In the media

Playing the postcode lottery

By Tim Pope

The MJ

17 January 2023

During the vaccine rollout, Charles Moore wrote about the silliness of screaming ‘postcode lottery!’ whenever one area feels less well treated than another in public services. He said ‘the point of local health trusts, councils and so on is to let local people run most of the things that matter to them with the logical result that there will be differences’.

Councils should be using this argument to highlight how local differences can be marshalled to develop innovative solutions to drive local economic growth and to improve the services they provide. A more equal, prosperous and productive future is more likely if localities can respond to their specific context and communities’ needs and tailor solutions with their partners.

The real prize is breakthrough innovations

That will require innovation, and a recognition that this is not just about adopting the latest buzzword, or putting a new label on transformation but about truly doing things differently. The good news is that it’s easier to prioritise innovation when it is seen as a way to bring positive change, and nothing powers change like a ‘problem’. There is no shortage of problems The last few years of increasing uncertainty and volatility, accelerated by the global pandemic and now war in Ukraine and cost of living pressures, have thrown challenges at local government with increasing frequency. In response, we’ve seen some local leaders adopt an innovative outlook, be bold and seek breakthrough innovations to deliver something fundamentally different – whether Simon Fletcher’s ambitions for systems thinking in Lichfield DC or Andy Burnham’s plans for public sector reform in Greater Manchester.

What is clear from those successes is that it is vital to create the conditions for local government to pursue opportunities that respond to their local circumstances. And the biggest opportunities – those that change the game and fix the system – will come from breakthrough innovations – the big leaps that move things forward better than gradual, incremental innovation.

Making your own luck

The UK has a long history of world-leading innovation and new ideas. The difficulty, in public and private sectors, lies in moving beyond the initial idea to innovation diffusion and adoption, in other words, crossing the ‘adoption chasm’.

In collaboration with the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), we explored this challenge and identified three ingredients that can drive the flow of innovation. These are inspiration, inclusion, and iteration.

Find inspiration from deep need

Often, the best starting point for innovation comes from local demand. Local government can connect innovations to the local area, with a clear mission and support to allow each area to develop its own specialism and approach. These include councils pioneering net zero solutions and innovations in community models to support healthy ageing or tackling air pollution.

Put inclusion at the heart of every innovation

Diversity is central to innovation diffusion and adoption. It starts by creating and supporting diverse teams, who have the capacity and imagination to see things differently. From there, create the right environment by prizing collaboration. Through their own diverse experiences, inclusive teams will be better equipped to identify and address potential blockers that could limit wider adoption. Noel Hatch in Newham and Toby Lowe’s work on human learning systems are both developing, in different ways, great thinking and practice on the value of diverse thinking in local services.

Iterate for success

Certain companies have famously invoked the mantra of ‘failing fast’ to innovation. That doesn’t really fly in local government. A better approach is to understand the need for bold thinking which is then constantly refined, including involving end users early to gain feedback.

Hitting the jackpot

Earlier this month, Rishi Sunak said that ‘the truth is, no government, no Prime Minister, can change a country by force of will or dictate alone. Real change is not provided – it’s created. It’s not given – it’s demanded.

Challenging times don’t just call for new thinking – they demand it. Local councils can step up and do something new. The benefits could be exponential – for society and the sector. Doing so, would redefine the ‘postcode lottery’ to refer to those places who’ve hit the jackpot by making the choice to benefit from their differences.

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