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:
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?
(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?)