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Competencies, Capacities, and Capabilities of Public Sector Innovation

What Is It?

Public sector innovators have been codifying and capturing their work in the form of toolkits for several years, which has been very helpful.

This framework aims to get up and above specific tools and techniques, and instead support thinking at the intersection of transformative, emergent, and resurgent innovation and transformative learning at the personal, organizational, and systems scales. When trying to work in this space, how then might public sector innovators think about what needs to be learned and practiced? But first, a short description of the ways that we are thinking about the differences between competencies, capacities, and capabilities is necessary to aid our thinking about this framework.


describe knowledge, behaviours, abilities, and skills, and are concerned with ‘what to think’, and with knowing how to do something. Many frameworks and toolkits have been developed to share what are viewed as important and relevant skills, tools, and/or competencies for public sector innovators and lab practitioners to develop. Although competency development is the focus of many professional development and leadership programs, researchers and practitioners are more broadly acknowledging that adding new skills and knowledge, or horizontal development, is not sufficient as a human resource development strategy in the face of ever-increasing complexity, ambiguity, and volatility of many contemporary workplaces and lives.


are dis- or enabling infrastructures, conditions, and processes through which capacities and competencies can be applied or inhibited. Capabilities intersect with the framing of enabling conditions and barriers. Capabilities consider context, available resources, and the interactions of the whole team to consider ‘how can we get done what we need to do?’ Dynamic capabilities are necessary to generate contextually appropriate responses to emergent, complex challenges.


are concerned with ‘how to think,’ and with mindsets, worldviews, attitudes, and methods and structures of thinking, also known as vertical development. Capacities can help to grapple with the complexities of the contemporary world and to ask questions of: do we have enough; how much is needed; what is the level of awareness about how mindset affects meaning- and choice-making; and the appropriate and discerning use of skills and methods. Both competencies and capacities can be held at the individual as well as at the organizational levels, and these are interdependent constructions.

Perhaps most interesting and important of this is the reciprocal, relational, and dynamic interactions that are generated when these three areas are considered together in response to complexity. There are non-linear and co-generated interactions between individuals, organizations, and the environments that they are in. The nature of these interactions, and the patterns that they form, can then create competencies and capacities of particular types that can emerge and then be amplified or buffered depending on the capabilities. They dance together.

From this thinking, and from the experiences of many public sector innovators, we constructed this framework of practices - at the intersections of competencies, capacities, and capabilities, together.

Click on each of the practices below to learn more about how practitioners describe the capacities that they are building; and what they notice about capabilities that either enable or inhibit their thinking, work, and practice. The text describing capacities and capabilities are fragments of data that come directly from co-researchers in order to provide rich and real descriptions of how these practices feel and are expressed in the field of public sector innovation.

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Imagining + Enacting Visionary Futures


  • We’re shaking the dominant system; how can we make that more powerful?

  • Translating and reframing possibilities and potential of visionary future to the status quo in understandable ways

  • Preparing the soil, cultivating readiness, making connections for when opportunities arise

  • Enable those with vital perspectives about possible futures in decision-making processes

How To Use It

The word practices was chosen here to represent the integration and interrelationships amongst competencies, capacities, and capabilities as they are in motion.There are perhaps three types of practices, as described by the three layers in the framework, although this categorization should be taken loosely as there are many different ways to look at this assemblage.

  • The top layer describes visionary practices - focused on working with- and for the ambition and directionality for transformative, emergent, and resurgent innovation. 

  • The middle layer describes public sector innovation practices - key approaches that public sector innovators and labs may use that are distinct from more typical public sector problem-solving approaches. 

  • The bottom layer describes inward-oriented personal practices - supporting innovators in their transformative learning journeys.

All ten are grounded in theory drawn from a variety of disciplines (i.e. transformative learning, decolonizing practices, many others), and all ten have unique yet interrelated competencies, capacities, and capabilities to be learned, developed, and put into practice. Together these practices can provide a foundational structure for public sector innovators and labs to support the design, facilitation, and evaluation of the aspects of their work that are focused on building competencies, capacities, and capabilities for public sector innovation. 



This framework was generated through participatory action research with 85 co-researchers from 25 organizations in 7 countries, and was gathered up and crafted through Lindsay Cole’s Ph.D. research. More about this can be found here.

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