There has been a big response to Dave Briggs’s blogpost, Is there a need for a local government skunkworks?, some of which Dave summarises here. Dave’s point goes beyond the traditional technology-prototyping skunkworks, familiar from companies like Lockheed Martin, and I think he is really asking “do we need to have a machine/structure that will create and implement innovation in local government?”.
The answer is yes, both for local and national government, and I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk about some thinking I’ve been doing with Ruth Kennedy of ThePublicOffice, and John Barradell, Chief Executive at Brighton & Hove City Council.
Let’s start by stepping back. There are great opportunities now for participative, innovative public service initiatives that use technology and systems thinking in new ways. There are some good examples of work that is making a difference, such as Safeguarding 2.0. However, although I’ve been involved in innumerable conversations about networks and social innovation and skunkworks and app stores, the impact of this thinking on mainstream services is still narrow, and dependent on the energy of a few high-impact people like Dominic and the FutureGov team. Innovation has nowhere near the scale or sustainability needed to make a meaningful difference.
Ruth, John and I think there’s a reason why the wheels are spinning. There is a three-way divide between existing public service providers, who understand the context and constraints on change, the public themselves, who give legitimacy and are best able to articulate their needs and aspirations, and innovators both inside and outside traditional public service organisations.
The separation between these three elements is reducing rather than increasing the scope for innovation. Barcamp events produce good ideas, but are not networked into existing power arrangements. Public services are trying to innovate within existing structures, but cannot access the local enthusiasm and expertise which could keep programmes running and maintain innovation after outside agents have moved on to other things. Existing structures, cultures and processes within public services hinder innovation, not by building brick walls, but through a thousand little difficulties and inconveniences. As spending cuts take hold, there is a risk that innovation and energy will dissipate.
Building a network of open and participative spaces – outside the wall of government, but with their active involvement and participation – can connect these different elements and allow better, more focused conversations, massively increasing the opportunities for participation, innovation and local co-production. These spaces should:
- Connect innovators (and frustrated innovators) from the local area with public services interested in change and able to provide funding, context and access
- Allow the public to articulate their needs and aspirations in a discursive rather than simplistic discussion format,
- Build a shared public to provide deeper democratic legitimacy to innovation, service change and co-production
- Give the public access to the context and information held by services, enabling people to explore, develop and challenge local public services in new ways
- Provide a forum in which existing services can truly open up, going beyond consultation and bare data into rich conversations with local people.
This is more than a traditional skunkworks, not just because it looks beyond technology, but because it has an explicit involvement for the public as citizens as well as service users and innovators.
It needs to be run in such a way that the innovators are not just twenty somethings with MacBooks (declaration: I am 37 and own a MacBook). Really the term we should use is “problem solvers”, because the solution to problems doesn’t always come from people who see themselves as innovators, much less professional creative thinkers.
The window for creating such connectivity is small – spending cuts are already starting to affect service decisions, and without early joining up, there will be uncoordinated action, lopping off services rather than preserving them for redevelopment. Councils and public services are under pressure to balance the books by cutting services now, without strong public engagement or new models of service provision in place. That means oppositional conversations between the state and the public, on the “decide-defend-appease” model, and the deepening of already-deep public disillusionment with the political process.
How would we do it?
The creation of an innovative civic space needs all three local elements – public, innovators, and public services to work together. It needs to bring in the private and third sectors, community groups, hyperlocal media and others as connectors and enablers for the conversations and the outcomes.
Most of all, it needs people who are attracted by the initial excitement to get involved, and to have continuing reason to stay involved. This means that the space needs an ongoing rhythm of activity that participants can easily understand, and which is presented in such a way that people who are time-poor can quickly grasp the highlights of what is happening.
The “ground” for the space has to be the democratic conversation, since that provides an audience for ideas, establishes need and aspiration, and gives a continuing reason for the engagement of local public services.
The space then needs to create and nurture shared vision and intent, and identify innovation and co-production opportunities. This means drawing out and networking “positive deviants” within existing services, and linking them with innovative thinkers in the locality and from elsewhere.
The space needs to provide connections, context and means of implementation. These are likely to focus around events, co-design sessions with public services, opening up seed resources or research, and links with innovators and ideas beyond the local area. Throughout this, the democratic conversation takes and informs citizens’ views, and engages them in the design and delivery of improved services.
The democratic element
On cost and access grounds, the democratic space should be primarily online, but it must include and supplement existing content and discussions both online and offline. It cannot be a “portal” or single site to which people are expected to (and will not) come. This means that the technology solutions that are needed are not the simple bulletin board or WordPress installation, but instead a mix of solutions providing a lens on existing conversations elsewhere, with the ability to view them in a single place, and also to make further contributions. The online element also needs to be accompanied by an active offline element, including local meet ups, reach out to underrepresented groups and community building.
The democratic discussion needs to have a rhythm of engagement, and a reason for participants (even the time-poor) to return fairly regularly. This could come from a monthly vote or discussion topic, preceded by information giving by local public services or campaigners. The topic for the vote could arise from the group, or come from the space’s innovation or service change work, or be related to a strategy area such as transport where the local authority needs citizen views.
The problem solving element
Democratic involvement is wide-scale. By contrast, success on the problem solving side is smaller-scale, and consists of identifying and networking problem solvers around a place or issue, bringing in outsiders to give external experience and creating an open community of people with ideas. The network must be open, if it is to attract the fullest range of ideas. It must be rooted in the context of the issue or place, to ensure that solutions work in practice, as opposed to on Powerpoint slides or in some other context.
The networking of problem solvers needs to be face-to-face, perhaps through meet ups interspersed with larger-scale events along the lines of City Camps, but with closer public sector involvement, and the ability to prototype and trial potential solutions in real services. Perhaps the best pattern is to have regular Place/Issue Camps, with the winning idea or two given resource and time to prototype and run a live example in the relevant public service, and then reporting back a few months later on success.
The public service element
We have to remember, first, that the number of public service organisations that are really ready to receive the results of any skunkworks/innovation is very small. Most are, understandably, focusing on getting the job done at a difficult time and handling downsizing. They understand that “more of the same” isn’t possible. Some – but not many – understand that “less of the same” won’t work either. Innovation and new ways of working won’t take root sustainably or at scale without active involvement of public services and their leaders, but that involvement needs some profound culture changes to be pushed throughout the organisations.
This culture change starts by building (in a safe space) a better collective cross-organisational understanding of what is not working in the current system, particularly from the perspective of service users. Then services need to co-create a different, shared sense of what should count as success.
The safe spaces for these new conversations don’t arise by accident, we have to create them deliberately. The new vision will mean new skills and capabilities being prioritised from front line to Chief Executive/Permanent Secretary. We also have to ensure there is the energy to escape the gravitational pull back to old ways of working (in some places, several rounds of change have been needed). In general, we need to build an organisation which has high trust and a desire to do things in the right way, rather than an organisation with a well-written strategic plan that is ignored or worked around.
Ruth, John and I have put together some slides to try and show some of those concepts and approaches visually. You should be able to see them below, but you might need to go fullscreen to see some of the smaller type. You can also see them directly at Slideshare, or download them (PDF).