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Gavin Jones: fear of failure kills innovation

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Essex CC’s chief executive has warned that local government innovation is being held back by a refusal to countenance failure.

Gavin Jones’s LGC interview coincides with his reorganisation of his county’s senior staff so commercial and digital directors sit on its six-strong corporate management team. He said he hoped the restructure would enshrine innovation and create a recognition that “failure is an inevitable companion of success”.

Mr Jones, who is chair of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers, clarified he was not referring to “catastrophic systems failure” but innovation in which new ideas sometimes “fail quickly” with limited repercussions. Tolerance of risk should depend on the potential impact of failure, but in general, “if someone takes a risk we won’t chastise them” should it fail, he said.

“We need to create the culture, systems and capabilities to create the prototypes and if it doesn’t work we apply learning and move on,” he said. “Failing in the public sector doesn’t feel an easy thing to do. It’s very visible. It has considerable implications.”

Mr Jones, who joned Essex in January from Swindon BC, was vice president of customer services and marketing at the air transport communications firm Sita early last decade. He said local government compared unfavourably with the air industry in which failure was followed by the “rigorous applying of lessons”, for instance after air accidents.

He was critical of the level and nature of innovation across local government. “There are pockets in every local authority of real innovation taking place,” he said. “But my challenge is – is it systemic or is it theoretical? I don’t think a lot of it is systemic.”

Asked for an example of failure in Essex, Mr Jones said the communication around new grading for staff resulting from the restructure was poor: “We surprised the organisation and got a reaction.” He said lessons had been learned.

Following on from the reorganisation, Mr Jones said staff had been offered a three-month “amnesty” in which to experiment with new ideas.

“If you are really trying to change your organisation to be innovative you have to give people the space to try different things,” he said. “If the leadership don’t demonstrate that they are authentic about it, innovation will never run through the organisation.”

Other measures to facilitate the new culture are changing the council’s annual staff awards to give more of an emphasis on recognising risk-takers’ achievements. Meanwhile, Mr Jones has adapted the format of the television programme Dragons’ Den with ‘Gavin’s Den’ offering staff with innovative proposals the prospect of financial backing to bring them to fruition.

He has also instigated a series of talks designed to spur innovation that bring together Essex’s public sector commissioners and policy makers with innovators such as Geoff Mulgan, the chief executive of innovation foundation Nesta.

Mr Jones said commercialism operated on “many different levels of maturity” across local government. Essex’s new commercial director role, soon to be advertised, would “join things up” to drive commercial value across the organisation and “drive investment to give it the most impact”. Mr Jones said of commercialism: “I want my senior team to think of it as an intrinsic element, not an add-on”.

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