What would a local government skunk works look like?

So my post about whether local government needs skunk works got quite a reaction both in the comments and on Twitter, so it’s obviously something people are interested in discussing.

How can we move the debate forward?

Let me sketch some ideas on how it might work – feel free to comment, criticise, abuse me in the comments. I’m genuinely making this up as I go along.

1. A local government skunkworks would best operate on a networked basis – a loose central organisation of more localised groups. That way you keep small groups concentrating on local issues but sharing is still possible.

2. Due to the nature of local service delivery and related issues, it would need to be run on open innovation lines, so that people who aren;t local government officers can still get involved, eg other public services, those in the civil sector, universities (thanks Rupert in the comments) and the private sector.

3. Skunkworks operate best with specific projects to work on. Some method of identifying projects would be needed.

4. Is there a need for some kind of ownership by the local council, or at least a body responsible for service delivery? No point having an active skunk works if nothing ever actually happens!

5. Depending on the project, financing is going to be needed at some point. Where would that come from in this model?

6. Involvement of local residents will be vital – they ought to be able to join teams where they have value to add, and be kept up to date with progress and be able to comment (added thanks to Harry in the comments).

7. This isn’t just about IT or the web – it’s about any kind of innovation. Though tech likely to play a role in many innovations (added thanks to Harry in the comments).

8. Skunkworks is probably a terrible name and something friendlier is undoubtably needed (from comments on the Twitters by @anthonyzach and @dominiccampbell).

Have I got anything badly wrong? What have I missed out?

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.

10 rules to start innovating

Little Innovation BookJames Gardner‘s Little Innovation Book is a great read for anyone who has an interesting in getting their team, department or organisation doing things differently. Not only is it short, and very practical, it’s also cheap – you can read it online for free, or buy an ebook version for a few quid.

Innovation seems almost a dirty word at times. I lose count of the number of times I see people putting on their lists of words they cannot bear. I don’t understand why this is; maybe because most people and organisations are so bad at it? I should think that would mean we ought to be talking about it more, in that case!

It strikes me that we need good innovation now, in government, more than ever. After all, what with the budget cuts, things are going to have to change one way or another. The two ideas that seem to be emerging from local government are shared services and outsourcing. I’m sure we can do better than that?

Anyhow, James’ book is made up of 10 rules for innovating. Am sure he won’t mind me reproducing them here, with a quick description of each. If you want more (including some great case studies), you’ll have to read the book.

  1. Create an Innovation Strategy First – decide what your innovation aim is and how you can best get there: do nothing, play to win, or play not to lose
  2. Define What Innovation Means – “one has to have an understanding of what will be acceptable as outputs from innovators before one starts to be innovative”
  3. Make Sure the Role of Innovators is Clear – are those with responsibility for innovation actually involved in innovating, or in promoting a culture of innovation?
  4. Have a Connection to the Money – innovators must ensure they get some budget, although not too much – but have to justify it to the bean counters
  5. Address the 3 Big Myths – which are that 1) ideas are the most important thing; 2) innovation is all about big hits; and 3) innovation is risky, unpredictable and a luxury
  6. Manage the Technologists – “The key to co-operation is to find a trigger point which allows Information Technology to contribute within the boundaries of their prioritization framework without alienating them altogether”.
  7. Answer the 3 Key Questions – which are: ‘Can we do this?’, ‘Should we do this?’ and ‘When?’.
  8. Drown the Puppy – to keep returns on innovation projects high, get used to killing the ones which probably won’t work out.
  9. Share Everything – “innovators who talk about their work, share their knowledge, and network widely seem to be much more successful than those who don’t”.
  10. Manage the People – have you got the right group of people in the team to work on the innovation project and make it work?

Innovation in Public Services: Small is Beautiful

An interesting item on NESTA’s website, with some accompanying useful resources, summarising the recent launch of the ‘Small is Beautiful’ paper on innovation in local government.

NESTA supported the Local Government Information Unit to analyse the entries to its ‘Small is Beautiful’ competition, which asked local authorities to submit examples of innovation they had implemented in non-statutory services.

Glyn Gaskarth from the LGIU described the entries received and what they suggest about the state of innovation in local government. Glyn noted the number and diversity of the entries received, but also that the key to their success was that they were often led by small teams with small budgets. While some of the examples might seem quite marginal from a national perspective, they have made a decisive difference to their local area (for example, in reducing offending or improving social cohesion), and some of them could be seen as the ‘Big Society’ in action. Glyn outlined the main proposal from the report – that local authorities could establish a new way to encourage and support these types of activities by creating innovation funds drawn from their own discretionary spending.

The Small is Beautiful paper is here (PDF warning).

At the event, Rochford District Council provided a case study of the work they have been doing to support local retailers, called ‘Shop at My Local’. Here’s the slides (again, PDF warning).

In the following discussion several barriers were identified:

  • While there was a shared recognition of the barriers (such as funding, risk-aversion and evaluating the benefits), there was some concern about the risk of painting too negative a picture of the ability of local government to innovate, and so this becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. It was also noted the many large private sector organisations face similar challenges in establishing a pro-innovation culture.
  • Many in the audience pointed out that local government could make more use of the resources and organisations that already exist in order to innovate, from volunteers and the third sector, to funders such as NESTA, in lieu of establishing their own funds.
  • Similarly, there was a lot of discussion about existing mechanisms used by local authorities to support innovation, for example the Innovation Unit described the innovation lab they are helping Knowsley to establish, and another member of the audience highlighted the Local Strategic Partnerships that have innovation boards and funds.
  • There was, however, shared concern that time was against us, and that many of the innovative approaches such as those highlighted in the report, and the mechanisms that can support them (such as local invest-to-save budgets), are now at risk of being cut in the current age of austerity.

