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Innovation in the UK

All posts tagged: local authority

Learning from the journey

5 September, 2012 Posted by: -

Nesta, together with the Local Government Association, is supporting innovators in local government across England and Wales through its Creative Councils programme. In the seveth blog of the Creative Councils series, Sarah Gillinson, partner at the Innovation Unit discusses the importance of the journey that the councils have been on during the programme


Most of the really interesting innovation in local government has very similar characteristics. Within Creative Councils, the same themes appear over and over again – different, better, lower cost approaches all seek to change radically the relationship between a local authority and the users of its services. Like Monmouthshire’s Your County, Your Way programme. They seek to change the balance of power – handing back more responsibility and more resource to communities, making the most of their insights, strengths and motivation. Like Derbyshire’s £50k bond given to children in care to invest in their futures. They act as a broker, uncovering and harnessing local assets – from businesses, to landscapes, identity and well-networked individuals. Like Stoke’s plan to become an energy self-sufficient city. In short, local authorities are finding different ways to become really great facilitators of change and growth in their areas – without having to make it happen all by themselves.

So in one sense, the ideas are not the major revelations in local government innovation. We could write – and many people have written – a clear and relatively detailed statement about what local government could look like if these ideas took hold. But we know this wouldn’t make much difference. Telling people the answer just doesn’t work.

It is the journey to these ideas that is the really transformative bit. How the ideas reveal themselves to local authority staff and communities in ways that feel real to them. It is this process that makes them feel worthwhile pursuing, despite the many barriers (identified by my colleague David Jackson in a previous post).

In Derbyshire, a new approach to foster care is no longer just a great idea. By undertaking deep research with users into what their lives – and prospects – are really like at the moment, the need for change has been revealed in a way that can’t be taken back. These ideas are now driven by a deep belief that being a better corporate parent, and empowering young people to direct their own lives, is a glaring necessity. Coming to an answer in this way gives it urgency – and mobilises staff and users to make it happen – in a way that being told about a great idea never could.

Reading have had a similar experience, through the Transforming Early Years programme and through their Creative Councils work. By reconnecting with families and their lives they have a new perspective on the challenges they face – which enables them to get to better answers that cannot be ignored. They also have a new relationship with those families as partners – rather than recipients. Staff and families have become a coalition for change. New ideas become possible and natural – and have the resources to make them happen when everyone is working together.

Through the Creative Councils programme, all of these authorities hold each other to account for this authenticity of commitment. ‘What do your communities think about that?’ ‘Is that really innovative?’ They are not just sharing ideas but sharing conviction.

So local government innovation is certainly about new ways of doing things – and brilliant ideas. But it is about something before that too. It is about an openness to reconnect with communities and what is of value to them. It is this process that reveals ideas in a way that is meaningful to all involved – and generates a personal commitment and energy to make them happen


There’s nothing elusive about innovation

4 September, 2012 Posted by: -

Nesta, together with the Local Government Association, is supporting innovators in local government across England and Wales through its Creative Councils programme. In the third blog of the Creative Councils series, Andrea Siodmok, chief designer, Cornwall Council encourages people to get out of the comfort zone and find room to think.

There’s nothing elusive about innovation – it’s simply making good ideas happen.

In Cornwall we are focusing our collective efforts on doing things better – so what’s new?  
We are asking ourselves one simple overarching question to drive this ambition: ‘How can we increase our effectiveness ten-fold with no extra budget’.  This is our ‘burning platform’ the impossible question (also called a wicked problem) that will propel us out of our comfort zone into new uncharted territory. 

Innovation by definition means doing things differently; if you turn things on their head you usually get a new perspective. Take the ‘graph of doom’ as a prime example.  If we focus our energies on fiscal capital we can be forgiven for forgetting about the abundance of social capital; what we are optimistically calling the silent ‘graph of boom’.  We believe to improve services we will need to harness our collective creativity by radically re-drawing the boundaries between citizens and the state and we are investing in new ideas that will encourage this to happen. 

Our experience at Cornwall Council over the last few years as we have seriously engaged with innovation (initially with the Design Council and then through Creative Councils) has made us think in new ways to energise our teams in light of the future challenges we face.  We have put down a few reflections here as a common sense guide on what we have found works so far, and also what doesn’t.

Keep it simple and do it now

You can’t learn about innovation from a book (or a blog) you have got to get practical, just do it, and there is no better time than now. We have tried to de-mystify innovation and creativity and find straight talking ways of sharing good ideas.  We call it ‘Thinking Room’ – creating space and time to think, opening up new possibilities before jumping into radical new solutions.  We have taken our inspiration from the public and private sector and have found that creative leadership is critical.  Our Chief Executive and management teams see the benefits, which in turn creates the trust and permission to take measured risks.

