Nothing new under the sun? Originality and think tanks

old sun

I enjoyed this from Stian Westlake at Nesta:

As a policy wonk, I get a sinking feeling when I’m reading a terrific non-fiction book and find there’s a “policy recommendations” chapter.

In a postscript he highlights that feeling applies not just to experts who have written books but to wonks writing think tank reports as well, bringing it firmly into our sphere of interest at arbitrary constant.

Stian notes the two mindsets that lead to dull policy recommendations. The first is the “adviser’s approach”, which:

involves trying to write down the best set of measures to tackle a particular problem. It’s the kind of answer a government expert would use when writing a white paper on the subject that was actually going to be implemented.

What’s good about this from Stian’s point of view is that it provides a good programme for actual action, though a downside is that it lacks originality.

The second mindset is the “wonk’s approach”, whose main attribute is that it is original.

In the postscript, Stian concludes that think tanks in particular should focus on the wonk’s approach through

Produc[ing] fewer me-too policy recommendations, and instead to either come up with original ones, or not to bother with them at all.

Stian’s reflections put me in mind of a few things. The first was an insight from Jeremy Shapiro in the FT:

To the senior official, an outside idea is like a diamond on a desert island: abstractly valuable but practically useless. She feels penned in by politics and resource constraints that outsiders do not acknowledge. As she nods appreciatively and appears to hang on every word, she is, in fact, hiding tired familiarity with ideas she views as either politically impossible or already being attempted (or both).

The next is the third of Fukuyama’s four conditions that have to be in place for political change to happen:

While government reform reflects the material interests of the parties involved, ideas are critical in shaping how individuals see their interests

My final reflection is on the idea of a Basic Income. The RSA has done some fantastic work on this recently. In itself, this is great, but what I find most interesting is that (1) this was a key part of the Green Party’s 2015 election campaign – during which it was, essentially, ridiculed; and (2) there is a very long history associated with the idea of a basic income, stretching back to the 16th century.

What these three reflections sum to is that ideas and originality are only necessary conditions for change, but not sufficient ones.

I’ve noted a personal scepticism before regarding “innovation” (and so originality). My personal predilection is for how to take and use good idea ideas to further public policy and service reform, rather than the originality of ideas per se. To this end, Stian’s penultimate point regarding think tanks is the one that works most for me:

[T]hink tanks add value by framing problems and diagnosing situations rather than by the specific solutions they propose.


Closing the productivity gap in public services

From Chris Dillow:

Nick Bloom and colleagues have estimated (pdf) that over a third of the gap in total factor productivity between the UK and US is due to inferior management. Some of this gap might be closed if only managers were more aware of best practice. In this context, the very fact that the UK’s productivity is lower than the G7 average is, in a sense, encouraging. It means we don’t need new innovations to boost productivity; we simply need to learn what the French, Germans and Americans are doing.

This is cheering, partly because it brings together a couple of things that Arbitrary Constant has bashed on about in the last few weeks:

  1. Very little can truly be thought of as ‘innovative’, and knowing how we get from innovative to ‘best practice’ to ‘improvement’ to ‘standard’ in public services is what matters
  2. Clearly related to this, we should never ignore the little things (even if that just means making meetings better)

Two cultures in public services and how to bridge between the two

Image via Fanpop
Image via Fanpop

Matthew Taylor’s take on there being “two tribes” or cultures in public services is excellent, and well worth reading for anyone serious about understanding change in public services.

He describes the two tribes/cultures as follows: Networker Innovators are

budding social entrepreneurs tapping away on their devices at Impact Hubs. They tend to be young, impatient of the old ways of doing things, sceptical about traditional politics. They love big data, social media, hackathons and service design… If only they could get some start-up funding and prove their concept, it could be scaled up to change the world.

Whereas Hierarchical Managerialists are

the politicians and bureaucrats who run public service institutions and systems. They are middle aged, care worn, always tired and rarely with time for anything more than coping. Somewhere deep down they retain their idealism, but they have long since become reconciled to fulfilling their public service ethic through crisis management and marginal improvement… They are focused on local conditions, relationships and power structures. They see the biggest barrier to change not as the absence of new ideas, but the preponderance of old politics.

The result of these two tribes is that

Bright people and bright ideas fail to mature. Big systems and institutions fail to improve. Innovators add their voice to a lazy cynicism about ‘the system’ while bureaucrats pay lip service to innovation but think it is marginal to their day to day lives. Second rate ideas and second rate practices survive unchallenged, each justified by their own self-serving discourse.

Taylor’s solution to this is to bring the two systems together:

The networkers need to be challenged to understand the constraints of big systems, big budgets, complexity, risk and public accountability. The managers need to admit that many aspects of politics and public service are only the way they are due to historical accident or the positioning of vested interests.

This admittedly binary description resonates very much. My personal experience is as someone who is equally frustrated with both of the cultures described: there is clearly a significant need for large swathes of public services to change, but I sometimes find the solutions and methods proposed to secure this change both naïve and ineffective, to the point where they may undermine the very change they seek. (For example, my reflections on “innovation” demonstrate such frustration.)

