backgrounds ofthe hindrances are discussed from a more conceptual framework. This description anddiscussion is also related to current research. As the description here is very concise itdoes not fully present the nuances in the answer given at the interviews.

Results - hindrance for EDI found in the studyInnovation as a concept

Interviews were asked how they would describe the concept of innovation. A frequentnotion was a change of some kind, often associated with a major change. Interestinglyenough, very few gave examples associated with traditional product innovations.More examples were given of the use of new methods and of service innovations.


Employees described they to a large extent had freedom or autonomy how theyshould fulfill their work assignments. However, there were also some contradictoryresults, for example rigid steering due to the contract between purchaser and providerwas not allowing the employee to chose methods in social work.

Communication regarding new ideas and innovation

Communication with colleagues was frequently mentioned as a problem. The problemhad two major dimensions, such as colleagues not willing to listen to new ideas andthe lack of time hindering communication. However, there were also severalexamples provided describing good communication with colleagues and forums todiscuss new ideas.

Risk control

This was a problem only raised by senior management; middle management saw nosuch risk. Senior management described how suggestions put forward to politiciansoften were dismissed with wordings like: has anyone tried this before when discussingwith politicians. At stake here was evidently the political risk, as the politicians wereafraid of failures. This may also be seen as part of the control system.

User driven innovation and democracy

User driven innovation and other forms of innovation processes with participationsfrom society was rarely mentioned, as something was in the municipalities. Therewere a few references to surveys where citizens or users had the possibility to putforward ideas, and such suggestions and the results of the surveys were discussed.However, there was not any innovation processes where society was involved.

Tayloristic structure

All senior managers described a situation with old-fashioned structures, sometimesdescribed as tayloristic, as a strong hindrance towards innovation. A part of thisstructure was the rigid systems regarding goals, measuring and monitoring. However,there was no strategy or action taken as to change this situation, not at least related toinnovation.


The hindrances found may in some instances be described as rather practical,signaling that if efforts were made these hindrances could be avoided. But there werealso hindrances of a more principal nature, which may be attributed to traditions,organizational culture and the effects of New Public Management, NPM.

Hindrances of a practical nature

The hindrances found may be described to be rather practical of nature and solvable.It was apparent that the municipalities did not have an innovation system supportingthe process of taking ideas to implementation to diffusion. They did not havefacilitators or person supporting the process when taking an idea to implementation.Nor was there any special funding administered. The unwillingness to take thispractical action may be related to concern of priorities and principal consequences, asfor example how to deal with radical innovation, indicating that although innovationin visionary and strategic documents was declared as important this was more of ashow-off.It should be noted that there were innovations taking place, both middle managementand employees gave examples. However, senior management did not acknowledgeinnovations taking place at the unit level, arguing that staffing was so limited thatthere was no time for innovation. Thus, senior management was not aware ofinnovation taking place. A problem found was also that innovative ideas andinnovations were not communicated within the organizations, and employees hadvery little contact with colleagues at other units.

