Scaling up public sector innovation

A few months ago I was interviewed by some very nice civil servants from BIS and CLG about how central government could help support and scale innovation in local public services.

I can’t remember much of what I said, but I’m guessing that ‘get out of the way’ probably featured several times. Oh, and ‘don’t impose models, tools or platforms from above’ as well.

Anyhow, the team have reported their findings, which focus on four main areas for action:

  1. Create the conditions that maximize the capacity for innovative ideas to scale across the public sector;
  2. Ensure that the public sector have the organisational culture, leadership, and people conducive to supporting the scaling up of innovative ideas;
  3. Establish networks that facilitate the dissemination of innovative ideas that could be scaled, supporting the spread of knowledge; and
  4. Use appraisal and evaluation of innovative ideas to provide the business case for scaling, to ensure the right ideas are implemented and driven forward.

You can download an executive summary of the report (PDF) or the whole thing (also PDF).

It’s worth a read.

Ken Eastwood on LocalGovCamp

Barnsley Council, and Public Sector Nomads’ Ken Eastwood has written a lovely, and important, blog post about his experience of LocalGovCamp:

The 200 or so attendees again demonstrated that there is genuine talent within the sector and an interest in innovation that transcends the traditional 9 to 5. However, it was all too apparent that many of these people are held back, they are blocked from affecting change, from doing things differently and from doing different things. In many cases they are frustrated by their lack of influence and by local government’s resistance to change and bottom up innovation.

Go read the whole thing!

Innovating doesn’t mean doing something new

I’ve been a big fan of James Gardner‘s work on innovation for a while now. His blog is a great read and his Little Innovation Book is a fantastic run down of the things you need to know.

His new book is going to be called Sidestep and Twist and it’s main point is that the big, impactful innovations are usually improvements or adaptations of existing ideas.

So you don’t need to be first with an idea, you just need to be able to execute well. Think iPod – not the first MP3 player by a long shot, but it was better than the others and made such devices mainstream.

In this video, James gives a really thought provoking thirty minute-odd talk about this idea. It’s well worth watching:

If you can’t see the video, you’ll find it on YouTube.

Portfolio: sharing council comms resources

Portfolio looks an interesting idea, coming out of Nottingham City Council.

This, from an article at LGComms:

We’re launching Portfolio, a web portal that allows public sector organisations to share marketing materials. Councils and other public authorities can sign up to it for free and save money by buying ready-made, proven marketing campaigns. It also enables them to make money by uploading and selling their own designs.

Kind of an app store but for comms resources. Cool.

Right now it’s just traditional print media designs that are available, but I’m guessing it wouldn’t be too hard to include video assets, audio and so on.

Maybe even WordPress templates and the like?

Blockers, and how to handle them

If you’re an innovative type, wanting to get some sort of new thing off the ground, you’re bound to run into people who do their best to stop you.

There are a number of reasons why they might choose to do this, and often they are acting in what they think are the best interests of the organisation.

This seems to be especially apparent when people want to do something interesting with the internet.

So, I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve come across in terms of the likely blockers and what you might do to get around them.

Before I start – not everyone in the positions I describe below are blockers. Often only one or two of these groups act in that way within one organisation.

If you have all of them where you work, then I suggest you resign forthwith.

The senior managers

This is an odd one for me. A lot of folk cite senior managers – even up to director and chief executive level – as being a blocker. Whenever I’ve spoken to them personally, I find they get the need to use the appropriate medium to communicate and engage with residents and communities pretty quickly.

However, it may well be that I have struck lucky, or that when I have spoken to senior managers, it has been a case of the outside ‘expert’ being listened to while folk inside the organisation are ignored.

Either way, getting the top brass onside is vital for any innovative project like this to work. My advice would be to get yourself in front of them as soon as you can, and try and make it so it’s just you, without any of the other potential blockers outlined below present. You need to be able to pitch your ideas and project without them being diluted by others.

