What’s in it for me? How blame and credit expectations affect support for innovation

AuthorKrista Timeus,Jessica Breaugh
Published date01 April 2023
Date01 April 2023
Subject MatterArticles
What’s in it for me?
How blame and credit
expectations affect
support for innovation
Krista Timeus
ESADE Business & Law School, Barcelona, Spain
Jessica Breaugh
Hertie School of Governance, Berlin, Germany
The article applies an experimental vignette research design to test how blame and
credit expectations affect individuals’ willingness to support innovative programs.
Respondents received a survey with three scenarios of innovative programs and
were randomly allocated to being blamed if the program failed, credited if it succeeded,
or a control group. Blame and credit framing had no statistically significant effect on
willingness to support the programs. It was much more important for respondents
whether the program was ’good for the community’. This calls into question current
assumptions about anticipatory blame avoidance motivations as a primary antecedent
of innovative behavior.
Behavioural public administration, blame avoidance, public administration, public inno-
vation, risk management
Corresponding author:
Krista Timeus, ESADE Business & Law School, Av. Pedralbes 60-62, Barcelona 08034, Spain.
Email: ktimeus@gmail.com
Public Policy and Administration
!The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0952076720977598
2023, Vol. 38(2) 159–187
160 Public Policy and Administration 38(2)
Much of the recent literature on public sector innovation has focused on the
factors that drive or hinder innovation in public services (Hansen, 2011;
Verschuere et al., 2014). A subset of this literature has focused on understanding
the role of decision-making behaviours, personality characteristics and beliefs on
innovation (Meijer, 2014; Roberts and King, 1991). Given that innovation is an
inherently risky activity (Singh, 1986), the literature has cited the desire to avoid
blame as one of the main behavioural tendencies that are at odds with current
prescriptions to increase the innovation capacity of public sector organisations
(Borins, 2001; Knutsson and Thomasson, 2014). As the argument goes, individuals
in the public sector will be reluctant to innovate if there is a chance that they will be
blamed for failures (Lægreid et al., 2011).
So far, however, little empirical research exists to test these assumptions in the
context of innovation. What is also puzzling is that despite claims of a blame
avoidance culture in the public sector, we often see instances of successful inno-
vation, often led by innovation champions who seem more willing to manage the
risks of innovation (Meijer, 2014). Moreover, blaming behaviour in a public orga-
nisation can be a powerful mechanism to encourage caution in public policy design
processes and ensure that the policies and programmes are not ultimately harmful
to communities. Eliminating this mechanism in order to promote innovation is not
necessarily wise.
This paper is a first attempt to test how heavily blame or credit expectations
affect people’s support for innovative policies. The results can yield insights about
how public sector managers and innovation champions can foster an organisa-
tional culture that assesses innovation programmes as rationally as possible.
To test these expectations, we designed an experimental vignette study. Vignette
studies offer a straightforward test of the impact of framing options with expect-
ations of blame and credit while holding other factors relatively constant
(Wenzelburger, 2014). Using short scenarios called ‘vignettes’, the study manipu-
lated credit and blame expectations in three fictional innovative service pro-
grammes using three groups (two experimental and one control) to test if people
reacted to innovation differently depending on the manipulation (Alexander and
Becker, 1978).
The study applied an experimental approach for two reasons: first, despite
numerous claims in the literature about how blame avoiding motivations affect
innovation in public services, there is hardly any empirical evidence to support this
idea (Hood et al., 2016). As De Vries et al. (2016) have shown in a systematic
review of the literature, much more empirical work is needed to understand what
mechanisms might support public organisations’ innovation capacity. An experi-
mental research design is well suited to test theories about how individual-level
motivations affect innovative behaviour (Jilke et al., 2016). Second, what literature
does exist on blame avoidance has mainly focused on explaining the decision-
making motivations of politicians (Moynihan, 2012; Nielsen and Baekgaard,

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