Hindrances related to NPM

All the four municipalities studied were to some extent influenced by NPM. Examplesmay be found in the rigid control and steering of the providers (the interviewsamongst employees was conducted solely on the provider side), including regular,detailed reporting to the purchaser side (and politicians).There are indications in research that NPM may have some negative effects on theworking environments (Kamp et al). The aim here was not specifically to study theeffects of NPM on innovation as the study aim was to focus on barriers andpossibilities in the innovation processes. Nevertheless, the results could well bediscussed in the light of NPM. Thus autonomy, seen as favorable for innovation andfor employee well being was restricted due to control and detailed processes. Anindication here that NPM may be a troublesome for innovation was found as themunicipality here with less traces of NPM appears to be the most successful oneregarding innovations and the involvement of the employees, with regards to EDI.This of course needs to be studied more in details, as the aim was not to compare themunicipalities. This municipality also had less privatization and competition amongstproviders. It has been speculated that due to competition NPM should be favorable forinnovation but this has not been supported by research (Hartman, 2011; Kamp et al.,2013). Theoretically, this may be possible but we should keep in mind that we aredealing her with quasi-markets. For example a housing for the elderly may operate oncontract with the municipality, and according to the Swedish law of social services thepossibility to lend such an apartment requires demands a decision by an assistanceofficer and even though there theoretically is possible to choose an apartment in acertain house this is not always possible for practical reasons or for reasons ofavailability. As a component of NPM that competition amongst providerstheoretically should by a driver for innovation, the situation at hand is different.A positive factor for private providers however has been that there are more managersper employee (Ledarna, 2012), which could be favorable for the work climate. Therewere indications in this study that the big units amongst municipal providers causedsome of the employees to be alienated from their manager. To some extent innovationwas also used as a reward, where the employees was encouraged to work further toimplement innovations but support to the employees in doing this was lacking..

Consequences for employees

Employees were aware of the demands for innovation and also realized there was orcould be competition from other providers. The enthusiasm that was seen to bringforward ideas and to participate in the development could lead to disappointment ifthe innovative intentions were not fulfilled.In the strategic documents from the municipalities studied there we ambitions to beinnovative described and the benefits of this to society (not for employees). But it itsapparent that ambitions were not followed by strong action.conflicting goals.

Consequences for the municipalities

As all the municipalities are influenced by NPM, regarding competition and steering,albeit in a varying degree, there are several questions to be asked, regarding thereasons for failing EDI in this context and what is learned from science. There areindications in research (Hartman, 2011; Kamp et al., 2013) that at least to some extentthat NPM may not been favorable for EDI, it seems that you can not have a rigidsteering and at the same time allow a big autonomy for organizations and foremployees. NPM as a concept is not easily defined and they way ideas from NPMhave been used and adopted may vary, also in regard to local practices. However, inthe study there are no indications that senior management is willing to sacrifice rigidsteering in exchange for a greater autonomy for employees. This will of course haveconsequences also for employees as there is a contradiction between action and thepositive message about innovation and its usefulness.It may be discussed if this is not a political issue. For example, in the Swedish debatethere is much discussion about the concept of equivalence, starting from theassumption that health care, schools etcetera should provide the same kind of serviceswith the same quality. Thus it shouldn´t depend on where you live in the countrywhen it comes the chances for breast cancer survival. This may sound natural intheory, but it also conflicts with other generally held Swedish opinions about theautonomy of local governments. Thus, as local government levies taxes they shouldalso be free to make their own prioritizations, theoretically based on what has beensaid in an election campaign. If prioritizations differ, consequences should alsofollow. Also, the view on entrepreneurship and competition emerging from the NPMmeans that different providers should offer services that differ in some respects,depending what they want to offer the citizen or the purchaser. Apparently there arecontradictions in the system here and this is rarely discussed.Another consequence of equivalence is also that, to make sure the services have thesame priorities and qualities, the steering must focus on these factors. Theoreticallythis may have some consequences in the organization and on the work situations ofthe employees, where the autonomy will be diminished and possibly also the interestin putting forward new ideas may diminish due to the fact that these ideas challengeprocesses and priorities already made.


Despite the study aimed to focus on barriers and opportunities for innovation inwelfare services this also leads to principal questions regarding the application of theinnovation concept in welfare services. The results indicate there is more to it thanjust create support structures for innovation and improve communication, knowledgeabout and prioritize idea development. And should the local actor´s perspective beseen as a constructive resource, as suggested by Wegener (2012)? Is the local actortrapped in a situation where innovation as a concept, with its roots in business andtrade, as well with links and discourses related to NPM is difficult to apply to thepublic sector and needs to be translated to an entirely different situation, as suggestedby Langergaard and Hansen (2013) and Nählinder (2013) of innovation should beuseful for the public sector?


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