Inside the fish bowl

posted in: Social innovation | 0

Neil Stott’s defence of Public Sector innovation is a provocation for those of us attempting to work on complex issues from within. Adaptability, risk taking and innovation are not the words that spring to mind when thinking about big bureaucracies.

View from inside the fish bowl.
Esmee Wilcox
Esmee Wilcox

Rather than lamenting the qualities of bureaucracies that aren’t designed to be risk taking and innovative (rightly so when you are trying to deliver consistently to large populations and militate against catastrophic failure and reactionary politics) let us uncover and share where this innovation does occur, at whatever scale.

Public Sector organisations tend to get involved in some of the more complex social issues, such as economic and social opportunities for care leavers or young people with disabilities (in my case).

These issues require significant collaboration within and across various public organisations and, as Stott attests, with private and social organisations. We require collaboration across systems that are more in tune with the incremental, new and radical levels of innovation.

My experience is that whilst large bureaucracies aren’t designed towards new and radical innovation, there are still many people in pockets working in these ways ; people who are interested in looking at changes in the operating environment, who can spot trends and opportunities, who have energy for creativity, and resilience against failure.

These people work well where there is clear sponsorship for this type of innovation and, reflecting on Stott’s provocation, where they recognise and value their colleagues working in the systems that support incremental change.

Where things fall down is when the prevailing culture stifles one or two of these types of innovation.

This can happen when the leadership becomes obsessed by the new and undervalues incremental change (and the people delivering it).

It can happen in the rivalry between policy-makers and operational managers, played out in the disconnect between these professions.

David Cameron’s recent justification for announcing changes to pensions without the expected consultation, sounded typical of a policy-maker who didn’t want to hear from people concerned with the feasibility of implementation.

In Suffolk we are trying to build alliances across the public sector (social care, schools), private sector (businesses, education providers), and social sector (community and service-user groups) in order to tackle seemingly intractable problems that people with disabilities experience.

As Stott says, this does rely on something more than financial incentives – in a week where the wage mechanism has been simplified as the only barrier to disabled people getting jobs.

My personal challenge is to combine building cross-sector alliances with intra-sector alliances; to recognise and value the hidden innovation in keeping a hunger for new and radical innovation.

Stott’s framework enables a new language to emerge, that supports the attitude and behaviour of valuing people working on different and equally important elements of innovation.

More opportunities for practitioners, policy-makers and communities to collaborate on the big (and small) issues; that’s when we’ll start to see what seem like intractable problems being resolved.

These are personal views, and not the views of Suffolk County Council.

Esmee Wilcox

Esmee Wilcox

Esmee Wilcox

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