Turn conventional wisdom on its head

Whilst counter-intuitive, the truth is that financial investment does not necessarily lead to more or better innovation, in fact a lack of investment may be a significantly greater driver of transformational innovation – the old adage ‘scarcity breeds ingenuity’ comes to mind.  If this is true then why aren’t we inundated with great ideas right now?  The truth is we probably are, we just lack the skills and organisational capacity to ‘channel’ them in most organisations. It is really easy to generate ideas, it is much harder making them happen unless the organisation’s culture supports the change as part of its everyday business. 

Don’t set up an innovation unit

Whilst it can be a lonely pursuit being an innovator, resist temptation to put them all together (assuming you think you know who they are) as it more often marginalises innovators at the fringe. If possible seek to spread and inculcate a culture of innovation across organisational boundaries.  Logic says we should ‘kettle’ good ideas - bringing all the innovators in one place and hot housing them to enhance their potency, building a ‘safe’ place where people can go to develop new ideas. There is lots of precedent for this approach, but we have resisted this. In the old days, innovations could be trickle-fed into the organisation from the side, today our task is more urgent, we need innovation throughout the organisation and totally mainstream – an ‘innovation is the only option’ approach. 

Innovation isn’t magic - it requires a blend of common sense, honesty and passion

For us, innovation is not a mystical art practiced by a few enlightened ‘change makers’.  We often mistakenly focus our attention and obsess about the innovators or the innovations themselves, not necessarily noticing the culture that supports them and makes it more likely to happen again.  When things work out we herald them, giving out prizes and praising those responsible… and when, as is also the case they fail, we retract our support.   We think that good ideas can come from anyone, and the good news is that research shows so called Gen Y-ers are joining local government with a natural disposition to be creative thinkers, willing to be bold and take responsibility for making change happen. 

Broaden your horizons, seek diverse viewpoints and build alliances

We live in a networked age. Networks support like-mindedness and encourage experimentation regardless of boundaries, whereas conformity comes from a lack of diversity.  We think that innovation works best when it is devolved and shared, when it is open to scrutiny yet not stifled by bureaucracy.  This means bringing together unusual suspects, getting closer to the real beneficiaries of services (terribly named ‘end-users’) – all in all being better at understanding problems.  We have needed to create the space and time for this to happen; through Thinking Room and Shaped by Us we are creating platforms for innovation that are open to all and that enable us to build alliances and broaden our horizons so that ultimately we can make Cornwall one of the best places in the world to live, work and play. 

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Your county your way

9 August, 2012 Posted by: -

Nesta, together with the Local Government Association, is supporting innovators in local government across England and Wales through its Creative Councils programme. In the second blog of our series on our Creative Councils programme, David O’Leary from Monmouthshire County Council discusses how the ability to ‘fail fast fail forward’ has been the best route to innovative new ideas. 

I became involved in the Creative Councils programme, run by Nesta and the LGA, one busy afternoon, when asked if I wanted to help with a video that was being put together as a submission to a competition. I went to a room that would become a ‘lab’ and tried to help.  Did I? No, not much but trying has opened a new world.

This was my introduction into something different. A more radical and aware organisation than I had realised I was part of. Local government and society are on ever diverging paths and basically we have to find a way to get them running parallel. There was already an answer; we just had to change the culture…

In Monmouthshire we are in the midst of what is entitled ‘Your County Your Way’ - less of a programme of work and more a mind-set.  It is implemented via five key interventions. These are the seeds from which we hope our new culture will grow. They did not come in one grand eureka moment, they arose through reflecting on our work with Nesta, what we were doing already, what we needed to achieve in the future, and identifying what the key ingredients were:

  • Establishing effective listening tools such as ‘open space technology’ that allow us to take part in more meaningful community-led engagement
  • An agile and networked organisation that sees the right people working on the right things at the right time, taking down walls, real and metaphorical,  to create a fully agile working environment
  • Promoting the spread of systems thinking and doing because our experience tells us operating in silos doesn’t deliver and things work best when we understand whole systems
  • An Intrapreneurship School that provides mixed cohorts of officers with the innovation tools, techniques and training to engage in developing the creative solutions needed to transform key areas of our business
  • Encouraging our people to ‘go find, come play’and seek out global best practice in order to develop next practice through developing new networks and working more collaboratively

You can take a look in detail at ‘Your County Your Way’.

