This piece originally appeared in The Guardian on 30th August 2011.
As public managers struggle to maintain service standards whilst dealing with the double whammy of the cuts and civic unrest ‘innovation’ has become a catch all response to almost every problem faced. Unsurprisingly the recent Public Services White Paper: Open Public Services places innovation at its heart, mentioning ‘innovation’ 26 times across all aspects of the policy and even creating ‘an annual prize for innovation in public services’.
But this is nothing new. Government has long been committed to innovation; Whitehall has an innovation department (BIS); and several local authorities have innovation units. So what’s innovative about innovation, haven’t good new ideas always been in demand?
What’s changed is the context. In post-cuts Britain, now smarting from civic unrest, there is overwhelming consensus that the public sector must improve significantly and quickly. In the past government, local and national could get away with claiming to be innovative, with little scrutiny of whether that innovation actually improved things. The need for those improvements is now painfully obvious. Innovation must now move beyond rhetoric to deliver significant change in our communities.
What’s also changed is our understanding of innovation. In their excellent book ‘The Open Book of Social Innovation’, The Young Foundation define the goal of social innovation, (the innovation type most relevant to the public sector) as to create systematic change. Which points to one of the classic innovation errors: to confuse innovation with creativity. Just because you hold a ‘creative’ workshop involving flipcharts and post-it notes, does not mean your organisation is being innovative. Innovation is the adoption of something new.
Trouble is, as we all know, the public sector isn’t exactly known for its dynamic innovative culture. A recent report ‘Catching The Wave’ funded by Nesta and the Local Government Group on local authority innovation found that although there was significant will to innovate amongst local authorities, there were serious questions about their ability to deliver innovation. Classic hallmarks of innovative organisations such as flexibility, learning and adaptation are not immediately associated with the UK public sector, yet investment in exactly these kinds of areas is what being innovative means in practice. Is it really realistic to expect the public sector to invest in these areas now, in times of scarcity, when it didn’t happen before when the cash was available?
Rob Whiteman, Local Government Group’s Director of Policy and Development and ex CEO of Barking and Dagenham Council thinks so. He explains that “We can no longer afford not to invest in innovation. Business as usual will no longer work and we need to deploy significant resources to create the necessary change”.
So how do you know if your organisation is really stepping up to the innovation challenge, or is still languishing in the land of rhetorical platitudes? To help we’ve come up with five indicators, to test if you’re heading in the right direction:
- Senior Commitment & Cash Investment: Are the senior directors demonstrating their commitment to innovate with new money as well as the right words?
- Learning & Reflection: Are resources being made available to both build new skills and pay for the time to reflect deeply on what is and what’s not working? Alarm bells should ring if anyone says ‘we’ve always been innovative’.
- Networks Creation: Creating internal networks to create institutional, not just individual capacity; and external networks to plug in to what everyone else is doing.
- Flexibility & Reactivity: Having project meetings which embrace challenges to current approaches and embracing change when necessary.
- Risk Taking: Creating a climate (in the organisation and community), which understands that risks must be taken and some failure is inevitable, as that’s often an essential part of learning and improvement.
Distinguishing between sustaining innovation (when a new action builds upon what you already do) or disruptive innovation (when it represents a fundamental change in what do you) is a good start when developing an innovation strategy. This thinking was popularised by Clayton Christensen in his book ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’ where he suggests that organisations need to choose between investing in disruptive innovations (e.g. digital music) which create something new and separate or sustaining innovations which will supplement the existing (e.g. online banking). This is particularly relevant now as public leaders grapple with transforming their organisations. Many of them have become well versed in the rhetoric of transformation, but have yet to engage with the reality of the disruption such transformation may well entail.
The Table below provides a basic framework for differentiating between those actions, both in the public and voluntary sector, which are likely to sustain current business models, and those which will disrupt and potentially transform them.
Table: A framework of sustaining and disruptive innovations
Announcing a service closure for example will create disruption, but that is clearly not on its own a good thing. The key then is to be responsive and flexible in helping people invent and create high quality alternatives.
Central to the success of transformation is to expect, plan for, and make the most out of disruption. Civic reaction, of one form, is a predictable response to service change. Historically government, when responding to community reaction to proposed changes (such as service closures) has tended to simply defend decisions and closed down debate. Now however there is an emerging culture of engaging in a dialogue with the community as partners to look at alternatives. Not avoiding the disruption but engaging in the realities of it.
It is this emerging culture of engaging with the realities of change that lies at the heart of whether innovation will deliver significant benefits on the ground. If we engage with innovation and its consequences warts and all, recognising openly the winners and losers and investing in systems to channel disruption positively then innovation may make the passage from rhetoric to real improvements. If we don’t then it won’t.
 Christensen, C M (1997). The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.