Fostering Innovation in the Public Sector: Key Learnings from EPSA 2023-24



The European Public Sector Award (EPSA) brings together administrations at all levels of government to foster innovation and reform across Europe. EPSA is financed through the generous support of the European Commission (DG REFORM), several Member States (Austria, Hungary, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands) as well as local/regional partners, the City of Maastricht (financial support) and the Province of Limburg (contribution in kind). The EPSA 2023-24 edition, under the general theme Boosting Innovation Through Learning, featured three award categories: Innovation in Public Administration, Green Transition and Sustainability, and Digital Transformation.

The EPSA 2023-24 edition highlighted exceptional public sector projects in three distinct categories. In Innovation in Public Administration, Dublin’s North East Inner City Multi-Disciplinary Team (NEIC MDT) clinched the top honour for pioneering integrated support systems in primary education, facilitating collaborative services that significantly enhance student welfare. For Green Transition and Sustainability, the Netherlands’ Brabantse Delta won with their PHA2USE project, which innovatively produces Caleyda®, a natural alternative to plastic, highlighting a major step towards ecological conservation and sustainable material use. In the realm of Digital Transformation, the first prize went to the Netherlands Forensic Institute for their development of Hansken, an open and versatile digital forensic platform that significantly improves the precision and efficiency of law enforcement investigations. In addition to the main prizes, several projects were awarded Good Practice Certificates, recognising their innovative approaches and contributions to public administration. These include initiatives aimed at improving housing and energy costs, combating drug problems through technology, and enhancing social enterprise awareness among the youth. Special EPSA recognition was also given to projects that demonstrated exceptional effort towards transformative change, such as the implementation of the OKRs methodology in Ukraine’s National Agency on Corruption Prevention, and Greece’s Mitos – National Registry of Administrative Procedures. This year’s winners set remarkable precedents for innovation, sustainability, and digital transformation, illustrating the dynamic capabilities and adaptability of Europe’s public sector.

To celebrate winners and initiate the sharing of good practices, the EPSA annual winners’ ceremony was held in Maastricht as a three-day event on 20–22 March 2024. On the final day of the event, winners convened in a workshop to share experiences, and to exchange ideas for future collaboration. As the workshop facilitator, NIDO endeavoured to capture the obstacles and proposed ideal scenarios to enhance knowledge exchange for best practice across the continent.

The workshop was attended by representatives from Ireland, the Netherlands, Serbia, Austria, Romania, Spain, and Türkiye, each bringing valuable insights and experiences from their respective award-winning public sector projects. Through their shared experiences, participants identified shared challenges of designing and implementing innovation projects, and key factors that contribute to successful outcomes.



Navigating the landscape of public service innovation entails several interconnected challenges such as financial constraints, legal and regulatory barriers, and cultural and political factors related to the specificities of public administration.

  1. Procurement complexity: Strict regulations and complex procurement processes were highlighted by several participants representing different countries. These factors not only introduce significant risks for ongoing projects, but also deter the inception of new ideas. The challenges in procurement processes underscore the vital necessity for specialised legal and procurement support within teams dedicated to innovation projects.
  2. Insufficient legal frameworks: The absence of a legal framework that supports public innovation often limits the ability to implement creative solutions. Innovative solutions in the public sector are required by law to be developed within existing legal frameworks. Innovative solutions therefore sometimes require legal exceptions or new interpretations of the law, which can take time to pass or unravel. The laws of most countries do not seem to provide room for exploration in government, limiting innovation.
  3. Fear of failure: There is often a fear of failure within the civil service, which can stifle the desire and willingness to initiate innovative projects. Creating an environment in the public sector in which failure is seen as a learning opportunity is a requirement for mitigating such fears. Furthermore, supportive leadership is crucial for fostering a culture in which civil servants are encouraged to innovate.
  4. Politicisation of the public sector: The politicisation of public administration provides for an additional layer of complexity. Accordingly, navigating the political landscape was cited by several participants as a serious challenge, particularly in sensitive policy areas such as migration. To overcome this challenge, civil servants need to adopt innovative communication strategies, such as strategic storytelling, to align projects with political priorities and avoid negative political attention. Some participants referred to the metaphor of a ‘cute pit bull terrier’ where a person remains aggressive and assertive while maintaining a harmless exterior.
  5. Securing funding: securing consistent and adequate funding remains an ongoing challenge in all administrations as innovation requires not only creative ideas, but also the financial means to implement and sustain them. Navigating the complex landscape of European, national, and private funding adds to this challenge. Yet, establishing partnerships and securing funding agreements are vital for effective and sustainable project implementation.

