Innovate radically in the public sector without being radical

In the world of public services where people expect consistency and continuity, there is a sensible approach to innovation.

You don’t have to invent the light bulb to be a public service innovator!

As anyone involved in delivering public services is well aware – budgets have been cut to the point where it is now practically impossible to find efficiencies without changing the way services are delivered in a more fundamental way. As a result, there is now much talk within the sector about innovation – but what does this really mean? 

Joseph Schumpeter, possibly the key innovation thinker of the last century, stated that “carrying out innovations is the only function which is fundamental in history”. Basically without a conscious effort to innovate we would just chug along without much progress. To be clear – real innovation isn’t about random “discoveries”– but rather a structured process through which new ideas and improvements are deliberately and methodically sought. So how can we sensibly apply innovation to public services?

Innovation theory draws a distinction between radical and incremental innovation: radical innovation is discontinuous change which usually takes a completely new approach from what has gone before – big changes which aim for big impact and often are quite disruptive. When people think of innovation they sometimes assume it must be this way; however, incremental innovation is an equally valid approach and is characterised by a continuous series of small improvements without huge disruption – the process is in some degree predicted from the preceding small innovation.

In the wider economy great organisations will not just be wedded to one form of innovation – they will react to the market and technological breakthroughs etc. and act accordingly in order to maximise the power of their products and services. 

Schumpeter regarded radical innovation as the core of economic development where the “gales of creative destruction” wipe away the old to make way for the new. Radical innovation is focused on creating breakthrough innovations that often create new markets and often satisfy needs that people didn’t realise they had! However, this type of disruption isn’t always appropriate or attractive for some types of public services e.g. social care, where consistency is so important. Public services tend not to seek to create new markets, rather to better serve existing markets – particularly now as the aim is to do more for less.

It’s important to note that in most public services this incremental innovation is not a standard feature – many aren’t changing or adjusting at all!

When changes do occur usually they are driven from the top down and after much consultation and planning – which usually takes so long that whatever the change was meant to achieve is no longer relevant. This results in public services that endure long periods of stagnation (at the service delivery level) without sufficient adjustment in response to either public need or technological change. This builds to a breaking point where the only solution is a huge and risky change project. These “big bang” programmes do not have a happy history – think of the various Child Support Agency system re-launches or the NHS patient records system.

In my view, the absolute gold standard in public services is a model where routine incremental innovations ensure that services are always in line with customer needs, the latest thinking and also available resources are part of the service delivery norm. Incremental innovation requires those delivering services to be able to make adjustments and changes quickly and to pilot new ideas in a controlled way. 

For this to happen, front line staff must be empowered through a new model of working, which for many organisations will be a radical change in itself. However, once such a new empowering model is in place, routine incremental innovations will ensure that there is seldom the need to massively overhaul the entire system. Get this right and innovation can be part of your organisation’s DNA rather than an infrequent, major disruption.