OK, OK, so I pay my mortgage currently through some bizarre niche work on public service innovation – and even more niche than that, how to support innovation. ie i don’t even do it myself. The more time I spend in these roles, the less I feel good about it. The more I read the word ‘innovation’ in government white papers the more I feel like I’m on some kind of gravy train that’s picking up speed and people and heading off to the destination obscurity…
Anyway, as part of this work I’ve been editing a collection of essays on innovation and local government. This has been really refreshing and thought-provoking for me, given the anxieties I have about whether we are really making any *actual* difference through all these social innovation projects. My next task, which I have chosen to accept, is to produce a short thinkpiece as a taster for the full publication which is due out in the new year. Today I am thinking about what I’ll say in the taster. I think it will cover:
Radical innovation – contrary to what we imagine through using the word ‘radical’ – does not happen overnight – in fact it can take years to bring about wholesale change. Knowsley Council, for example, have taken a decade to transform their educational system – and they’re still not there yet.
Partnerships are uncomfortable – unlike the rather warm and cuddly partnerships of CLG publications, ‘deep’ collaborations that lead to innovation are not always nice places to be. They involve conflict, discomfort and challenge. Sadly that in turn requires a degree of maturity and emotional intelligence – not things that are necessarily encouraged or developed in local government staff.
It’s not enough to innovate in service delivery – really radical innovations require councils to be willing to innovate in terms of whole systems of services (i.e. the range of services that families receive could all be improved individually, but in fact the real innovation might rest with changing how they work together). And indeed councils need to see themselves as ‘constructive disruptors’ to Whitehall regimes, using their insights to challenge policy frameworks too.
Leadership – there are a lot of people at the moment arguing that old-fashioned leadership from the top is not important any more, and that it’s all about empowerment and distributed leadership. I disagree. For local councils, with a democratic mandate (technically) they must build leadership at *all* levels – political and community, but also managerial. People need some inspiration to keep going. Innovations need engagement from the suits at the point at which they try to scale up.
And on this note – innovation work is much easier at the creative and generative end of things. It’s in the implementation phase, and indeed the work around diffusion, scale up and dissemination phases, that things often get tricky. We have a much shallower understanding of these later phases and how to make them work.
Finally, something on risk and value. Things can sometimes feel impossibly risky because we lack any way of articulating the cost of not doing anything, or the cost of continuing to do whatever it is we are doing now. Finding ways of describing value in new ways is really important as part of a pro-innovation approach to dealing with risk. In other words: hunt down all those accountants and lawyers who know the rules, but who are up for breaking them. Weirdly in the commercial world, these professions see themselves as the duckers and divers, finding ways to subvert ‘the system’. Too often in the public sector, they become the law enforcers.