Focus your argument on the high level strategic opportunities and try not to get bogged down in process or what Twitter is and exactly how it works. Focus on the things that leaders are interested in at the moment, such as opportunities to save money while reaching more people, improving partnership working and that sort of thing.

The communicators

A surprising one, this, for many. I’d always thought of communicators as being forward thinking people – and of course many of them are. However, some are rather (small c) conservative – and there’s also an issue of control.

It strikes me that attempts by comms departments to claim social media as their own thing is probably mistaken and it comes from a confusion between Communications – the profession and practice, and communication – the thing people at every level of an organisation do hundreds of times a day.

Overall, I’d say it’s important that some bit of the organisation takes an overview of digital engagement activity. If that’s comms, fine. What this doesn’t mean is that this team is responsible for all the work, or all the content. After all, we don’t ask the communications team to make all our phone calls, or write our emails, for us, do we?

If your comms team are controlling social media activity with an iron fist, it can be a real problem and a number of folk have complained about this to me. To persuade them to let go a little is tricky, but not impossible. You need to both play on their fears and convince them of your competence.

Their fears are those of overwork and not being able to cope with the additional workload of managing a large organisation’s social media presence. Offer to relieve the burden by handling the work you want to happen yourself, and show them some drafts of content you have written to demonstrate you can do this without landing the organisation in trouble.

It might be a good idea to start with to play along with the comms team if they come up with a process for moderating your content or activity. Soon enough though, they’ll learn to trust you, and if you’re being active enough, there will be too much work doing so anyway, and they’ll want to give up!

The HR department

I have come across one or two instances where the HR department has got in the way of online innovation. This is usually in the area of staff usage policy and that kind of thing and can often result when such discussions happen too early in the process. I’d say it’s a good idea to know exactly what you want to do and to achieve before policy starts getting written, otherwise you’ll find it misses the mark.

HR has a role to play here, as indeed does policy, because a good policy should empower staff to get involved digitally and not create a climate of fear where people don’t want to risk participating in online activity.

So my advice is to figure out all the other stuff before involving HR and getting the policy side worked out. Have a clear plan and goals in place so that you can ensure whatever policy is produced doesn’t get in the way.

The politicians

Dan Slee has a neat phrase when he says that there’s a job to be done in convincing councillors that it isn’t 1985 anymore in media terms. When twenty times as many people in an area use Facebook than read the local news, it can be frustrating when all the politicians want to do is have their photo taken for the paper.

What I have found is that politicians tend not to be convinced by the business case. Show them all the usage stats you want, they may respond, but it’s unlikely. Instead, the best approach seems to be demonstrating the magic of this stuff to them, so they can’t ignore it.

The simple act of typing a question into Twitter, and then having the answers fill the screen is something I have done with councillors in the past and they love it – they ‘get it’ right away.

The IT department

I thought I’d leave this one until last. I have a certain amount of sympathy for IT managers – they have a tricky job that few people appreciate.

There are a bunch of corporate systems that they must keep running at all costs – think payroll, revenues and benefits, social care, even email – and so you can perhaps understand the disdain they have for people asking them to turn Facebook on as a matter of urgency.

However, the role of the IT guys is to support the operation of the council, not to stop people from doing things. I would always try a conciliatory, collaborative approach with the IT department, getting them involved early so they have time to figure stuff out.

It might also be a good idea to ask them how they would go about achieving something, rather than presenting them with the solution you want. IT people as much as anyone are starved of opportunities to be creative, so get them onside by asking for their advice and help.

If you have got senior managers on side, this should make the process of getting IT onboard a lot easier, too.

The end of the IT department

37 Signals’ David Heinemeier Hansson:

When people talk about their IT departments, they always talk about the things they’re not allowed to do, the applications they can’t run, and the long time it takes to get anything done. Rigid and inflexible policies that fill the air with animosity. Not to mention the frustrations of speaking different languages. None of this is a good foundation for a sustainable relationship.

