Posted by:4 September, 2012
Nesta, together with the Local Government Association, is supporting innovators in local government across England and Wales through its Creative Councils programme. In the fourth blog of the Creative Councils series, David Jackson, partner, the Innovation Unit discusses six common reasons why councils may find it tough to innovate.
Failure from the jaws of success
Over the last few years, Innovation Unit has worked with a number of Local Authorities committed to radical innovation strategies. Most recently we have supported Nesta’s Creative Councils programme – 17 councils each eager to pursue innovation as a key component of its strategy to transform models of service delivery, the culture of the authority and, usually, the relationship with users.
So here’s a general scenario:
- There is an evident need and a mandate – better, different and cheaper services – and a strong desire to use innovation strategies radically to reconceptualise models of service provision
- Usually the focus is within one service area – such as adult social care provision; models of schooling; provision for children in care; early years provision – or a very distinct cross-service strategy – such as support for social entrepreneurship; or urban regeneration strategies
- It typically involves also the incorporation of new partnerships, optimization of technological supports, utilization of external expertise to support process elements and extra funding designed to incubate innovation
- It almost always includes also new levels of engagement and co-creation with users and often the mobilization of volunteers and community capital.
These together form a set of powerful change levers, so why the problem?
Some great work has undoubtedly occurred. However, the dominant impression gained is just how hard it is for councils to move beyond the initial idea or even the prototype innovation to anything of sufficient scale to reinvent a service or to impact across the council. There are currently so few narratives of success, even in situations where the need is universally evident and the conditions for innovation so optimal, that one has to ask why.
This blog entry suggests six common reasons why this might be.
1. The challenges of leadership
There are lots of issues here, but three common fault-lines will do for starters:
I. In most of the councils we have worked with, significant leaders have changed during the course of a programme’s critical path – the key leader; the person to whom they report, the DCS… Leadership volatility is a major challenge.
II. Most of the leaders responsible for radical innovation are expected to retain their full day-to-day responsibilities. However well-meaning, this relegates innovation to a second order priority
III. Where dedicated leadership is created, it is often ‘recruited’ for the ‘project’. By definition, this marginalises the work.
2. Equivocal senior level advocacy and enablement
Usually innovation programmes are able to rely on an initial statement of support – especially when there is external funding tied to a proposal. However, sustained engagement, advocacy and enablement are much rarer commodities. This is true of service professionals and it is even more the case for elected members, whose support can be quixotic. A close friend (a policy advisor) said to me recently: “You have to remember that a 100% failure-rate in an existing service is less threatening to a politician than a 50% failure-rate in a change for which they have advocated.”
3. Poor lateral connectivity
Most innovation work, even within a specific service area, requires changes to a number of different council functions. At its worst, service innovation is rejected and resented by those not involved yet necessary for success.
4. Risk-averse internal regulations and processes
For innovation work, the mere mention of involvement from financial services, procurement, health and safety or legal departments represents a closing-down of possibilities. The same applies to the decision-making routines of local government. Innovation does not fit well with formal cycles of committee and sub-committee.
5. The elusive nature of co-design
Fairly universally, councils understand the need for new models of engagement, voice and participation. That is very different from incorporating the rhythms, dynamics and kinesthetic of co-design and co-delivery in a sustainable way.
6. The challenge of scaling
Innovation usually happens at the margins through prototypes and sequenced processes. The complexities of scaling, diffusion and dissemination are in part technical, in part cultural and in part wrapped up in this process approach as much as the product. There is poor evidence for scaling strategies.
Does it need to be like this? Of course it doesn’t. Some councils are bucking this trend and there is, by definition, a corollary article to this one outlining conditions for success. If there is sufficient interest, perhaps that one might follow.
From Innovation in the UK
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.