Headlines: May 17th, 2007



The Audit Commission has called for a cultural shift in local government and for authorities to innovate so they can bridge the widening gap between public expectations and limited resources. The Commission’s report: ‘Seeing the Light: Innovation in Local Public Services’ describes efficiency targets as the main driver for innovation, but makes it clear that striving for efficiency savings is not exerting sufficient leverage to encourage most authorities to innovate. Some two thirds of larger councils and three quarters of fire authorities are not involved in extensive innovation.

The Commission wants authorities to identify service areas in most need of innovation, such as those for which aspirations are high and performance is low. The report stresses the importance of supporting staff in generating and implementing innovative projects to raise standards. It also describes the crucial role of users in promoting innovations in services and the benefit of using community planning events to help generate innovative ideas for meeting local needs.

The Commission sets out key stages in the innovation process: identifying opportunities; embedding creativity; taking well-managed risks; and sharing innovative practice. A set of case studies which demonstrate the successful implementation of these processes across a range of services has been published alongside the report to give authorities concrete examples of good innovation.

Often the benefits of innovation will greatly outweigh the costs, but risk is an inherent part of innovation. Authorities can minimise the chance of innovation failing by carefully managing those risks. The report highlights examples of local authorities that have improved the value for money of their services, achieved more effective service delivery and built stronger relationships with their communities through innovation.

Richard Halkett, executive director of Policy & Research at the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, which is dedicated to fostering innovation, questions how far the Commission is prepared to go in its support of innovation, mindful of the barriers audits and evaluation can create. He asks: “When, for instance, will the failure inherent in undertaking innovative projects be tolerated?”

Richard Halkett also believes that the report does not go far enough in highlighting the importance of disseminating innovation. He said: “Simply telling other people about an innovative new approach will not encourage them to take it up. Often ideas are too localised for others to draw relevance from them – particularly those under day-to-day pressure to deliver existing services. What’s needed is individuals or an organisation who will really get to grips with examples of best practice, distil the learning that is relevant everywhere and develop ‘ready-to-go’ models for front line workers.”