If businesses had as many gripes with an external vendor, that vendor would’ve been dropped long ago. But IT departments have endured as a necessary evil. I think those days are coming to an end.

Worth reading in full.

If place is a system, let’s make it an open source one

This is a post that has been brewing for a long while, so sorry if it smells a bit. The basic concept hit me during FutureGov‘s excellent CityCamp London event, and keeps reoccurring as I have chats with people and read stuff online.

It’s not a post about technology, really, but rather taking some of the lessons learned from technology and seeing how it can be applied to everyday public services.

The way I see it is this – places, whether cities, towns, villages, or larger areas like districts, counties or regions, can be seen as systems. They have a number of different sectors and organisations working within them, all of which have their own distinct processes, but all of which also interact with one another all the time.

When you think about it, it’s amazing that the system works as well as it does most of the time. These are complicated beasts.

So what about this open source business? Well, whilst in theory anyone can contribute code to an open source project, in general, not many people actually do. Instead, development is handled by a small core group, and most people’s effort is put into testing software and submitting bug reports.

This is the role I think citizens can play in redesigning local services – not necessarily producing solutions, but spotting the issues, the bugs, and reporting them. As Eric Raymond wrote in his seminal work on open source development, the Cathedral and the Bazaar, identifying problems is the hard bit, the bit where you need ‘many eyeballs’ – solving them should be straightforward for those that understand the system.

That’s not to say that citizens shouldn’t be involved in contributing ideas for improvements, but it shouldn’t be their only contribution. I suspect this is the reason why the success of ideation competitions across the world has been variable, as Andrea Di Maio has noted on several occasions.

A key part of the bug tracking process, though, is visibility, and this is what our public services lack right now as part of the feedback mechanism.

The bugs people identify are published on the web, categorised and tagged so they can easily be found. Other people try to recreate the bugs so they can be further tested. People suggest possible solutions, which the core development team may or may not take on board.

For place to work effectively as an open source system, then, we need an open, public repository of bugs that anybody can access.

After all, there are very few areas of service delivery that just one organisation has ownership of. Take anti-social behaviour – it’s a police matter, sure, but also a health one, an education one, a social services one. There are probably some community and voluntary organisations that have an interest too.

Any one of those services might have an easy solution to a problem, but if they don’t know about it because it was reported to someone else, then nothing is going to happen.

Likewise when people are submitting issues, or bugs, they don’t necessarily care which service they should be reporting it to. Which tier of local government? Is it a police matter? We shouldn’t force people to understand our hierarchies and structures just because they want to point something out that is going wrong.

Some people might be crying out ‘FixMyStreet!’ at this stage, and that site does go a certain way to answer some of the issues I’ve written about. But there are a couple of key differences. The first is the nature and tone of FMS, which the name makes clear. ‘Fix my street!’ yells the citizen. Maybe we should turn that around, and make it ‘How can I help you to fix my street?’ might be a more positive exchange.

Not only that, but while FMS provides a space for public responses to issues from the council, it doesn’t make the process of producing a solution an open one. It doesn’t open the conversation up to the other actors in a place, it doesn’t enable citizens themselves to contribute to the solution – whether through their ideas or actually physically doing something.

Here’s another example. Maybe someone reports a bug in the local public transport arrangements, getting from a village into the local town – there isn’t a bus early enough to get them to work. They could report the bug straight into the local council, in which case it would probably end up being pushed to the transport operator. But this misses the opportunity for perhaps a local private car hire firm to step into the breach, or indeed for a local resident to offer a lift. In the latter case, sometimes a problem in the system doesn’t need a system wide fix.

There are a number of challenges to open sourcing a place like this. A major one is the way that partnerships work at the moment, which can be incredibly slow moving, bureaucratic and not terribly collaborative. A more enlightened approach will be necessary – although in this age of public sector austerity, such an attitude is likely to be required anyway.