(From a personal point of view, this means I don’t feel I belong to either of the cultures described, and can be misunderstood by both. I’m sure lots of folks feel they aren’t being described by either of these cultures! There are, though, a good deal of such anomalous folks around, and at different levels of the system.)

Image via StuffPoint
Image via StuffPoint

I’ve often reflected that the most successful efforts at change are when people understand the motivations and positions of “the other”; this is often, though not only, because they have been in the other person’s shoes at a previous point in their career.

This understanding seems to me to be a form of translation, bridging or linking, and it’s where I strongly believe effective change is most likely to start and be sustained in the complex world and systems of public services. It’s why the recent thinking on systems leadership – notably put forward by the Stanford Social Innovation Review – is something I’ve blogged on before: it gives concrete form to what these ‘translating’ / ‘bridging’ / ‘linking’ activities are. They include:

  • Seeing reality through the eyes of people very different from yourself
  • Building relationships based on deep listening and building networks of trust and collaboration
  • Having an ability to see the larger system and so building a shared understanding of complex problem
  • Fostering reflection and conversation that can challenge assumptions or existing mental models
  • Shifting the collective focus from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future… not just building inspiring visions but facing difficult truths about the present reality and learning how to use the tension between vision and reality to inspire truly new approaches.
  • Re-directing attention to see that problems “out there” are “in here” also, recognising that we are all part of the systems we seek to change
  • Re-orienting strategy by creating the space for change and enabling collective intelligence and wisdom to emerge: instead of trying to make change happen we focus on creating the conditions that can produce change
  • Working through a disciplined stakeholder engagement process, the nature of which can’t be predicted in advance
  • Transforming relationships among people who shape systems, rather than just working on systems themselves.

Talking with a fellow frustrated friend about this, we realised we both found Taylor’s analysis heartening. Understanding a problem goes a long way towards solving it, and being explicit about both the “two tribes” and adding some ideas as to how to bridge the gaps between the two hopefully helps to shift us to more effective change in public services.

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.

Using the innovation scale: 3 examples

After calling for a more honest approach to degrees of innovation in public service reform, and so about what it ultimately can deliver and achieve, I shared some initial thoughts on what a public service reform innovation scale might look like.

As a reminder: the reason for this was because I think it’s useful to know the degree to which something is innovative or whether it is, for example, something that actually replicates practice in another area; or is something that is supposed to be done anyway; or perhaps something using a different mechanism to what is found in other places.

The suggested innovation scale has three axes: Scale (i.e. size), Known and Sector.

To help bring it to life, below are three examples of “innovation” and where I think they might lie respectively within the innovation scale.

Example 1: Using Twitter

Innovation Scale - Twitter

This example is included to help orientate people within the innovation scale. Twitter, as a communications tool within public services, is used nearly everywhere (Scale), Known to virtually everyone and is used across all Sectors. Thus, to speak of Twitter as “innovative” in public services would seem, and is, a bit of a nonsense.

Example 2: Personal Budgets

Innovation Scale - Personal Budgets

Personal Budgets are very well Known about, especially in adult social care, and the principle of them is starting to be seen in other Sectors of public service, notably health and employment. Nevertheless, the Scale at which Personal Budgets exist still isn’t especially large. In this sense, then, Personal Budgets aren’t innovative; equally, something is happening such that they aren’t being adopted to the extent that it is hoped they would be.

Example 3: Alliance contracting

Innovation Scale - Alliance contracting

Alliance contracting is something that is relatively new in public services. It is only happening in a couple of places (Scale) and is relatively unKnown. What’s more, it’s primarily happening only in adult social care Sector at the moment. Thus, according to the suggested innovation scale, alliance contracting is innovative.

These examples hopefully give a flavour of how the innovation scale may be useful. In the next (and final) post on innovation, I’ll share an overall way of thinking about degrees and innovation and how it relates to other forms of change in public service reform.

#dpulo: share your innovation experiences with the New Economics Foundation

Have you designed, developed or provided innovative services for disabled people?

As part of the Strengthening DPULOs Programme, we’ve been part of some interesting work the New Economics Foundation are doing. We’re now looking for some examples of great stuff DPULOs are doing on public service delivery that NEF can write about…

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) are looking for examples of innovations in local services for disabled people. The best case studies will be included in a major report to be published in autumn 2012 and promoted to local authorities and their partners.

Services may include care and support, children’s services, housing, education, skills development and training, transport, and community safety and cohesion. NEF are particularly interested in innovative services that do some or all of the following:

  • Ensure greater choice and control for disabled people
  • Are personalised, person-centred, and flexible
  • Recognise and develop the skills and abilities of disabled people, their families and peers
  • Help to prevent problems, rather than just responding to them
  • Are financially viable and sustainable
  • Make local communities and society more inclusive for disabled people.

This is a great opportunity to promote your innovation and it would be great to showcase the work of DPULOs.

