Recently I met someone with the word innovation in their job title. This struck me as quite interesting. I wondered, how innovative do they need to be in their job? Do they do all the innovation in their workplace or are others explicitly involved? Now I don’t want to question the work of this particular individual – which I actually know to be really important and valuable work. But rather I think there is a broader issue about the current fascination with all things ‘innovation’ within public service organisations.
Innovation as a contemporary issue
Current examples of how innovation is being promoted in the planning and delivery of public services include,
- the NESTA Innovation Lab;
- the OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation; and
- the European Commission.
Innovation vs invention
The first thing to note about innovation is that it is not about experiments and people in white coats. The easiest way to think about innovation is about applying existing ideas or products in a new setting. That is what makes innovation different to invention-which is the creation of new ideas or products.
In this sense there is a long history of innovation in public services (although it may not always have been labelled as such). For example, where one local authority uses an example of good practice from another local authority that would be an example of innovation.
Innovation as a ‘good thing’
But is innovation a good thing in public services? Well yes, sometimes it can be. When people refer to innovation there is an implicit assumption that it is linked to some improvement – and so it should be. What it is not is doing everything you did before but with fewer staff and resources. There are many other words for that sort of thing.
In this regard it is unfortunate that the word innovation is becoming ambushed within some circles, along with other approaches such as lean public services, by those with alternative motives. Therefore it is important to understand exactly what innovation is and how it may help deliver better public services.
At the same time innovation may not be a ‘good thing’ and does not necessarily deliver better public services. Taking into account that innovation can be easiest understood as the implementation of an existing idea or product in a new setting we must ask, is it always appropriate for a public service to experiment with a new approach? Inevitably this will often involve some investment and success cannot be guaranteed. Do we (the public) want more risk-taking in the planning and delivery of public services? And are we willing to accept failure as a ‘learning experience’ when things go wrong?
Implementation of innovation
Ultimately, as with all change activity an innovation must be implemented properly and sensitively. Those who are charged with implementing the innovation (public service workers) must be engaged and should feel a degree of ownership of the change. The public must be willing to support more risk-taking and scope for mistakes in the delivery of public services. Finally it is important that the public recognise and support the improvement that will come from the innovation. Otherwise what’s the point!
The final point to note about innovation is that those companies who are particularly well known for it, say Dyson, Google, WL Gore, all invest heavily in it, are committed to innovation in the long-run and give their employees the autonomy to make changes where they see fit. For example, at W.L. Gore employees are given 30 minutes per week for ‘dabble time’ – time to do their own projects outwith their day to day duties. In other words innovation may lead to cost savings, or it may generate new revenue streams, but it is certainly not something that can happen on the cheap or during an away day. Nor is it something that can ever be the responsibility of a single person or “innovation centre”. Where it works well it is a common thread through everything the organisation does – from recruitment of staff to delivery of the business. It must be an integral part of the organisational culture.
There are lots of examples from across the private, public and Third sectors where innovation has delivered real improvement in the delivery of services. This does not need to be a particularly large project to count as innovation and nor does innovation necessarily require huge investment. However, those organisations that are known for innovation tend to invest in innovation, encourage their staff to experiment (and learn from mistakes) and they all take long-term view of innovation. One of the complexities of public service organisations is the nature of being accountable to the public. Unless your ‘public’ are bought into the idea of innovation there are always going to be huge risks involved. What’s more, if you have an organisational culture where “computer says no” is the automatic default or where budget cuts are the primary agenda item then you will need to change your culture or your financial situation first before thinking about whether innovation is for you.