These challenges, as encountered by the participants of the EPSA 2023-24 Award Ceremony workshop, paint a vivid picture of the hurdles that innovators in the public sector must overcome.

However, participants also identified several key factors for driving innovation for successful outcomes.

  1. Stakeholder engagement: One of the primary success factors is to engage stakeholders effectively through targeted and strategic communication, ensuring that messages are tailored to the diverse needs and expectations of all involved parties. Effective communication helps to align stakeholders’ interests, and facilitates smoother project implementation.
  2. Co-creation with end users: Another critical factor is co-creation with the users of public services. For instance, involving young people in the development of projects and services helps to bridge generational gaps and promotes long-lasting relevance. Prototyping with younger demographics encourages innovative solutions that remain agile and adaptable to future changes.
  3. Long-term credibility through partnerships: To establish trust-based partnerships is another success factor. Establishing trust-based partnerships and promoting the development of competencies help maintain a credible and sustainable project. Effective learning transfer and managing expectations are pivotal in supporting long-term credibility. These partnerships ensure that projects benefit from a wide range of expertise and resources, enhancing their success and longevity.
  4. Empowerment and showcasing success: Empowering stakeholders and showcasing success can significantly impact project outcomes. By fostering a culture of networking and highlighting successful outcomes, teams can build motivation and a strong sense of identity. This culture of empowerment and productivity is likely to promote innovation, as stakeholders feel more connected and invested in the project’s success.
  5. Easy access to open data: The facilitation of access to open data is critical as it creates avenues for co-design. Accessible data platforms allow for creative minds to work with the data and come up with new inventions that can improve public service delivery. It also enables data-driven decision-making and innovation within governments.
  6. Resilience and leadership: Resilience and leadership are crucial for navigating the complex landscapes of public sector projects. Resilient teams, empowered to face challenges, are essential. Reliable support from leadership within the government organisation is crucial, as it helps resolve challenges efficiently, and ensures that adequate resources are available. This support fosters an environment where innovation can thrive.
  7. Engaging procurement and legal experts: Lastly, engaging procurement and legal experts early in the project development phase is vital for successful project implementation. Having a clear legal framework and involving these experts can prevent major hurdles along the way, ensuring that the project adheres to legal requirements and procurement best practices from the outset.

By focusing on these factors public sector projects can achieve greater success, fostering innovation and delivering more effective and sustainable outcomes.


It was clear from the interactions that ultimately, we were all human beings navigating the landscape of public service and appreciating the recognition received for our efforts to improve and innovate. The creates additional pride in the results of our projects, and goes a long way towards improving morale. Additionally, always having a plan B, getting the right trustworthy people onboard including supportive leadership, and collaborations were underscored as crucial success factors. The collective insight from the workshops paints a picture of undeniable duality where there is significant potential and achievement, but equally disruptive challenges and obstacles in the innovation journey. Success seems to be largely contingent on the agile navigation of this terrain, foresight, and a capacity for collaboration. These insights will undoubtedly prove invaluable for future public sector projects looking to replicate the successes of the EPSA Award winners.


Check out the EPSA 2023-24 knowledge sharing activities and register for the one that best suits your needs: Knowledge sharing activities.


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The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and not necessarily those of EIPA.