Features: June 19th, 2009

Irene Lucas

This article was first published in Public Management and Policy and is reproduced by permission of the Association. http://www.cipfa.org.uk/pmpa/index.cfm

Public services must innovate if they are to meet expectations and the warning of budget cuts in the future have served to place greater emphasis on doing things differently. The author presents a view of innovation from the local government perspective. She describes how innovation has been fostered and calls for a public service wide initiative to change the culture away from risk aversion and towards creativity.

Ideas and innovation are crucial if we are to deliver the world-class services our residents deserve. To achieve this, we must foster a culture where innovation is not just allowed, but celebrated. To succeed in delivering continued efficiencies and improvement, the same old solutions just won’t do, we have to innovate. That means not more of the same, but different, better, and faster solutions.

To nurture innovation requires a real culture change. As Charles Hendrickson Brower, Madison Avenue advertising agency executive, once wrote:
…a new idea is delicate. It can be killed by a sneer or a yawn; it can be stabbed to death by a joke, or worried to death by a frown on the right person’s brow.

So we set out on a cultural revolution that places valuing people at its heart and permits our employees to innovate and experiment in the best interests of residents.

Great goal-scorers are not afraid to miss. They rely on supportive team-mates and spectators who appreciate the effort, and don’t scream when they fail. That’s why we have worked hard to foster a ‘no blame’ culture where this can happen, and learning is always valued.

Innovation in practice

In South Tyneside we’ve shown we don’t mind where the best ideas come from. When our street-cleansing folk suggested we take the Blackberries from ‘the suits’ and give them to teams out on the streets, it had a massive impact. As our eyes and ears out in the community, they could report a whole raft of issues direct to our customer contact centre. Being open to innovation means we learn from best practice and have brought leading national and international experts to South Tyneside. From Ben Page of Ipsos MORI to Professor Martin Seligman of Penn State University; and from Lord Professor Richard Layard of the LSE to Geoff Mulgan of the Young Foundation. With Nissan on our doorstep, we’ve studied their kaizen, ‘continuing quality’ philosophy; and we’ve been inspired by IKEA who design new products by bringing together shop-floor staff with furniture designers.

So much innovation is just plain common sense. Residents’ feedback is obviously one of the key elements in identifying problems and potential solutions. ‘Participatory appraisal’ places equal value on the views of the people with real-life experience of what goes on outside their front door, as much as the professionals with statistics.

Giving our staff license to take risks isn’t always appropriate. We have serious statutory responsibilities to meet and vulnerable people to protect so a risk assessment should inform everything we do. When we look at the enduring ‘wicked issues’, such as ageing populations or childhood obesity, innovation is the only choice.

Our partners are fundamental to making this work, and we’ve been lucky to have the sort of partners who can innovate beyond the remit of their business card. Through our new Local Area Agreement endorsed by government, we have embedded the right to innovate.

Embedding a culture of innovation

What more needs to happen to cultivate and embed innovation across local government? These approaches require political legitimacy, and our members have provided enthusiastic encouragement throughout our innovation journey. Yet despite moves towards ‘place-shaping’ this local discretion is still too often circumscribed by central government, so we have been heartened by the recent calls from the Head of the Home Civil Service, Sir Gus O’Donnell for public servants to become more ‘entrepreneurial’ and risk-taking in the pursuit of excellence. We will need to recast our relationship with Whitehall so inspections offer constructive challenge to innovation, instead of encouraging us to play it safe and keep our heads down.

I was delighted to participate in the production of NESTA’s recent publication Transformers: How Local Areas Innovate to Address Changing Social Needs. This work represents one expression of a sea-change in the public sector’s attitude to innovation. Central government now needs to catalyse that energy, and give it the space to flourish. John Seddon’s Systems Thinking in the Public Sector powerfully argues that inspection is ‘stifling innovation and improvement’, and instead of being measured on compliance, assessments should be on showing understanding and improving the work we do. Is it now time to say to our partners in the Audit Commission that we should be penalized for the opportunity cost of not innovating, instead of not complying?

Irene Lucas is Chief Executive of South Tyneside Council.