Do you need a Head of Innovation in Political Parties?

In our last blog, we shed light on our spherical model of party innovation. Summing up, we see seven sources you can mobilise to find great ideas on how to innovate your political party. With this new model, we break down the idea that the source of new ideas is limited to political leadership or external consultants. Rather, we see a big potential for innovative ideas coming from employees, members, activists, and organisations in the political party’s ecosystem. 

From the many reactions we have received on this blog, one question stood: “Who is responsible for driving innovation within a party organisation? Who communicates and manages innovation efforts across the political organisation?” 

In the following, we outline why the answer to this question is both organisational as well as functional, and why the support of party leadership may be a double-edged sword.

An organisational design that allows ideas to flow 

In a previous blog we encouraged political parties to transform into ambidextrous organisations that are able to both refine and exploit the present, and at the same time explore the future. In doing this, it is important to assess existing structures and processes that may hinder new ideas to get leadership attention. But as political parties have become highly centralised power structures, this can be a daunting task. To dismantle innovation barriers and enable a political party to develop policy, organisational, and behavioural innovations, party leadership therefore needs to focus on two matters: structure and processes. 

From a structural perspective, political leaders and senior managers need to draw their attention to the organisational “distance” between party leadership and the different sources of innovation we outlined in our spherical model. Looking internally, leaders need to flatten their organisational setup and create an innovation culture that empowers staff to take responsibility and develop new ideas by themselves. Senior managers then become innovation facilitators who draw leadership attention to innovative ideas inside the organisation. Also, political leaders need to tear down walls that may seal the party off from ideas coming from external sources. Instead, they need to build innovation networks with external stakeholders close enough to provide solutions and ideas to policy or organisational challenges.

From a procedural perspective, leaders and senior managers need to analyse existing processes that empower internal or external innovators to bring their ideas on the table of party leadership. That is related to the organisational design as laid out in the party constitution, the mode of party congresses and manifesto development processes. We have already seen innovative processes, for example, open innovation efforts to develop a new party programme and idea competitions to identify best practice for events and campaigning.

A permanent function with real organisational power

To drive innovation, introducing Chief Innovation Officers has become an established approach in the business world. In doing that, companies assign the task of engaging with the different sources for innovation and moving innovative ideas forward within the organisation. We want to encourage political parties to create this function as well.

Creating a Chief Innovation Officer (CINO) sends a strong signal throughout the political party that it takes innovation seriously. We have seen this function already being implemented in bureaucracies and civil service on all levels, as well as in political parties

But there is no one-type-fits all candidate for a CINO in political organisations. Each organisation is unique and needs a specific profile. Still, we strongly encourage parties to look for people who are able to facilitate collaboration among internal and external stakeholders, understand the party organisation, its power structures and the political system, and are able to lead the change through identifying opportunities, mobilizing resources and aligning people

To be clear, a Chief Innovation Officer may not only be a permanent position or job role, but also may take the form of a function within an organisation.The former limits the role of an individual and defines his/her tasks. This is for example the case for Stefan Gruhner, innovation lead within the German Christian Democratic Union. The latter is not restricted to an individual and also allows for a distribution of tasks among and embedded in various roles and teams (e.g. in the Communications Team, in the Community Management Team), to network it across the party organisation. 

Party leadership as the major factor for rise and fall 

In politics, the decision to strategically manage innovation stems from a decision from the political leadership of the party, e.g. party leaders, leadership board or general secretaries. To make innovation efforts successful, political leaders need to define innovation objectives and targets, drive the review of existing structures and processes, help build an innovation culture and actively engage in innovation processes to set positive examples. 

All the factors named above are in the hands of political leaders themselves. But politics is a fast-paced environment in which circumstances may have an immediate impact on people and positions. When people leave, innovation efforts could easily disappear or discontinue in the same minute. This is why we encourage leadership to make it a permanent, professional function within the party and thus ensure its longevity. 
What are your experiences with anchoring innovation in political organisations? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!