Can the Coalition Government deliver radical service innovation?

13 Jul


The Coalition Government wants public service innovation, but underestimate how far capabilities among staff have to change before these are feasible in mainstream provision and how far dramatic cuts will undermine the trust needed to implement them.  Ministers appear well aware of the shortcomings of existing services. It was heartening to hear  Ken Clarke, Minister for Justice demand more innovative, non-custodial solutions for minor offences. The recovery approach in mental health which is based on respect, hope and opportunity could be applied to ‘offender’ services and if implemented properly could lead to dramatic savings.  Creating a space for those on the margins to hope, to learn to change and gain personal confidence is what innovative personalized services  are about. The challenge for the coalition government to be able to nurture imaginative service innovations at a time of dramatic financial cutbacks:  this means recognizing that not all innovation is the same.  Some innovation is easy, for instance mobile phones ‘flew off the shelves’. Public service innovation is more difficult because it requires more than a desire for a new toy, rather a shift in attitudes and relationships. The big challenges of climate change, poverty, drugs and gangs are intractable problems where the solutions are not known:  the innovation is in the process of inquiry, connections and collaboration not in proclaiming well known solutions. Implementing innovative solutions to social, problems is hard, because it takes time, imaginative leadership and motivated staff- this means building capabilities in both private and public sectors as well as supporting social enterprise.


The reason why the ‘Sure Start’ programme had traction was because it emanated from the commitment of Sir Norman Glass, a senior civil servant in the treasury who knew that he had to secure three things to make it happen, ring-fenced finance, the involvement of local parents and local governance. The more local involvement there was in Sure Start partnerships the more diversity of local organization emerged- which was obvious to all those working in localities but of great concern in Whitehall. 

Previously policy-makers tended to view the diversity of local innovations as a problem: hopefully this is going to change under the Coalition government. Innovation, unlike improvement, does not respect existing boundaries and flows to where people welcome it; a requirement by government to adhere to neat, standard and system-wide processes is a barrier to innovation.  If public servants cannot adjust to local diversity, ‘Localism’ will not work.

Innovation in the public services is a process of engagement in design, delivery and in scrutiny. If cost-cutting does not attend to work processes and collaborative abilities in Whitehall as well as in the public services then if is likely that transformative action, which demands on buy-in from a wider range of players, especially service users and front-line staff will be undermined. Engaging the public is not the same as consultation, it is about more authentic and respectful relationships between individual members of the public and public servants. The welfare state was built on a deficit model, and service recipients became to be seen as victims or nuisances, and a cost not an asset. Reversing this attitude and thinking of communities and people as potential resources is the basis for more innovative service delivery and co-design. However, this is not a swift process and will not happen just because central government barriers loosens its control; leaders and staff will need to reflect on their practice and start to think in terms of,  respect, hope and possibility then they will have the confidence to create the space for people to participate and new relationships to develop.

Government cannot be reduced to nothing and has a role in creating the wider conditions for the revival of places, particularly, by more imaginative ways of creating alignment between the centre and localities, as a two way process.  Future, government departments will need to rebalance their talents away from micro-management towards local intelligence and an ability to collaborate.  Learning from the WIH would suggest that leaders in most organizations do not realize just how far transforming the public system is dependent on new capabilities, practices and procedures.  It might be ‘out of sync’ with the ‘localism’ agenda – but there is a need not just for small government but more adaptive, intelligent and responsive government. There will not just happen. 

Firstly, innovation needs to be talked about in terms of the problem to be solved – and explored with a wider range of people – then it is possible to set goals of where and why were want to change current practices.

Secondly, It is usually not policy differences that cause the blockages but a poor understanding of practice and of the need for transformative practice. Ideal states and models do not overnight become reality – they demand commitment, work and everyday negotiations. The barriers are not abstract they are real and concern people’s belief and attitudes as well as current working practices and disincentives.

Thirdly, much more time is needed for reflection and critical questioning about why the current systems or services do not work and how making changes can happen. The major stumbling block for innovation policy is not in the policy but in the practice.

Fourthly, Innovation demand systemic change and new public servant capabilities, it is no use setting up an agency to drive systemic transformation, when its staff report to those who have no interest in the wider system change agenda at all. The reason why so many new agencies, located inside government, fail, including the WIH.

Innovative solutions demand an approach public innovation that is transformative and systemic– this requires significant political and executive leadership.

We need to

  1. Find ways of talking to people about plans before they are formulated; engage them in solutions even though they may not want to be involved in delivery.
  2. Support those who are setting up alternatives – this is one role the small business service never got to grips with but wider locality LEPs could do.
  3. Engage people in scrutiny but in terms of frameworks rather than monitoring the detail of practice

4        Reduce complex delivery chains and reporting system to simply relationships and reporting mechanisms based on journey towards impact and adjust management systems accordingly.

5    Anchor innovation in policy challenges and explain how it can help them find solutions when they are free to reach and beyond their departments and connect to localities and innovators in all domains.

  1. Develop the policy and practice capabilities through live contextual problem solving inquiry and actions, base delivery in localities to engender emphatic as well as analytic skills.
  2. Reward collaborative activities in pay and promotion – stop rewarding an adherence to outdated processes.
  3. Reframe the role of commissioners and open-up procurement. Trust the people to be more appropriately involved in being part of the solution. Community energy is alive in Britain.
  4. Invest in local collective capacity as well as individual endeavour – Embrace a broader set of ideas around problem solving – and a broader set of actors. We need new solutions and many will come from the margins and from communities too small to be embraced by current approaches.

10.  Measure what matters. Integrate measurement with the vision and the goals: focus on positive indicators of capability and well-being, as opposed to so many current negative indicators that measure risk. Involvement people in the development of new measures

11.  Endorse those who create connectivity.

New leadership groupings, around the city regions are showing how coalition can work in practice:  they are leading systemic and service innovation. For them, the issue is how to create the architecture to support innovative public services, devolved decision making and much greater openness with local communities. What such bodies are now exploring is, not just scaling service innovation, but radically more engaging governance arrangements.

Local authorities have also been looking for efficiencies year on year.   By contrast, central government is a laggard.  OGC unofficially reports that central government departments have barely started to look for savings and there are a great many policy-makers who are currently frustrated by what they see as a generic and formulaic approach to innovation when they want to analyze where innovations is needed and adopt a more collaborative process to finding solutions.

We are at the beginning of a coalition government that appears to support radical service innovation but this more radical approach is limited by a less than innovative approach to the economic because of an enduring separation between the public and the private- in fact as most successful cities and countries demonstrate the role of the public realm in creating the conditions for people’s revival and innovation is huge and cannot be ignored.

Total government is needed as well as Total Place,

July 1st 2010


4 Responses to “Can the Coalition Government deliver radical service innovation?”

  1. Peter Miles July 14, 2010 at 4:55 pm #

    I wonder if you are familiar with Eileen Conn? Eileen is an ex civil-servant, now a community activist in Peckham. She has a compelling perspective on the ‘interface’ between government and community, which I think would complement the entry above.

    • sumaddock July 29, 2010 at 4:56 pm #

      Hi Peter

      No I don’t know her – do you have a contact no for her?

      • Eileen Conn October 22, 2011 at 11:59 pm #

        Hi Su – you can find my perspective here now:

        I agree with Peter – it fits with your perspective. I’d love to hear what you think of it.


      • sumaddock October 29, 2011 at 10:31 pm #

        Thanks Eileen – will read Packham post when I can get it bigger on the page – Su

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