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JIIS Bulletin - September 2012
Innovating the institutions
Think “innovation,” and the chances are you will think “technological advances.” Yet innovation is equally important – and desired – in institutional contexts as well, that is, in how decisions are taken by the responsible authorities. “Institutions are frequently regarded in the public eye as very conservative, wishing to continue what has been done in the past,” says the JIIS’ Valerie Brachya. “However, institutional structures and what is called 'bureaucracy' are often the major innovators and leaders of new policies.” Indeed, she adds, it is often the framing of the issue, the goals set by the regulators or the stakeholders responsible who create the setting in which innovation takes place.

The Environmental Policy Center decided to explore this topic further, and to do so brought in a team of academics from Haifa University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Led by Prof. Deborah Shmueli, the team began by studying decisions made by the land use planning authorities in Israel in relation to environmental considerations of development and the protection of natural resources. They reviewed the literature on institutional reform to identify types of institutional innovation and the factors cited as responsible for generating innovation, enabling and leading innovation, responsible for the success or the failure of the implementation of the innovation. Many researchers had previously cited the importance of “change agents,” individuals within or outside the system who recognize the need for a change, and of “windows of opportunity,” which may be related or totally unrelated to the change they wish to promote.

The research reviewed in depth five case studies of major development proposals which all involved significant environmental issues: Hadera power station, the Tefen-Carmiel road, the Cross-Israel Highway, the National Master Plan for Immigrant Absorption in the 1990s, and the Herzliya Marina.  The case studies included interviews with the primary stakeholders involved and an examination of planning committees’ protocols.

The main findings showed that most of the innovation had long-term impacts on decision-making processes which did not relate only to a particular case or event but changed policies and attitudes. Some reached the level of a paradigm change, such as recognition by the planning authorities that they should not rely on the proponents as their source of information and that they needed to develop their own professional capability to question development proposals. Some were very significant procedural changes, such as the requirement to consider alternative sites or alignments before selecting a preferred alignment, the requirement for environmental impact assessment (including the consideration of alternatives) and the opening up of the process to a wider public (including the environmental organizations). Some innovations were proposed ad hoc in a specific case but later became precedents for later cases under consideration both by the planning committees and by the courts, which played a significant role in promoting innovation in the planning authorities. Finally, the findings showed the significance of personalities and timing in generating innovation inside institutional systems and enabling its implementation, such as the leading professional staff of the government ministries (Interior and Environment) and in particular the role of the chairman of the National Board for Planning and Building. “Our findings show that the public administration is actually very open to considering innovation, but there can be many barriers and causes of failure along the way.”

This study focused on a particular institutional structure and a particular issue of innovation, but, the researchers note, the findings could be relevant to other institutional structures when considering how to promote reform from within and to non-governmental organizations seeking to promote change from outside. Brachya notes that “the research demonstrates that effective innovation results from a combination of 'insiders' and 'outsiders' in a decision-making system.”

The findings will be published soon on the JIIS web site. 

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