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Gavin Jones: We must innovate to survive

Gavin Jones
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The key to innovation is simple: try more things.

Trying more things will generate more successes. It will also generate more failures, which is why linking innovation to learning is so important.

It is also the reason why innovation in the public sector is sometimes so difficult to achieve. Failure is something we are programmed to avoid. But systematically stress testing our activities with a view, on occasion, to failing fast, is our best strategy in the long term for identifying what works.

This issue of risk and failure reminds me of a conversation I once had with a senior civil servant whose concern about the devolution of skills was the risk it would introduce in to the system, apparently unaware that the reason we were seeking the devolution in the first place was that the risk had already crystallised for our businesses and residents – it was just not visible from the far end of the telescope.

As those risks increase – created by radical changes to our funding environment and the pressures we face – then operating as we have done in the past is unlikely to enable us to achieve the ambitions we have for our communities for the future.

Innovation in this respect is a must-do, not a nice-to-do.

The good news is we are pretty good at this. Despite the demand and budget pressures we have faced over the last seven years, there are examples of great innovation coming from all parts of the country, from self-regulating integrated teams at the interface of health and social care, to social investment vehicles to leverage third-party funding for social outcomes, to the use of predictive analytics off the back of integrated data platforms. There is a lot going on out there.

But there are also challenges. One of the most difficult is what we sometimes call ‘double-running’: developing the new approaches that might unlock the radical changes we need whilst at the same time continuing to operate our existing service models.

This is not just a financial issue. It can also butt up against our processes, governance and culture. Hierarchical organisations like to channel information upwards for decisions to be made. That way we can ensure consistency, oversight, regulation and, I am afraid to say, irrelevance. That approach is why it takes 17 years on average for an innovation in the NHS to be adopted into widespread practice.

Many of us are importing design thinking in to our work. We wouldn’t dream of designing a service or policy approach without first understanding what the needs of users are. The place where this is best understood in our organisations is on the front line by those people engaged in the delivery of services to our residents. It is those people who have the rich information to underpin new insights and our job as senior leaders is to support, encourage and challenge them to be the innovation engine of our organisations. In Essex, I have done that, and more than 300 of our employees have come forward to “Gavin’s Den” to propose improvements to how we work.

After all, innovation is not about a solitary genius sitting in a lab coming up with brilliant new ideas. It is about creating the conditions for innovation to flourish and then systematically and rigorously identifying, capturing and applying it. In a country as centralised as the UK, it is local councils that need to operate as the ‘laboratories of democracy’; trying new things and challenging existing ways of working. To do so, we need to be more assertive as a sector in the exploitation of the knowledge that we all possess.

In my view we need a ‘What Works Centre’ that has national coverage but is anchored in local systems and whose sole focus is on sharing the evidence and learning that is being generated in local areas from our own investment in innovation. In that way we will support the scaling up of innovation for the benefit of the country as a whole, but in doing so all of our local places will be the beneficiaries.

The public sector operates in a system that is volatile, uncertain, complex and changing rapidly. Under such circumstances we must continue to embrace the forward momentum and entrepreneurial spirit that characterise the economy more broadly and local government at its best.

The only way to succeed in the next decade is to continue to push the boundaries of what is possible.

Gavin Jones, chief executive, Essex CC

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