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Business Creativity & Innovation

Innovation In The Public Sector

This article is based on thoughts and observations rather than research, and is meant to stimulate some thinking on the topic. There will be some generalisations and hence some exceptions can be found also. In this context I define the Public Sector as everything that is not Private thus education and Not For Profit are included also. Innovation is taken to be some sort of system where processes and behaviours are changed to create value and improve output rather than the shiny new gadget that has just come from a high technology start up company.

The big question is ‘Does the public sector innovate?’ and the straight forward answer is no it does not because it cannot. I know of examples of medical innovations within the National Health Service which are exceptions to the rule but the system as a whole does not innovate.

One argument that I often encounter when challenging people on this issue is that their work is governed by rules laid down by government, both local and national. If you provide a service then those rules normally prescribe what happens or must happen at the point of service delivery not what goes on within the body providing the service. So the world is your Oyster as far as Innovation is concerned.

So what prevents Innovation? First of all there are hundreds upon hundreds of self imposed rules or boundaries (see my article on Innovation By Breaking Rules) which are justified by statements such as ‘That is the way we have always done things’. Why is that? What can be changed, rearranged or replaced to improve the quality of what is being delivered? How many people challenge the boundaries?

Targets are a huge issue. I encourage readers to read ‘Freedom From Command And Control’ and ‘Systems Thinking In The Public Sector’ by John Seddon who has a lot to say on this matter. Badly formed targets only encourage behaviour that is designed to meet targets, not to improve service delivery or create value. Many organisations (including private sector) have experienced the touch of Business Process Reengineering (BPR) gurus who have stripped down and rebuilt public sector systems that work poorly. John Seddon talks of ‘value demand’ (demand on a public service) and ‘failure demand’ (demand by way of failure such as complaints or having fragmented information). Our streamlined front/back office systems are candidates for large amounts of ‘failure demand’ and hence wasted energy (but they do meet their targets!!).

Another complex issue revolves around Human Resources and the Unions. I shall not blame either party but simply illustrate a situation that needs resolving. In much of the public sector, HR has been centralised as Employment Law has become more complex thus responsibility for some soft management issues has been withdrawn from the front line (and some managers may have welcomed this). HR has become more about Employment Law and not getting the best out of the workforce.

Even when an employer wishes to reorganise the workforce they come against the Union who are quiet rightfully there to protect the rights of workers. They often start their negotiations from the point of view of ‘change is bad’. Another factor that does not assist is the fact that public sector recruitment and working revolves around the job description and person specification which HR would dearly love to change and the employee and the Union would not (unless there is some compensation). Why is this so? Why can’t contracts of employment describe behaviours and responsibilities rather than actions and qualifications?

Currently in the UK, we are getting ready for significant cuts to spending in the public sector which should spur us on to trying something radical to maintain services to ratepayers and taxpayers. The current economic climate presents a possibly unique opportunity to sow the seeds of Innovation. The danger is that the public sector will be made weaker by simply chopping off bits and not reorganising the remnants or outsourcing to organisations that are still based on a front/back office system that has high failure demand. The justification is that this is what happens when public sector spending is cut.

The conclusion regarding the question ‘does the public sector innovate’ is still ‘no it does not because it cannot’ but also that ‘it does not because those in charge (politicians and civil servants) simply will not’. We can do something about it, if somebody will let us.

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2 thoughts on “Innovation In The Public Sector

  1. Yes Derek, I agree that there's not much genuine innovation in the public sector, and that the NHS—or, rather, the Department of Health—is a notable exception. (I was involved early on in the Expert Patients initiative, so have personal experience of this). There are a few other exceptions, such as the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (http://www.agma.gov.uk), which spawned the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. But these examples are rare. Here in Bristol, we're going to be electing a mayor, and if there's any justice, the independent candidate George Ferguson (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Ferguson_(architect)) will get the vote. An architect, brewer and bar owner, he's a high profile, well connected and highly respected local mover and shaker, and won't tolerate the kind of actions and non-actions you describe.
    I greatly appreciate the way you talk about innovation. You are now on my Twitter 'Hot List' and I'll be looking out for your posts.
    Warm wishes from Bristol (I see you're based in Cardiff—a vibrant city).
    Jack

    • Yes there are exceptions but generally the public sector needs a kick in the ‘right place’. The shame is that individually there are some clever and enlightened people who are in a straight jacket. Currently in Cardiff but moving soon to Sheffield 🙂

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