As someone involved in transformation in local government, it feels like we’ve been skirting round the subject of public sector innovation for a while now – or, should I say, consultants and advisers do the talking but the public sector is still a little startled by it all?
There are courses on public sector innovation, commercialization and income generation and we talk endlessly about new models of service delivery, budget integration and the prevention agenda.
What’s the reality?
We see articles on how some organizations have transformed and innovated their way through austerity but what is really happening on the ground? Where are the new ideas coming from, who is driving them forward and are they making a difference?
The public sector should be good at intrapreneurship: the public and not-for-profit sectors are full of people passionate about their vocations, motivated by delivering public service rather than commercial gain: eager to do more.
Many of our organizations are large with plenty of (internal and external) networks ready to nurture new ideas and they have the potential to leverage hidden pots of knowledge and resource as well as have access to customers that can help shape and grow new ways of doing things.
As large organizations we should be big enough to deal with failure if an innovation doesn’t work and able to scale up if it does.
The key question
So here is the key question: why do we continually fail to deliver transformational change and tackle entrenched social and economic problems?
What is it that the sector isn’t getting?
- We are failing to understand that innovation is not the same as improvement, efficiency or value for money – we concentrate all our efforts on the latter and often actively discourage novel approaches;
- We are often unable to clearly identify the challenges we face and actively generate ideas (preferring to rework current programmes);
- We are too good at continuous improvement (and continuous salami slicing of budgets): it has delivered in the past and enabled us to create safe and stable environments (or silos). We approach financial planning in the same way year on year even when it only delivers the same outcomes;
- We are risk averse and prefer to see the status quo managed rather than a big idea fail, we do not value learning from failure.
I know that this analysis isn’t new: the blocks and barriers to innovation in the public sector have long been identified by business schools, bloggers, and every customer and employee on the frontline – so what can we do to action this?
What can we do?
As ever, it’s easy to identify solutions and hard to deliver change, but a good place to start is by looking at the key components or make up of a large organisation:
- Work with our leaders, managers and teams to encourage innovative thinking, confirming the value of improvement but exploring the benefits of new ideas, encouraging novel approaches and developing a new view of risk;
- Spell out the scale of the challenges facing our sector (in ways that people understand) and canvas our organizations, partners and customers for solutions;
- Create a culture of profit & loss – encourage people to consider financial ROI as well as their social ROI;
- Learn to fail small and fail fast
Cornerstones of Public Sector Innovation
Process – innovation isn’t magic. It’s about understanding our challenges, creating new ideas and approaches, incubating and developing, piloting and scaling up. Innovation is a process: if it helps to deconstruct it or map it out with post it notes, then go for it. Just be aware that processes need to be invented, tested, broken, fixed and tweaked. Processes need to be owned if they are to work. Challenge process that blocks innovation (e.g budget rounds that always ask for 5% savings). I think what is also import here is this: today’s process may become redundant tomorrow – so be prepared to kill it, if need be.
Performance – rewarding what matters: incentivize the creation of new ideas and the people that deliver them (and stop incentivizing the status quo!).
Resource – innovation needs resource: people need time to work up and incubate their ideas; they need space to test the ideas and support and encouragement to bring them forward. And if an idea has potential, it may need start-up funding so we need to start thinking about how we can work out the ROI – this is something that can be difficult for the public sector to grasp, but this is the new world, I guess!
Leadership – bold and brave leadership with an understanding of risk and an appreciation of what happens if we fail to take them. Importantly, the leaders have to be seen to be supporting this – actions speak louder than words.
People – let’s be clear about what we expect from our people and then let them do it.
Where is this heading?
In a public sector / 3rd sector context, we need a renewed understanding of the challenges that we face and our collective responsibility to innovate to tackle them.
There is a need for a fundamental readjustment of the relationship between leaders (both elected and organizational) and employees and to consider the dysfunctional behaviours within any large and established organization – we should be identifying collaboratively intelligent people who work across silos, get things done and ask the difficult questions.
As well as identifying these people, they should be rewarded, trained, supported and mentored as we encourage them to become intrapreneurs and leaders who actively enable innovation – and then giving them the space and resources (time and motivation) to support it.
We need to blur the boundaries between the public and private sectors. The public sector should be able to monetize its ideas and products; we should be actively seeking investment and partnerships with the private sector and developing a real understanding (if necessary in monetary terms) of the social value of what we do. In some places this is happening but a critical mass is needed to make this a new norm for the sector.
Simply put as a sector we have to invest in managing innovation and creating leaders who understand that social value is created through innovation rather than through the continuous improvement of KPIs. And the rewards are great.
There is no denying that the public sector management challenges are broad in scale and deep in complexity:
- funding and organising a health and social care service to support an aging population;
- designing an education system that is fit for the future;
- creating places and spaces that balance the needs of business and communities;
- preventing teenage conception;
- reducing alcohol dependency;
- preventing cycles of worklessness and benefits dependency
If you are up for a challenge this is the sector to be in, and it really needs intrapreneurs to shake it up.
Claire Taylor currently manages the delivery of a public sector innovation program for local government in the UK. With a Public Sector MBA, she is responsible for the deployment of innovation in a 3-way council including new approaches to governance, business operation, performance, revenue generation and idea development.