One way we are introducing the interventions to the workforce is via our Intrapreneurship School.  I was part of thefirst cohort. It was a testing time, during and after the course. Intrapreneurship opened me up to not thinking like a local government worker. Not to be bound by what has been before, but to innovate. This creates freedom and just as quickly removes your safety net. We were told we have permission, to Fail Fast, Fail Forward, to iterate, to make mistakes – “the best way to have a good idea? Have lots of them”. When it feels like you are breaking new ground there’s elation and a real sense of being able to make things happen. Often followed, just as powerfully, by feeling you don’t know what you are doing, you are out of your depth.  Going back into the workforce maintaining the energy, passing the baton, answering challenge and opposition has been hard and rewarding work. We have gone about some things in the wrong way, but we Fail Fast and Fail Forward. We are always learning and despite the difficulties, more often than not enjoying it, and actually having fun.

One thing that has become very clear, innovation needs to be a constant in our organisation if we are to achieve the culture we need; there will be more highs and lows and a lot more work to do, it’s a long journey ahead and I wouldn’t want to be working anywhere else.

David O’ Leary, project support officer, Monmouthshire County Council

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Graft and craft – how innovation happens

3 August, 2012 Posted by: -

Nesta, together with the Local Government Association, is supporting innovators in local government across England and Wales through its Creative Councils programme. Nesta’s Philip Colligan introduces the first of a blog series exploring how local authorities can develop and implement radical innovations.


What we’re learning from our work with seventeen Creative Councils

One of the many brilliant things about Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony was the way it showcased Great Britain’s history of creating innovations that literally changed the world. 

From Abraham Darby’s smelter, which catalysed the industrial revolution; to the world’s first organised system for delivering healthcare to a whole population, which created a new paradigm for universal public services; and the World Wide Web, the platform on which a new hyper-connected future is being built.  We have a lot to be proud of.

We know that innovation generates enormous value.  Economists agree on little, but even amongst that notoriously argumentative group there seems to be consensus that the vast majority of economic growth comes from the creation and adoption of new ideas. The same is true of public services and civil society – progress comes from innovation.

And yet, so much of what is written and said about innovation fails to explain how it happens.  Often it’s described as an almost magical process. 

Countless innovation experts are paid to tell compelling stories of historic breakthroughs, but they don’t provide an account of how they came about.  Innovation is rarely simple or predictable. It involves false starts and failures; setbacks as well as triumphs.

Some people and organisations have learned how to manage innovation well, and to increase their ability to generate ideas and then to turn them into value, whether economic or social.  What from a distance looks like a radical leap, close up, nearly always turns out to have been made up of much more incremental steps.

Although innovation does involve moments of sudden insight and creative breakthroughs, much of it is about getting lots of smaller things right.

It’s become one of our obsessions at Nesta – generating useful, practical insights and tools that can help organisations and entrepreneurs bring great ideas to life. 

That’s been at the heart of Creative Councils, a new type of innovation programme which has been supporting seventeen local authorities as they try to generate radical new solutions to the huge challenges facing their local communities.

Together with these pioneers and our partners at the Local Government Association, we’ve been applying our knowledge about effective innovation management, focusing on the hard “graft and craft” that underpins any major breakthrough.

We’ve tested how specific tools from the field of design can be used to get better ideas, including what is probably the world’s biggest experiment with ethnography in public services.  We’ve used techniques to balance the need for creative, expansive phases, when ideas multiply, and phases where ideas are crystallised, simplified and honed down.  We’ve harnessed the power of peer support and challenge, external stimulus, coaching and feedback to iterate and improve ideas, but more importantly to help innovation teams with the incredibly tough job of taking their organisations with them.

Already we’ve generated a huge amount of learning and we know there is more to come.  In the autumn 2012, we’ll be publishing the world’s first curriculum for innovation skills, which will draw on the experiences of the Creative Councils alongside those of many other innovators from different fields. 

In the meantime, we’re publishing a series of blogs with the LGC and over the next few weeks you’ll get some insights into the “graft and craft” from the people who are leading innovation at the front line of public services. 

As ever, we’d welcome your views. 

Philip Colligan, Executive Director, The Public Services Lab



A tour de force for co-production

3 May, 2011 Posted by: -

If the concept of co-production was once restricted to the margins, it’s certainly beginning to make its way into the mainstream. Over the last six weeks, the Co-Production Roadshow visited five cities across the UK and welcomed over 500 delegates – from leaders of local authorities to frontline workers – united by their interest in co-production and eager to learn how to put it into practice.

The response we received, the challenging discussions that took place and the inspiring examples of co-production in practice that were shared are exciting signs that that idea that of co-production is gaining momentum. 

