Co-creating for a better society
Last Wednesday, the Innovation Unit and the Institute for Government came together to launch Leading Public Sector Innovation, a new book by Christian Bason, director of MindLab, the Danish cross-ministerial innovation hub. The event represented an opportunity to instigate a conversation between innovators and service deliverers about how to deliver better outcomes at lower cost through adopting radically different solutions.
Nearly a month has elapsed in the brave new post CSR world and those involved in public service delivery are beginning to contemplate the monumental size of the task ahead. But in reality the process of fiscal reconsolidation is just one facet of a ‘perfect storm’ driving the need to totally restructure the way we deliver services. An ageing population, the globalisation of labour markets, the ever increasing expense of existing employee relationships, climate change – all these issues exert their own powerful pressures on already burdened services. This burden cannot be met without a rigorous discussion about how we can develop new, radical and innovative approaches to public service delivery. Unfortunately, this discussion has not yet permeated through to the mainstream political agenda.
Rather, politicians on all sides are involved in a furious attritional battle to proportion out responsibility for the age of austerity; a never ending blame-game of claim and counter claim that offers very little in the way of value to those involved in public service delivery.
Even when the discourse escapes these ‘why’ and ‘who’ arguments to consider the far more important question of’ how’, debate is disproportionately dominated by the twin issues of efficiency savings or ‘cuts’, and the appropriate size of the state. This warped focus carries two implicit dangers for innovators. The danger of focusing solely on efficiency is that rather than think differently, we merely produce the same, but for less. The danger of focusing on the appropriate size of the state is that it can characterise innovation as something either totally reliant on state support or conversely, that materialises organically providing government gets out the way.
The key message of both Christian’s book and the ensuing discussion was that public sector innovations should be co-created. A wealth of tools already exist – ethnography, human-centred design, social network tools – that can radically reduce the distance between a service and it’s users, open up new streams of data and retell the story of it’s users in a more meaningful and transparent way. To see a presentation of the main themes in Leading Public Sector Innovation, click here.
Attendees took part in one of four separate breakout sessions themed around the four components of a co-creating innovation ecology featured in Christian’s book:
A consistent theme to emerge out of all four sessions was to acknowledge the challenge of creating sustainable innovation, “It is not sufficient to have just one conversation.” We should also think carefully about how to demonstrate the effectiveness of innovation to risk averse or sceptical service deliverers. The consciousness breakout session suggested that this connection could be achieved through stories that are easy to relate to and by illustrating examples where innovation has delivered clear and tangible results.
A member of the capacity breakout session expressed a concern that innovation could become another layer of beaurocracy that service delivers pay lip service to, retrospectively fitting their actions to satisfy compliance without actually embracing innovative practices. The discussion focused on the challenges of building innovation capabilities and trying to mobilise those service deliverers who do ‘get it’, but currently lack an outlet.
The co-creation session chose to explore some of the key questions that service deliverers must ask before immersing themselves in co-creating service design, “How do you choose what services to co-create? What is the co-creating model? Is this top-down or bottom-up co-creation? How do we measure the impact of co-creation?”
Finally, they posed a prescient question for the assembled audience – primarily composed of people already receptive to the principles of co-creation: “How do we share our co-creation capabilities and best practices with other interested service designers and deliverers?”
In Leading Public Sector Innovation, ‘courage’ refers to the process of empowering public service leaders to seize the opportunity to innovate, despite the systemic and cultural barriers often placed in front of them. The breakout session emphasised the importance of communicating the risk of not carrying out innovation weighed against the risks of trying something new. The session also suggested that leaders have to ‘embrace fear’ and that when we try to encourage an embrace of innovation it is crucial that the concept does not feel alien or, more importantly, like a threat.
Co-creation provides a compelling answer to the challenge of developing a new and radically innovative approach to public service delivery. But, perhaps inevitably, Wednesday’s event generated just as many questions as answers – how do we implement co-creation and what does it look like in practice? But asking the right questions and having the right kind of conversations are the first steps of any new approach. The challenge now is to plant these conversations – how do we do public services differently, better and for less – into the wider political discourse.
By Alan Lockey