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CAPITAL IDEAS - HOW TO GENERATE INNOVATION IN THE PUBLIC SECTOR

"It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something." Franklin D. Roosevelt, governor of New York, (1933).

When you think of the word innovation what springs to mind? Gadgets? Science? Technology? In fact these days innovation is something which affects our every day lives. Whether it's using a social media website on your phone or taking the latest medication to cure some horrible bug, innovation will have affected your life in one form or another. 

Likewise if I asked which would you associate more with innovation; public or private sector I expect most of you would reply private. And you’d be right! In fact studies show, in the private sector, innovation accounts for a staggering 85 percent of their economic growth. 

This said, innovation is needed just as much in the public sector. In fact, since the credit crunch crisis, there has been an unprecedented amount of talk on the topic and calls for introducing more of it. Yet despite all the ‘talk’ of the need to be innovative, there has been little specific action in bringing it about. So the big question is how do you get the ball rolling? 

How do you generate innovation in the public sector?

One organisation who believes they have developed an effective system to generate ideas for innovation is the American company ‘Centre for American Progress’ whose new project ‘Capital Ideas; Doing What Works’ has been created to promote government reform to efficiently allocate scarce resources and achieve greater results. 

Their report highlights the problem area for the public sector is generating new ideas and also stresses the importance for innovation. They claim not only does it reduce costs, but it also creates better products and help increase market shares. They too refer to the great success private firms have experienced from using innovative ideas to improve their sales and products, and maintain that understanding innovation is crucial in business strategy.

In this report Capital ideas’ argue innovation is essential for tackling complex social problems and make the point that as problems become more complex we need new and better ways to tackle these issues

That requires a much stronger system of innovation - from a constant flow of great ideas through evaluating the effectiveness of different approaches and then scaling those that are most effective. The report begins with a guide line of what they believe are the steps which social innovation follows from inception to impact six simple steps.

First step, they suggest that we need to identify the priority field where innovation is needed. This seems logical as solutions derive from problems and it is near impossible to think up a solution if you don’t have a problem to start with. In their cycle they assert teams should prompt, inspire and diagnose where the biggest issues are before any suggestion of solutions come forward, as the impetus for social innovation is often social problems.

Secondly they suggest that we should open up spaces for ideas. Proposals and ideas. Once a problem or new possibility is understood social innovators set about generating ideas for solutions.

The next stage is the fixing incentives and prototyping and pilots. This is basically the testing stage where you may want to take controlled trials. This refining process will allow you to find if your innovation needs tweaking and allow you to squeeze out any mistake.

Next is working out how you are going to finance your Innovation. For this finding revenue streams, writing supportive legislation and assembling the human and technical resources would be crucial.

Scaling and diffusion. At this stage the idea should start to take off. Reaping social economies of scale through expansion, replication and diffusion. Social solution often require government intervention and public-private partnership to grow.

And finally at stage six you will be able to introduce systemic change and watch your idea change lives and save money...

So by following these six steps we have a clear idea of the social innovation cycle, the process we should be using to introduce innovation. 

But are there any other actions we should be taking to help us actually generate ideas? The Capital Ideas report finished with a number of recommendations which they think could help organisation s and particularly the public sector to generate ideas better.

Tapping in house talent

This I thought was a great idea. Unleashing the creative talents of agency staff, who have enormous potential to be creative and also frontline workers who would have a powerful insights on ways to improve the way things are done - seems like a no brainer. And yet surprisingly all too often agency leaders do not seek these insights, instead referring to own a small pool of their own similar minded workers who may not see things from the same perspective or be able to offer as diverse and varied ideas. 
I think it is always important that leaders find ways of really listening to their staff, and encourage them to generate ideas to improve the way things are done, is a vital component of innovation strategy.

Dedicated innovation team

The report's second recommendation comes from viewing how private sector firms succeed. They claim private companies often have a whole team whose chief role is dedicated to researching and developing innovative ideas. 

These teams are provided space to think creatively about ways to enhance the firm’s long-term prospects. That they invest the manpower and resources into this research highlights how important they see innovation and this seems to be the chief difference between the private sector and the public sector. Therefore a key recommendation would be for public sector organisations to take a similar approach by setting up dedicated teams with responsibility for ensuring that the organisation is able to generate potentially innovative ideas.

Budgeting for innovation

Of course during a time when money is tight, no ministers or councils will be thrilled by the idea of pouring large sums of money anywhere, however this report heavily stresses that it is the public sector’s approach of only allocating small amount of their budgets to innovative practices which prevents them from coming up with amazing potential to really invest in generating innovative ideas and scaling up those that are proven to be the most effective. For example, the Young Foundation’s Launch Pad, Regional Innovation.

Shifting perspectives

You could use participatory appraisal to understand community problems. Developed in the 1980s, this approach works by really trying to understand the perspectives of those who live in poor communities in developing countries. Sometimes simply walking and noticing things can be surprising powerful tool for seeing possibilities in a new way.

Seeking outside wisdom

Why does the public sector only rely on the public sector? Collaborate with outsiders to help solve problems. Capital Ideas suggests could be key methods of obtaining important information, especially as Government do not have a monopoly of wisdom. The public sector could really benefit from collaborating with the private and non-profit sectors to develop innovative solutions. This can be done either by working with successful commercial organisations that can help the government be more innovative or by harnessing the energy of those in civil society who want to help address social issues but are rarely asked for their thoughts. Example – DeepDive, Innocentive.


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