At its heart, co-production is the belief that involving users in the design and delivery of their services will lead to more effective and cheaper public services. It’s about a shift of power and radically rethinking the roles of professionals and communities. It asserts that simply delivering services to citizens neglects the skills, capabilities and time of the people receiving the services, and is ultimately a fundamentally inefficient way of addressing social needs. 

Jointly hosted with the Co-Production Practioners Network, new economics foundation and a range of partners across the country, the roadshows were an opportunity to explore how the concept of co-production could be translated into practice across the country and brought closer to mainstream public service commissioning and delivery. The workshops in Cardiff, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Manchester and London were opportunities to showcase examples of co-produced services and provide a space for practitioners and decision makers to talk about how to deliver better, cheaper public services that involve people in improving their lives and their communities.

What we found was heartening. People across the country are motivated by co-production and are hungry for help and advice to put it into practice. They were inspired by the examples of co-produced services that were present. In Edinburgh, we heard from Sam Hopley who spoke about the role of timebanks as vehicles for co-production bringing examples from his experience as CEO of Timebanking UK and from his work at Camden’s Holy Cross Centre Trust. In Cardiff we were inspired by the work of Sandra Jones who shared her experience of developing Denbighshire Nightrider - a volunteer operated service which uses spare capacity in the Council’s bus fleet in the evening to provide low cost transport to elderly residents enabling them to lead more active and connected lives. And In Manchester the work of the RSA project who co-produced an area based curriculum in Peterborough inspired many to see how an idea can be translated into reality.

From all of the roadshows it was absolutely clear that there is a growing appetite for co-production - more and more people want to talk about how it can help them to find better solutions. Several themes emerged which we can use to help drive co-production even further into the mainstream: 

• The importance of evidencing the impact of co-production on public services and building a business case around it to start dismantling unhelpful service silos
• The importance of investing in people’s and communities’ capacity to get involved in co-producing public services
• The need for trust, leadership and certain soft skills as pre-conditions for making co-production happen
• The role of politicians to as catalysts for co-production
• The fact that risk aversion and bureaucracy are the greatest enemies of co-production and that we need to change systems - from commissioning to performance management - to make space for co-production in public services
• The consciousness that we are all changing the system from within, and a strong sense of shared responsibility for driving the change that we want to see, especially at this time of public sector reform

Through the Co-production Roadshows, we’ve seen for ourselves that a movement is building around co-production. If we work together to get co-production right, we can look forward to better public services, where users, their families and communities are as responsible as the professionals who deliver the services to them.

Francesca Cignola is from NESTA’s Public Service’s Lab. To read more about NESTA’s work on co-production, visit

Going local

24 March, 2011 Posted by: -

Is data dull? The answer to this question is a resounding NO! In August 2010 NESTA launched a programme called Make it Local. The aim of the programme is to help show local authorities how to make the most of opening their data and working with digital developers to provide useful web-based services for their communities. 

I’m definitely not a data expert, however I’ve been truly inspired by the people and the organisations involved in this programme and the services they are creating. Through working on the programme I’ve also been inspired by the enormous amount of cool stuff that’s out there, using open data. As individuals we can now find out how our taxes are spent via Where does my money go, gain a bird’s eye view of London’s underground system with transport maps and even make more informed decisions about the restaurants we want to eat in with Scores on the Doors.

I find it captivating that there are people out there willing to create more of these services because they believe in transparent politics, a fairer society or simply because they want to create something fun. But should it stop there?  Why should it just be one developer and a laptop working autonomously for the greater good? Isn’t the role of a local authority to run efficient services that benefit their community and enhance a person’s wellbeing?

Each of the projects involved in the Make it Local programme have created something new and exciting; partnerships have grown between councils and developers; and individuals within the communities are engaged and empowered by the new services being created. You can read more about each of the projects on our Make it Local blog.

I believe we might be on the cusp of data revolution. It’s great to see lots of councils publishing their data online and inviting developers to work their magic. But why not go a step further and build strategic partnerships with developers, digital agencies and the community. Creating something meaningful, helping to drive a thriving local economy and creating services which enhance our lives; surely that’s the end game?

You may or may not agree with everything I’ve said here; you may have some ideas on what should happen next or some thoughts about data in general so I’d like to give you an opportunity to come along to an event we’re holding here at NESTA, the Make it Local showcase. You’ll hear more about each of the projects involved in the programme, have an opportunity to debate some of the issues, challenge your thinking and hopefully be inspired by the possibilities ahead. Join us on 14 April and have your say in what you believe should happen next.

By Deborah Fox, Creative Economy Programme Manager, NESTA

Nesta is the UK’s innovation foundation. We help people and organisations bring great ideas to life by providing investments, grants and mobilising research, networks and skills. We are an independent charity and our work is enabled by an endowment from the National Lottery.

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