Do we need skunkworks in local government?

Simon Dickson has been doing his best to keep us up to date with the government skunkworks, the project to form a tight group of innovators in central government to work on new ideas.

If you’re new to the idea of a skunkworks, here’s the Wikipedia page. Basically, a skunkworks

is widely used in business, engineering, and technical fields to describe a group within an organisation given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy, tasked with working on advanced or secret projects.

Steph also recently posted a couple of interviews with two public sector skunkworks style outfits, which is well worth a read.

This got me thinking: does local government need something similar? If it does, should it be a central body, or perhaps something that individual councils should have? Maybe it could be a shared service between groups of councils.

I’d be really interested in what people think.

I do wonder where innovation fits in to local government this year. After all, theoretically, it ought to be a time when organisations try new things and new ways of working to improve efficiency and reduce costs. However as Ingrid alluded to in her recent post, retrenchment might be more likely.

A quick reminder about the brilliant Little Innovation Book by James Gardner that you can read for free online and is a great primer on innovation matters.

13 thoughts on “Do we need skunkworks in local government?”

  1. In a word, yes!

    I was approached by a senior #localgov person at the end of last year and asked to put together a list of #gov2.0 types, that would be interested in something similar to this.

    Will let you know how it goes…

    • Interesting! I did mention in a tweet to @tomsprints that maybe an external agency would work well, possibly set up as a social enterprise or similar.

      Do keep us informed 🙂

  2. This is definitely worth considering. I feel that a centralised group working across local government would work best, providing shared services / apps / knowledge across the board – better re-use and less wheel-reinventing.

    Is this something that fits in with ?

    • Hey Ady

      Maybe really it’s what LGID ought to be doing…

      Simpl I think is a marketplace for linking ideas to participating organisations so could be a sort of distributed skunkworks I guess!

  3. Great post to start the New Year with Dave!

    “….does local government need something similar? If it does, should it be a central body, or perhaps something that individual councils should have? Maybe it could be a shared service between groups of councils…”

    My thoughts are that individual councils have such diverse needs, empathy and budgets, be they rural or city-based that a central body is not going to effectively or efficiently service its citizens or generate innovation across all local governments.

    However locally spawned skunkworks and innovators that operate in a “Hybrid Organisation” ( manner can I think be extremely effective in local government and will have the ability to dynamically and quickly cross pollinate across those councils that see the value.

    Because councils are primarily not in competition with each other, the concept of “Hybrid Organisations” where physical and organisational boundaries no longer inhibit and the concept of councils moving towards “Open Business Models” as explained in the great book “Business Model Generation” are becoming more and more valid and compelling for local government.

    As Henry Chesbrough (Exec Director @ Centre for Open Innovation, UC Berkeley) once said:
    “..Open Innovation is fundamentally about operating ina world of abundant knowledge, where not all the smart people work for you, so you better go find them, and build upon what they can do.”

    We all need to ask ourselves:
    – Is what I am doing contributing to the delivery of our organisational outcomes? Remove waste.
    – Who can help me deliver these organisational outcomes? Collaborate.
    – What can I contribute that will help others deliver their organisational outcomes? Transparency.

    So I definitely think we need “local” skunkworks focussed on organisational and citizen led outcomes, facilitated by the concepts of open business models and hybrid organisations working across council and public/private boundaries delivering clear “business value”.

    For some this is obvious, and for others it’s a major shift in mind-set, but it needs to happen.

    Ant Clay

    • Ant – great stuff. Thanks for contributing. Will chew on this. Like the idea of a federated network of local innovation labs.

  4. Absolutely yes. Had the privilege to design and help deliver one of the largest urban systems studies in Europe for Manchester:
    Given the space and time to design, manage, think through something completely new. However, given the current cut-backs, I can only see a focus upon front-line sevices; and not on new innovation. Anyone else feel the same?

  5. Hi Dave

    Interesting post. You, and your readers, might be interested in the 28/09/11 edition of Peter Day’s World of Business on the World Service (available as an MP3) which looked at innovation in businesses. There were arguments for and against the skunkworks concept.

    I tend towards the argument that the trick is to support and encourage innovation across the organisation rather than try to drive it from a specialist team. Not that I have a convincing plan for delivering that across local government.

  6. I agree that since the needs of different councils are so diverse it wouldn’t necessarily help to have a central organisation working on such things; that said, there is still much more work which can be done in terms of sharing of knowledge & experience which such as Socitm & IdEA / Communities of Practice are not fulfilling.

    For what it’s worth, reading the definition of skunkworks given, that sounds exactly like the kind of thing I have been running in my organisation – basically pushing for us to be able to offer an alternative, WordPress-based solution for web projects which for whatever reason won’t work on the main corporate solution; the hook I was able to hang it off was an internal client was just about to spend £10k on a website, and I fortunately happened to be at the relevant meeting and in a position to say “we can do that for you, for considerably cheaper – here’s how”. From that I developed a business case to present to my senior managers about how and why we should offer it as a service more widely, and have broadly been left to get on with it.

  7. Great post, Dave.

    Does local government need innovation? Hell, yes. What gets in the way of innovation? Small ‘c’ conservatism and risk aversion. What opens doors in almost any organisation? That nice people from outside say this is a good idea. That’s why the LGiD route strikes me immediately as being a way to do it. Great if it happens organically across regions or councils themselves but let’s be realistic. That’s probably not going to happen any time soon.

    It’s one of the reasons I love working in local government is that people are willing to share ideas for free.

    Find a way of channeling that and we’ve got something…

  8. Dave,

    this is a brilliant post (thanks) which I think strikes at the heart of the dilemma that local government (and the wider public sector) is presented with in the current climate. Creating time, space and opportunity for innovation to flourish is fundamental to meeting the challenges that we all face. Leaders (politically and at an officer level) within organisations strongly shape the culture and climate where such innovation can take place – are we brave enough to set such a culture, create the space and empower our staff? I really hope so.

    The current financial climate dictates that local government as we currently know it will change significantly. How that change is led and managed is, for me, at the centre of the discussion that you have prompted. The how will determine the what. It is for this reason that thought needs to be given to ensuring the dialogue is inextricably linked to local politicians. It is they who will set the priorities that shape the type of council that will emerge and it is they who will be charged with taking the difficult decisions along that journey. Ensuring that the dialogue with political leaders is strongly characterised by the need to innovate hopefully maximises the development of a culture that places innovation at the centre of what we do as we move forward. The alternative is to go into our shell, batten down the hatches and weather the storm. I genuinely believe (as an eternal optimist and a fully paid up believer in the public sector) that innovation will prevail – I just hope that it is by design and not by accident.

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