Despite much talk from Whitehall to Town Halls, innovation is very rarely taken seriously. There are few people in the public sector whose job it is to find innovations or to fund them and grow them. This is all about to change with the launch of an innovation initiative by Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service Sir Gus O’Donnell.
Behind the initiative is the growing recognition that better management of innovation will be key not only for achieving better outcomes in fields like health and criminal justice, but also for keeping up with public expectations. In business, the great majority of productivity improvements come from innovation, not from efficiency drives, and there is good reason to believe that the same is also true in the public sector.
Although in the past attempts have been made to drive innovation from the top and rely on senior executives, researchers or policy thinkers, there is a recognition now that it is important to create the conditions that will encourage front line staff to think innovatively. Most of the significant innovations in the past have come from those in direct contact with social problems and service users and from pockets of professionals.
There is no defined route for innovation and the journey can be like ‘hacking through a jungle’. The innovation strategy will work on different levels to create an innovation culture and provide the conditions for projects to emerge and survive. There will be incentives and rewards for civil servants who take the risk of backing innovation. Corporate thinking will be changed by asking departments to show how they are managinginnovation, what resources are they providing, and how are they judging what to invest in different fields. They will also be asked how are they bringing in the right skills and networks to put ideas to work and how are they engaging the front-line and users.
Case studies of successful innovations, including health, education and social care, have been published by the National School for Government.