There’s more on NESTA’s website – including a whole load of resources for innovation in public services.

Thanks to Dom for highlighting this in his link round up.

An interesting innovation discussion

An interesting exchange online happened last week after the wonderful Robert Brook posted a piece on his site entitled ‘Boring Innovation‘ – all about how innovation can best happen within large, complex organisations, like those you tend to find in government.

It’s well worth reading in full, here’s a snippet:

How about this: a two-pronged approach. Introduce, recognise and support innovative thinking within the existing processes – and, separately, set up a sandboxed arms-length entity to take on the risk. But, make that sandbox small and real – very quick turnover of work, short iterations, very tight on the money.

This was quickly picked up on by James Gardner, CTO of the DWP and author of several publications on innovation (he got the link via another post by Stefan – everything’s linked these days).

James writes:

Everyone thinks innovatively all the time, whether they know it or not. But when it comes down to the press of doing the day job, versus changing it to accommodate innovation, most people will just do what they have always done…

That’s why you need an innovation unit, whether you bought it or grew it yourself. The name of the game is about starting lots of little, new projects. Without waiting for that random blue-bird superstar performer who can do it without any help at all.

Genuinely, how great is it that this debate is being held, in the open, online so that everyone can share in what is being said, and contribute to, if they choose to.

This is exactly the sort of thing I was talking about in my discussion about the .gov.uk blogosphere. it’s great to see people like Robert and James being so actively involved like this – and as per my earlier post, Alistair and Carl too.

JFDI vs Being Boring

Light blogging recently, I’ve been gadding about talking at a load of events – which is fun and rewarding in its own way, but doesn’t really help with getting any work done, nor with writing here.

Last Wednesday I was at the LGComms seminar on digital communications, and had the opening slot explaining why all this stuff matters. I was on slightly shaky ground as I don’t really know all that much about digital comms, just the social bit. I’ve no idea how to run a proper corporate website, for example. Anyway.

My slides were the usual concoction, and they’re on Slideshare if you want them. My general message was that while the internet is undoubtedly important for communications, it’s a mistake to put all of this stuff in a box marked comms and assume it doesn’t affect or benefit other parts of the organisation and the way they work.

One slide I included was pretty new, and it featured a pretty crappy graph I threw together in Powerpoint:

JFDI vs Being Boring

Click it for a bigger version. The point here is that by taking a JFDI approach – to any innovative behaviour, not just social media use – you get a lot done quickly. The trouble is that it isn’t terribly sustainable, because it is often the work of one or two enlightened individuals and it isn’t terribly well embedded in corporate process, systems or structures.

The alternative is to be boring, and go down the route of getting the strategy and procedure sorted early, and developing activity in line with that. This is a lot more sustainable, as everyone knows what they are doing and what they are responsible for. There is a problem though, and that is that being boring is slower than JFDIing – your innovators might get fed up and leave, and your organisation might be perceived as doing nothing, when in fact it’s just moving rather slowly.

My take is this: it isn’t an either/or choice – do both. Just get on with it, choosing some small projects to prototype and feed the findings from that activity into the longer term process and system building approach. Keep the innovators happy by giving them some space to experiment, whilst building the foundations that will help the rest of the organisation understand and feel comfortable with.

Don’t let strategy and process get in the way of doing good stuff. At the same time, don’t JFDI and find yourself exposed.

Being up to date

James Gardner has a good post on staying up to date. His point is that if you don’t bother to follow the latest developments – which might mean doing so in your own, not work, time – then you’re going to be left behind:

2010 is going to be a performance – not an experience – competition. That’s why I said the other day that I think people who are connected are going to get all the rewards this year. It’s going to be about making things happen, and that means you need an in-between.

‘In-between’ is James’ term for the time spent doing kind-of worky stuff at home. That might be reading work related books, or blogs for example. It could be tinkering with stuff – or it could even be just thinking.

This resonates with me. When I had a proper job in local government, I’d do my job, then get home and spend at least a couple of hours a night reading, scanning the web for new, interesting stuff and blogging about it. I’d play with technology, trying things out – most of which didn’t work, but some things did.

When talking about using the web as a tool to improve government, a response is often that people don’t have time to engage with all the content that is online. I usually make up something conciliatory as a response, that perhaps if something is useful, then you find time – or that you replace less productive activity with the new ways of working.

But the brutal truth is that if you don’t find the time in your schedule, which may or may not be when you are at home, or perhaps on the train, or whenever, then there is a chance you’ll be left behind. Someone will be doing it, and they will know stuff you don’t.

This could well end up being a problem for you.

A Catalyst for social innovation?

The UK Catalyst Awards are BERR and NESTA sponsored initiative which aims to:

recognise everyday heroes who use technology to make a positive impact on the world around them. What’s more, you could get support to take your idea further and help more people.

Sounds like a good deal to me! They are being organised by Dan McQuillan, an all-round online social change good egg. David Wilcox attended the launch at the beginning of May, and caught up with Phil Hope MP – who is Minister for the Third Sector – as well as Dan, and in his inimitable social reporter style, managed to shoot some video:


You can still put forward your projects for the awards – and I believe they don’t have to be underway at this stage – good ideas might be enough. It’s a chance to try and drum up some support, get connected with other interested folk and maybe snaffle a bit of funding. And why not?

In other news, Channel 4 have revealed that there will be some funding via their 4IP fund at the 2gether festival in July 2008. It will be interesting to see how these two initiatives work together.

More on 2gether to come, by the way.