Daniel Goodwin

Video killed the radio star – a lesson in change for the public sector

An excellent discussion last Thursday evening with New Local Government Network people and other colleagues has me thinking about the nature of change and the extent of innovation that is required from the public sector. I will not go into detail, but I can generalise some of the tensions that were drawn out as they are common to many such discussions. I think these were between innovation for efficiency and quality of response, an evolutionary change, and disruptive innovation of approach to outcomes. The Victorian companies who sought to develop a better gas light, long after electric light was shown to be commercially viable were good examples of the former. A good example of the latter a few years ago would be Amazon, but is it now getting a little heavy and moving towards a similar inertia?

What is interesting about this tension is that the first is based firmly in a rational managerialism and is thus very attractive to bureaucracies. This approach focuses on inputs and processes and regards the challenges of the present as being one solely of prioritising and mitigating service cuts. It seeks to develop and evolve existing services and approaches, and perhaps finds politics an inconvenience or at best a tool for prioritising where the cuts will fall. I think that the clear risk for such an approach is that it is also one where expert or provider capture of public services can thrive and the journey forward is restricted within tramlines. The Total Quality movement was a good example of such evolutionary change.

However it’s clear to see that we will not get very far if this is the only approach we take to present challenges. Our communities will just see dwindling services and nothing new addressing the emerging challenges arising out of the present economic morass. So it is clear that a far more disruptive innovation (1) is needed. Such an approach needs to start with the outcomes needed if we are to meet the challenges that we face and prepare for a different future. A critical aspect of this approach is good resource planning, thinking about what we need to achieve and setting out to address this challenge, rather than focusing on cuts to an existing service catalogue. 

I believe that at the local level we need to focus our efforts on the following:

  • Economic development and preparedness
  • Community cohesion
  • Capital infrastructure

None of these will flourish without imagination and resourcefulness, and they will not be the result of long-winded strategies. They require a range of completely new innovations based on local political thought, bravery and choice which is linked closely to the community. Officials need to be ready to help to nurture local democracy by helping parties to inspire existing politicians and develop a recruitment pipeline which attracts people who have a strong hinterland in their communities and the intellectual capacity to work with local partner organisations to develop fresh, unexpected ideas and a new understanding of the common good (2).

So with the proviso that decisions on the way forward are best made in the political sphere on the basis of a democratic mandate, here are a few examples of where such change is needed:

It will not be sufficient for people to switch to cheaper access channels within the service, for example in care of the elderly. We need to develop better ways of helping people to be part of the community and not need the service at all (or delay such need for as long as possible). This is not just because of cost, it’s also that the services are a second best response to basic human needs of engagement and community. How do we make that happen in a short enough time to have a real impact on budgets and enable real investment in further social care innovations?

For the sake of the national economy, we can’t go on relying solely on service and retail industries. We need to have things to make and sell. Yet most economic development interventions will do nothing for places which have manufacturing innovators working in networks from their homes or very small units and who have production pipelines based in many countries. They are either on the wrong scale or find it hard to comprehend the business environments that such companies work in. What would a disruptive approach to identifying such businesses and building self-supporting networks be?

Within our own staff, we need people who feel free to come up with unexpected ideas, people who are able to develop them and people who can then deliver them. Yet not only do we often remove money for initiatives from our budgets as one of the first of the cuts, closely followed by the training budget, but we also often expect the innovator to be the person that ends up being the deliverer, which is not necessarily their strength at all. How do we develop a staff development approach that builds on the huge energies that might be tapped by listening into the ‘unconference’/Barcamp movement and supporting rather than being suspicious of the suggestions for change that are coming from frontline staff?

Finally, the UK public sector is very much a creature of statute rather than constitution. So even though there are examples coming forward such as the general power of competence for local government, such small rafts of legislation are dwarfed by the supertankers of existing statute. To extend the metaphor further, the tide is going out and we risk running aground if we do not loosen ourselves from some of the existing legislative anchors and row off towards uncharted waters. How do we develop the means of cutting loose without harmful unintended consequences?

 

End notes:

(1) See this Wikipedia article for a good summary of disruptive innovation.

(2) As I wrote this, Moving by Bugge Wesseltoft was followed on iTunes by ‘Video killed the radio star’ by Buggles…simply a matter of alphabetical order, but need I say more?)

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2 comments on “Video killed the radio star – a lesson in change for the public sector

  1. Ben Darlington
    November 8, 2011

    Once you look really closely, a lot of Local Government ‘innovation’ is a veneer – a thin, contemporary theme layered onto a deeply traditional and unchanged institution, with no measurement of success or failure.

    The ‘Small Is Beautiful – Innovation from the frontline of local government’ report from Nesta does little to counter this sense of frothy, worthy but fundamentally inconsequential ‘innovation’ sitting like a wet blanket on Local Government. A better, main title for the report might be ‘Is that it?’

    The illusion of innovation may well be squeezing out true innovation. Unless Local Government starts to take a much more robust approach to innovation, demanding sensible Return on Investment, valuable innovation won’t be identified or given the room and resources to breathe. It will be crowded-out by well-meant, easy-to-understand and much easier-to-approve sibling initiatives that actually achieve very little.

    The negative effects of this crowding-out spread very wide. No experienced Entrepreneur is his right mind would currently invest in developing new technology for Local Government. The problem is not the size of the market or the lack of ideas; the problem is that the lack of rigour around ROI makes it too hard to market innovation into Local Government. The ground isn’t fertile.

    It may be time to take a reality pill here and recognise the basic issue: for true innovation to happen, the conditions have to be right. And that means a focus on ROI, very substantial rewards for success to produce fertility and severe punishments for failure to concentrate the mind.

    At the moment, those risk/reward conditions are from being in place. Instead, we have a love affair with the idea of innovation and a ready supply of protectives enabling that love to be consummated with no need to worry about the consequences.

    At the moment, Local Government innovation practices have a lot in common with casual sex between consenting adults. Usually satisfying but not destined to go anywhere and, ultimately, pretty unfulfilling. Maybe it’s time to be more selective and recognise that the point of innovation is not the act itself but the new life that results.

  2. Vanessa
    November 29, 2011

    The illusion of innovation may well be squeezing out true innovation. Unless Local Government starts to take a much more robust approach to innovation, demanding sensible Return on Investment, valuable innovation won’t be identified or given the room and resources to breathe. It will be crowded-out by well-meant, easy-to-understand and much easier-to-approve sibling initiatives that actually achieve very little.
    +1

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This entry was posted on November 6, 2011 by in Constitution and community, Local Government Futures, Public Value.
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