Where innovation sits in public service reform

There are many of us whose work is with or in the public sector who want and expect things to be better. Nevertheless, we sometimes find ourselves being sceptical about some solutions being put forward, and particularly the way in which they’re presented (such scepticism is often misinterpreted as a defence of the status quo – a point I’ve disabused here).

The word that sets off my own scepticism is “innovation”.

A series of recent posts on Arbitrary Constant have taken this starting point and brought together a series of reflections:

This final post draws out an explicit view on degrees of innovation, how these relate to other forms of change in public service reform, and along what lines these degrees develop.

The diagram below captures this view.

Innovation scale - defining degrees

In this diagram we see how “innovation” leads to “best practice” leads to “improvement” leads to what should be “standard” in public services. We further see that moving in any one of three directions can increase these degrees: increasing Scale, increasing how well Known something is, or transferring practice across Sectors.

As I’ve repeatedly said, very little can truly be thought of as “innovative”. Having a more honest appraisal of the extent to which something is “new”, in my view, leads to a better understanding of the extent to which this “thing” might achieve change. This also provides us with a better understanding of the practical approaches, tools and techniques that might be useful to take the innovation from its current “degree” to the next, higher “degree”.

Of course, in no way do I expect this contribution on innovation to gain any sort of currency. I hope, though, that by sharing it it becomes a useful framework within which people may reflect on the variety of means being used to achieve the ends to which most of us aspire: improved public services.


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Man of letters & numbers; also occasionally of action. Husband to NTW. Dad of three. Friendly geek.

7 thoughts on “Where innovation sits in public service reform”

  1. Fantastic stuff, Rich. I share and endorse the questions you raise and critical thinking you doing here.

    My view is that, particularly around public services, important questions like those raised by FutureGov about models, experimentation, innovation and learning over time get reduced down into uncritical statements that don’t actually mean anything. It has become a brand in public services, like choice that have hugely positive associations and sidestep any through analysis.

    To paraphrase the push-back given on innovation by my favourite internet productivity guru Merlin Mann (@hotdogsladies): innovation relies on rapid and multiple failures. How innovative do you want your organisation’s payroll company to be?

    And to directly quote Sir Martin Narey, “relentless implementation of incremental change is every bit as important as innovation in any organisation”.

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