As public services managers struggle to maintain service standards while dealing with the double whammy of government cuts and heightened customer expectations, innovation is often presented as the panacea. For example, the recent open public services white paper places innovation at its core, mentioning innovation 26 times. But although the emphasis on innovation isn’t new, the context in which public services operate is changing rapidly. There is energy, like there has never been energy before, towards reaching a consensus that the public sector must improve significantly and quickly. So maybe now is the time to move ‘innovation’ beyond rhetoric and towards action. Just because we hold creative workshops involving flipcharts and post-it notes, this doesn’t mean we’re being innovative. Innovation requires the adoption of something new.
I don’t wish to be disloyal to the many public services colleagues with whom I work, but generally the public sector isn’t known for its dynamic innovative culture. The recent ‘Catching The Wave’ report on local authority innovation, funded by Nesta and the Local Government Group, found that although there was significant will among local authorities to innovate, there were serious questions about their ability to turn this will into action.
Indications that an organization is innovative, such as adaptation and step changes in process reform, have not traditionally been commonplace within the public sector. So is it realistic to expect the public sector to invest in these areas now, in times of scarcity?
So what’s the answer … or at least a contribution to the answer?
On a practical level, the following five indicators form an acid test of your organization’s current approach to innovation. You might find it useful to mark each on a scale of 1 to 10:
- Leadership and investment: Are senior directors demonstrating their commitment to innovate with ring-fenced money as well as modelling innovation in their own behaviours?
- Learning and reflection: Are resources being made available to both build new skills and pay for time to reflect on what is and isn’t working?
- Networks: Is there a coordinated effort being directed towards creating internal networks to build organizational and individual capacity, along with external networks to share best practice?
- Flexibility and reactivity: Are projects aimed at embracing challenges to current approaches effectively scheduled and followed through?
- Risk taking: Is a climate of appropriate and intelligent risk management an essential part of learning and improvement? Is there an authentic and visible acceptance that some failure is inevitable – In other words, is progress being made in the spirit of ‘informed experiment’?
I think we are all familiar with the rhetoric of transformation, but some of us have yet to engage with the reality of the disruption such transformation inevitably entails. For example, announcing a service closure or a transformation to a new commissioning model will create disruption, but the key 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.
These reflections were inspired by an article by Richard Wilson, published by Guardian Professional. See http://bit.ly/rfkhIS if you are interested in the primary source.
My website contains further resources that may be of interest …