Is there enough innovation in the public sector?


Now let’s be honest. When many people (clearly not from the public sector), think about innovation in the workplace, new ways of thinking and new ways of doing things, the public sector doesn’t automatically spring to mind. But are they being a little unfair?

At a time when the public sector is under pressure to deliver more for less, innovative ways of working form a key part of delivering the cost savings and efficiencies needed. The public sector has a great history of delivering such things, even if it doesn’t always do it with such acclamation often associated with private sector organisations – and to be fair, often not as quickly and simply as it should.

Whoever wins the upcoming election, the book balancing, the end of austerity and the return to the good old days don’t appear evident in any of the manifestos published so far. The Brexit risk, the need to address social care and the need to invest – they all seem to point towards another several years of belt tightening and adjustment to the new public sector, which I referred to in my book, How to Survive Austerity.

What people really think of the public sector?

When I wrote How to Survive Austerity I conducted a simple survey to gauge the views of a range of people and how they perceived the public sector. Those people I surveyed who worked in the private sector believed the public sector needed to reduce bureaucracy, be more accountable, adopt private sector norms and engage more. And after a couple of years since that research, can any of us say honestly that our public services have achieved all those things? I don’t think so.

And the people I surveyed who work IN the public sector were just as critical. Even more so in fact. Whilst they held similar views, they had the benefit of being insiders and knew what “reducing bureaucracy” really meant – they had even more direct views about their own organisations.

It CAN be done – it HAS been done

Over the last year, I have worked with several public sector organisations who have used innovation as a key driver for change. Often against a background of existential risks. They have innovated, developed and delivered new forms of service with reduced costs that are pitched much better at their clients. And of course, all of that work has resulted in much-needed costs savings and efficiencies. So as most of you know working in the public sector, it not only CAN BE done, it HAS BEEN done!

Remember, to be successful innovation doesn’t have to be all singing, all dancing, brand new ideas. Some of the simplest, stripped back ideas can make some of the biggest impact. Anyone remember the story about the invention of the original Sony Walkman? Look it up on Google.

One of the examples I cited in my book comes from a few years back now. I worked with a large hospital NHS Trust that used the novel idea (at the time) of collaborative procurement to reduce clinical risks AND generate savings of around £650,000 per year. The savings were on routine things like pumps and administration sets, and savings of more than £200,000 per year on aprons, gloves hearing aids – even inks and toners.

All mainstream actions today but now what proportion of GP Practices share procurement of basic items, business services, clinical services? What actions make local authorities in different parts of the country use different sourcing routes and frameworks for the same services? And let’s not start on central government. Innovations? Not really these days surely?

Top tips for innovating in the workplace

I would love to hear about your experiences of applying innovation – the good and the bad. In the meantime, in the time honoured tradition of blogs, here’s my top four tips for innovating in the workplace:

1. Joining up

The joining up of things that currently aren’t joined up can be extremely effective and can result in efficiencies – both financial and resource. The NHS is on a great journey of joining things up – securing services and goods as I mention above should be an easy one. There are a lot harder things you could do but why not start on some easy ones and work at the harder ones. I’m sure we’re also likely to see a lot more of this in local government, particularly within the six newly established combined authority areas. (Note to new mayors – welcome and thrive all).

2. Share resources

Like joining things up, sharing things is easy, as we all know from sharing our childhood toys. Increasingly public sector organisations share resources. ICT is often used as a good example of this across several neighbouring local authorities and NHS bodies. Even sharing the heads of those departments that used to eye each other up over the invisible fence. I’ve even known some public bodies use arms-length organisations to deliver services to several constituent bodies. Now goodness me, there’s real innovation at work.

3.Change organisational and operational norms

Is there a more efficient way we can manage this process? Is there a different way of working? Is our current structure the most effective? Asking yourself these questions could identify more effective ways of working. This can be as complex as changing care pathways in the NHS to restructuring teams to be more streamlined, to changing internal processes for the collection of council tax payments for example. It’s called a challenge and if you are not challenging at least five current ways of doing things every day, you are not doing your job. Just saying.

4. Encourage innovation

Whether they are at a strategic level, or at the sharp end of your services, your staff may be the key to many innovative ideas. It’s easy to sit in a room with a few colleagues and ask yourselves how you can make efficiencies and cost savings but seriously consider asking the question to a wider net – and if you’re brave, the whole organisation. Yes, you may get some ideas that just wouldn’t work in practice and some ideas that may not consider the wider implications of that change. However, you may also get a few great ideas that could turn out to be extremely impactful.

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