In the media

Public sector innovation: Bold thinking in troubled times

Conrad Thompson

By Conrad Thompson, Thomas Sweetman

Open Access Government

03 March 2023

This article was first published in Open Access Government 

Public sector innovation is vital at a time when reform, modernisation and net zero agendas pose new demands

Public sector leaders have a lot on their plate. Ageing populations, geo-political instability, pandemic recovery, and cyber threats pressure existing services to deliver beyond their design and capacity. And reform, modernisation, and net zero agendas create new demands and require new services to respond to them.

Amid this uncertainty, it can be hard to think beyond business as usual. Adopting an opportunistic, innovative outlook is crucial. Incremental innovation – the gradual improvement of day-to-day processes – is certainly part of the picture. But times of adversity also call for bold, breakthrough innovation – the big leaps that move things forward. The public sector has a crucial role to play in leading the way.

Public sector innovation benefits individuals and society

Innovation can sometimes feel like a buzzword or something on a long to-do list. It’s easier to prioritise public sector innovation when we recognise it as an enabler of positive change. And nothing powers positive change like a ‘problem’.

The UK Government has a strong history of innovation, and the launch of the new Department for Science, Innovation, and Technology seeks to develop this further. Through collaborative R&D programmes, the Department will aim to transform breakthrough ideas into practical solutions for far-reaching, positive impact across society and the economy.

Bold, future-thinking innovators are already out there

According to research from PA into innovation behaviours, a small number of organisations are already solving old problems with new solutions and delivering disruptive change that drives growth while better serving individuals and society. In the private sector, companies like Rolls Royce are tackling high capital costs and long lead times for clean energy projects by combining advanced technology with the latest modular manufacturing techniques, improving sustainability, affordability, and scalability to accelerate the transition to net zero. As shown by critical vaccine development programmes and the application of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in global trade deals, breakthrough innovation is not confined to the private sector.

The difficulty lies in moving beyond the initial idea to innovation diffusion and adoption (IDA) – in other words, crossing the ‘adoption chasm’. The right national apparatus and mindset need to be in place to scale innovation at a national level and beyond.

In collaboration with the UK Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), we explored the challenges and opportunities that come with IDA, identifying three missing ingredients required to achieve national innovation: inspiration, inclusion, and iteration.

Find inspiration from a deep need

In PA’s research on breakthrough innovation, understanding evolving customer needs were cited as the number one barrier to scaling breakthrough innovation. Often, the best starting point for innovation comes from local demand. The public sector can play a key role by connecting innovations to the local area, with a clear mission and the skills to deliver. This creates a ‘supply chain’ approach to national innovation, allowing each area to develop its own specialism.

For example, Plymouth County Council worked with the Government to establish Oceansgate, the UK’s first maritime enterprise zone. Based on the disused Ministry of Defence land, Oceansgate brings together universities, businesses, and government bodies to enable collaborative research, education, and production, unblocking barriers to maritime innovation.

Put inclusion at the heart of public sector innovation

At every step, diversity is central to public sector innovation diffusion and adoption. Putting diversity at the heart of innovation starts by building and supporting diverse teams with the capacity and imagination to see things differently and creating the right environment by prizing collaboration over competition. Through their own diverse experiences, inclusive teams will be better equipped to identify and address potential blockers that could limit wider adoption.

When innovations are ready to launch, public sector leaders must reach the ‘early majority’ – the next cohort of adopters after ‘early adopters’ in the typical adoption cycle. This could include having dedicated ‘brokers’ that help to coordinate and drive inclusion.

Iterate for success

Certain companies have famously invoked the mantra of ‘failing fast’. That doesn’t really fly in the public sector, where leaders are pressured to show value and succeed with as few breakages as possible.

Reframe what successful public sector innovation looks like

So, reframe what successful public sector innovation looks like – accept it will take longer than you expect, and it might involve some tangents along the way. This is a normal part of iterative development and should be welcomed. Huge strides can be taken by applying a mindset of iteration, including the involvement of end users early in the development process to gain feedback. Above all, drop expectations of perfection and appreciate that every step leads somewhere, even if you don’t reach the end result immediately.

To deliver on national objectives and bring wider benefits for individuals and society, public sector leaders have to be willing to back ambitious innovations and ensure ideas are adopted at scale. Challenging times don’t just call for new thinking – they demand it.

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