If you’re interested in providing a case study, please send a brief description of the service you provide to Strengthening DPULOs Programme Ambassador Lynne Turnbull (

Pre-payment cards in personalised public services

In a personalised public service the individual has choice and control over the services they receive. If the public agency in this policy area enables individuals to take the cash equivalent of a service instead of having it paid for by the commissioner – such as local authorities in the case of Personal Budgets in adult social care, or PCTs (as is) as Personal Budgets are being trialed in the health service – then one of the questions becomes how the individual can make payments to buy services they want.

In our day-to-day lives we hardly question this. Most of us have a bank account which holds our money and we use a debit card over which we have control to make payment from our bank account to a service provider whose service we want to buy, e.g. Waterstone’s, Kwik Fit, Tesco.

Some services offer a form of loyalty card, in which you can pre-pay money onto a card and use that card instead of cash at that service. A good example of this is Starbucks (as my bank account will attest).

Over the last two or three years, public agencies have looked at pre-payment cards as a means by which to support and implement personalised public services. Some recent research by DWP (pdf) into “smartcard” schemes (which actually go slightly wider than just pre-payments cards, since they don’t necessarily entail money) has some interesting findings around the use of such cards, which I thought it would be useful to share.

The first area of interest is whether smart cards are available generally for all members of the public or for a specific subset of the local population. The key issue here is one of cost and scale. General schemes cover areas such as travel, leisure and library services, whereas more specific schemes can be found, for example, for only adult social care users.

The second area of interest is the benefits to service users, captured as follows:

  • A smartcard allows a user to complete an application form for services “only once”. Having done so for the card, they can then access all of the services that card is designed to cover
  • Smartcard schemes can offer individuals greater access to local and potentially national services
  • Smartcards can potentially offer financial benefits in the form of service discounts for users.

There are, of course, benefits to public agencies too:

  • Though smartcard schemes have a high set-up value, the ability to add on further services under the scheme is much lower than a standalone scheme at a later date
  • Administrative costs for public agencies associated with making payments to service users and providers should decrease because of automation of the paying process and record collecting
  • A central smartcard system can help with better data collection
  • Smartcards can in theory (and sometimes in practice) drive joined-up working across public agencies or departments within one single organisation.

A very good example of pre-payments cards is Cheshire East Council’s Empower Card (pdf). According to the Council, this has resulted in efficiency savings of 49% concerning the users engaged in the scheme – a saving of some £236,000 on the previous account management process.

There are undoubtedly some issues regarding smartcards, not least of which is whether the costs of investing up front in a scheme provides realisable savings later on (I suspect it can, though I suspect the potential for significant costs is also a reasonable risk).

Even so, smartcards are a useful innovation that can enable service users to have more choice and control over the services they receive whilst saving money for public agencies.

Some more research on smartcards will be published next year by the National Centre for Social Research, which I’ll hopefully blog about then.

Being first, or executing?

You don’t need to be first with an idea, you just need to be able to execute well.

This is the essence of an idea from James Gardner discussing the theme of innovation, as picked up by the ever wonderful Dave Briggs. It articulates, in one short sentence, something I’ve felt for a long time and which I’d articulated in a much worse way (i.e. that the world doesn’t need new ideas; it just needs to take the stuff that we know works and enable it to work at scale).

A fascinating discussion on the topic, led by Gardner, is embedded below:

“Boring innovation” and Supertramp

I was struck by Robert Brook’s recent note on boring innovation:

Oh, sorry — didn’t I say? Ah, yes, innovation has a budget. And a timescale. And a board — you know, just to check that we’re innovating in the right way. Nothing too … er … innovative.

Wait a minute, I’ve just got to update this Gantt chart.

And we’re back. Innovating! Innovating while the budget allows! Oh dear this is dreadful. And, of course, Johnnie Moore is quite right when he says that innovation has been made dead boring by management thinkers — and, with perhaps tongue slightly in cheek, suggesting that managers want to suppress creativity.

Of course, he’s right. Innovation needs space to be allowed to flourish. There is a very good article in the latest edition of the NHS’s (!) In View magazine on this that I’ve been meaning to blog about for some time. (I can only find a link to a pdf version – see page 10 of this pdf.) Its conclusion is relevant to Robert’s post:

Established companies can avoid falling into the classic traps that stifle innovation by widening the search for new ideas, loosening overly tight controls and rigid structures, forging better connections between innovators and mainstream operations, and cultivating communication and collaboration skills.

Innovation involves ideas that create the future. But the quest for innovation is doomed unless the managers who seek it take time to learn from the past. Getting the balance right between exploiting (getting the highest returns from current activities) and exploring (seeking the new) requires organizational flexibility and a great deal of attention to relationships. It always has, and it always will.

As an aside, and without wishing to diminish what Robert wrote, and certainly not wishing to take the piss (I respect and value Robert’s writing too much to do that), his post on innovation did bring to mind Supertramp’s Logical Song:

When I was young it seemed that life was so wonderful, a miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical / But then they sent me away to teach me how to be sensible, logical, responsible, practical.

I think there’s a bit of Supertramp in all of us.