There is some tech required – the best place for the bug tracker is online, but throwing something together in WordPress or Drupal shouldn’t take anyone who knows what they are doing too long at all.

So this concept I think starts to tie together some of my thinking around coproduction, crowdsourcing, open source and my more recent outpourings on innovation and creative collaboration.

I’d be really interested in people’s thoughts. Please spot the bugs in what I’ve written!

Whilst the half baked thinking in this post is entirely mine, the bug tracker idea was originally blogged about by Tim Davies a few years ago; and the importance of visibility was made clear to me in a conversation with Nick Booth.

If not skunkworks, then maybe creative collaborations?

C4CC Launch

On my recent two posts on bringing the idea of skunkworks to local government, several people made the extremely reasonable point that I probably wasn’t really talking about skunkworks at all.

Steph said in the comments:

…it seems to me that we’re at risk of hanging more onto the ‘skunkworks’ peg than it’s fair to ask it to carry. To me, skunkworks is about a team delivering a tangible technical output quickly and creatively because they’ve been relieved, to a great extent, of bureaucracy and management.

I hold my hands up to this!

My time spent with Lloyd on Saturday reminded me of the really interesting work he is doing with Brian Condon and others at the Centre for Creative Collaboration in Kings Cross.

Perhaps this is a better model than a skunkworks for helping local councils improve and innovate?

Creative collaboration is all about the idea that if you put interesting people in a room together, magic starts to happen. We saw that in abundance on Saturday at GovCamp.

As the site for the Centre says, it is:

A neutral place where people from many different backgrounds – universities, large corporates, SMEs, freelancers – can work together on new things in the belief that real innovation happens at the edge and in the gaps between disciplines.

I suspect this is the sort of thing I was thinking about. I think there are two elements here for councils – the purely internal, and then opening up a bit to outside ideas.

Firstly, perhaps a local authority should have its own ‘centre for creative collaboration’ where innovative, idea-laden people work together, no matter what their role or duties. In other words, allow the networkers, the collaborators and the innovators to leave their desks and put them next to each other to create wonderful things.

This isn’t the same as a skunkworks, because these guys are still doing their day jobs – just in a different environment, where connections and collaborations can flourish, organisational boundaries be leapt over and ideas generated.

The second stage is then to open the conversation up to others, probably in a neutral space, rather than in a council building. Maybe this is something that empty shops on high streets could be used for? Just arrange Tuttle or Jelly like meetups, allowing people to hang out and talk about their work and ideas. Start off informally and see where the conversations and ideas go.

If similar initiatives are happening in places across the country, then sharing experience should be fairly easy to do through online networks.

I’d be interested in people’s thoughts!

Photo credit: Benjamin Ellis.

Building an innovation culture

One of the best blogs I read regularly on innovation is 100% Open. The latest post there is a pretty interesting one on building an innovation culture.

The tips are:

  1. Focus on fostering a viral innovation culture one person/team at a time
  2. Build innovation habits
  3. Institutionalise what innovation looks like
  4. Give mavericks & their networks permission to innovate
  5. Celebrate benefits of creative-thinking, risk-taking & mistake making in personal and professional lives
  6. Incentivise inner motivation as much as financial or professional rewards
  7. Give innovation (a) space & bring it to life

Read the whole post for a description of each one.

Not sure I would agree with them all – number 3 gives me the willies – but certainly food for thought!

Any you would add, or question?

Some innovation reading

Not so much dead tree reading, for me anyway, as I tend to read books on my Kindle these days (they’re awfully good), but here’s a few books that I’ve found really useful on the topic of innovation. All those who have had their interest piqued by the talk of skunkworks on this blog recently should find them worthwhile:

Not to forget the classic:

And yet another pimp of the excellent and delightfully short

Another other great innovation book recommendations?

Disclaimer – the links to Amazon are affiliate ones – if you buy something after clicking them I make a few pence.