Creating democratic, scalable innovation

The Skunk Works logo as seen on one of Lockhee...
Skunkworks image on a Lockheed Martin hangar. Image via Wikipedia

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).

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Published by Anthony Zacharzewski

Anthony Zacharzewski was one of the founders of Demsoc in 2006. Before starting work for Demsoc in 2010, he was a Whitehall civil servant and a local government officer.

10 replies on “Creating democratic, scalable innovation”

  1. Great post and a good reflection on the barriers to public sector innovation, particularly the ownership issues. This agenda also raises issues about the increasing need for an educated democracy which in turn highlights the issues of inclusion. while I don’t particularly like the term the notion of pro-poor innovation is a current one and the sentiment contained therein is relevant in this context. There is a real danger that developments in local democracy that involve local government can exclude those who are the biggest recipients of their services.

  2. Sounds insprirng but then i look at my local authority and health trust … Would love to see it happen.

  3. Great post! I completely agree that context is key and networking these groups essential to truly innovate in public service. It reminds me of the soft systems method in a different context!

    My question is where do you see the role of councillors in this model and who do you think should be providing leadership to make this happen? Also how do you network different areas effectively so they can learn from each other?

  4. Great post – and having spent the last 6 years developing Patient Opinion as a platform that does at least some of this we would certainly confirm the need, opportunity and difficulties. Our experience we also lead us to emphasise a few points:
    – all this takes time, lots of it. You have to work out what the incentives to use this kind of platform are for at least the two key groups (citizen/patient and NHS staff in our case) on either side of the citizen/service interface.
    – then you have to work out a long term business model that pays the mortgage in ways that dont destroy these incentives (- for example the only viable advertisers for Patient Opinion would be malpractice lawyers, liposuction outfits and medical tourism – all of which destroy the social value of the site).
    – and on top of all this you have to keep going long enough to build profile, volume, and customers whilst inter-weaving with a complex and ever-changing NHS and policy context.
    So not surprisingly it helps to have status and legitimacy within the system – no accident that many of these sites (I Want Great Care, Patients Like Me, Patient Opinion) were started by doctors and not twenty-somethings with macbooks.

  5. I applaud the sentiment, but I fear we are focusing too much on “innovation”. In many ways, this is not innnovation but is advanced problem solving. In other ways, it is good community engagemetn or service user engagment when designing and developing services. I also fear that it is asking to develop civic spaces and expecting the public to come to those public spaces when they, the public, are not habituated to using them. In effect, this is demonstrating the reality distorting field that it refers to in that the public, except those who are already engaged in such approaches, are not going to engage with this type of project.

    To be sure the public want to be involved, in deed they are involved every day they go out of their residence, with service development and delivery. What they need are ways for them to do it on their own terms. In some cases, this gets back to a basic face to face meeting or simply a survey posted through a letterbox. The danger is that we may drift back to a concept of political engagement deficit whereby people do not participate in service development because they do not believe they can participate in political development.

    Often times people come to these types of meetings wanting to get the flytipping removed from the end of the road and the whole discussion remains abstract about enagement and the need to develop civic spaces where collective efficacy is demonstrated. For these programmes to work, the public need to see that their concrete day to day issue is solved. For example, fix my allows the public to upload the picture to the Council’s website and then add comments if the problem is solved or not. In that, the public can participate and be active. Once that is developed, in a community, there can be room to develop more. However, the same people using that service are not the same people who need or want the other services that the Council offers.

    On a related note, the challenge within local government is not simply about innovators versus problem solvers. There is a generational issue that while related to age is more about power and position within an organisation. In successful organisations those who can make the changes are closely related to those who are imagining the changes. In a traditional organisation they are usually kept separate. For example, the use of social media is already understood by younger staff (not just young physically but young to the company or the process), who are (willing to learn and little power little wisdom) in the organisation. At the other end, the oldest generation is not interested because they came to power and succeeded without what the new developments are offering. In between them are the generation who are trying to deliver the aims of the older generation (wisdom and power but not as much incentiv to learn) while aware that the new changes (social media) are shaping or overtaking the ways they work. They are (usually wiling to learn, some wisdom and some powers). The matrix for successful organisations looks like this.
    All old leadership (too much wisdom, no learning)
    All young leadership (too much leanring, not enough wisdom)
    Young old mix (older leadership younger problem solvers) good.
    Old young mis (young leadership, learning supported by wisdom) good.

    As a result, the challenging is having leadership where they are not from the same cohort or if they are then they are linked into the younger problem solvers. My concern is that public sector service delivery is not designed to encourage this type of working and it is more noticeable by its exception.

    I may be overly pessimistic for public service delivery but the wider political context for any innovation, as part of a wider change management programme, needs to be considered. Any innovation leads to changes within a service and how a service deals with change is goign to be indicative (but not determinative) of how they deal with innovation.

    I fear that

  6. Great post and as one who worked on E-gov for DCLG including social services and regeneration for a number of years agree with many things said. Michele has a good point. Where does the local politician fit into the picture? I also feel that the private sector need to have a greater role. After all many public sector employees will be gamekeepers turned poachers who will be working for those companies tendering for work.

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