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Innovation is not a new topic. We know public sector leaders have been discussing innovation for numerous years. However the agenda has been given added impetus in recent months by the impact of the recession on public spending. Anyone who reads the papers will know that the public debt we are accumulating because of the economic downturn has led to deep cuts further down the line. After a decade of vast sums of money being pumped into public services, the tap has now been firmly turned off.

Yet despite these cuts, people are more demanding in what they expect from public services. Also government targets are getting tougher and tougher. The need to "achieve-more-with-less" moved from being the latest Civil Service buzz phrase to a very stark reality with the announcement of “George Osborne's first budget which indicated that over the next four years, certain departments will have their budgets slashed, by almost 40%.” So the reality is that the public sector faces higher public expectations, stronger targets, and less money.

For many, including some government officials, the only solution out of this crunch is to innovate in how we deliver our public services. This report by Sunningdale Institute for the Cabinet Office argues that there is an under-developed appreciation of what public sector innovation might mean in practice and how it can best be supported. The report also provides a useful account of what innovation means in different circumstances and describes an approach to leading and nurturing innovation in the public sector. The headline here is that we need to develop a framework which provides a repertoire of types of innovation and relevant support models which key stakeholders can use to design innovation into their own organisations and begin to fill the gaps in innovation support.

"There is danger that government departments are constrained by what they do. Sometimes you need to have a near-death experience to get innovation on course. The public sector is facing enormous cuts. That is a golden opportunity for innovation and collaboration." James Gardner

A key finding of the report is the negative approach to motivation. Most of the systems which control work carry implicit messages that innovation is not recommended. All of the people interviewed maintained that the incentives against innovation are greater than those for it.

Recommendation 1

Systems audit: develop and implement an innovation audit of systems such as HR and finance, commissioning and procurement, IT systems and estates and building management and other systemic controls, to assess where traditional practices might be adjusted to create more space for innovation.

Recommendation 2

Strategic leadership: ensure that the right kind of innovation and the right kind of support systems are in place and that leaders create the space, rewards and recognition for developing and adopting ideas. This is critical if we are to develop successful innovative approaches, which allow us to succeed in our aims.

More than just good ideas

Lots of bright ideas will not improve services or make a dent in the deficit unless they see the light of day. To make the most of the more-with-less opportunities innovation presents, we need to bin the imagery of light bulbs flashing on above people's heads, along with the one-size-fits-all approaches.

Recommendation 3

Education: to support, and develop a more subtle and sophisticated understanding of what innovation is and how it can be supported. Coming up with imaginative ideas alone is not enough. The challenge is to identify how to make innovation practical and accessible; ensuring that they are spread, and adapted and adopted by others.

Thinking differently

At its most basic, innovation requires public servants to reconsider what they do; redefining problems and approaching them from different perspectives. This report looks at how organising services around places and citizens can achieve better outcomes at less cost. Those involved state the power of engaging with citizens and understanding services from their perspective. From this starting place, the pilots are now rethinking public services in their locality.

The 13 Total Place pilots have been a catalyst for public servants from across agencies to come together to do just this. The Croydon pilot, for example, engaged with frontline workers and managers, utilised video ethnography and collaborative techniques, mapped customer journeys, and took advantage of brokering organisations to challenge their thinking. Building on this insight, the partners have developed a new vision for early years support in Croydon, with a focus on working with families, building resilience and social networks, early intervention, targeted interventions and joined-up support, which they estimate will achieve "significantly improved outcomes at reduced cost". The ability of public servants to take a step back, redefine the issue they face and revaluate their approach will be vital over the coming years. 

Recommendation 4

Creating the right environment: making opportunities for platform innovations from which other innovations may spring. This means being continually open to new ideas from both inside and outside the organisation, and making the most of networks, scouts, intermediaries and brokers to nurture and spread innovation.

The level of discretion held by frontline workers will affect the type of innovation needed – continuous improvement (e.g. lean) may work for those with limited discretion (e.g. benefit delivery staff), but won't work for doctors and teachers.

Recommendation 5

Engagement: where possible, innovations should be co-produced with frontline workers and citizens.

Overall the key point from this article that the public sector dictum of the time must be: different and better for less. But this will not happen by itself, it will require top officials to take on the strategic leadership responsibility for making it happen, leading and nurturing innovation throughout the public sector.

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