Irrational innovation

Charles Leadbeater at Delivering Public Services seminar

agendaNi looks at what innovation guru Charles Leadbeater had to offer at the ‘Delivering Public Services’ seminar in October.

There are five points you should cover if you are going to innovate, Charles Leadbeater believes. The right question needs to be asked, you must know if you’re going to be radical or incremental, you must decide if the plan is to create solutions or deliver solutions and it must be done in situ. The most important, however, is how you will measure the benefits.

The first thing to say about innovation, he says, is that it is irrational: “It often takes irrational people to innovate. You have to be slightly mad if you want to innovate.” The problem there is that there is an abundance of rational people.

For example, he cites a fork in the road as a tell-tale sign. One route, he explains, is to go to a board of directors and say ‘I’ve got a marginal product in an embryonic market of consumers we don’t know, where the pay-offs are uncertain but I think it could be really big in five years’ time’.

The alternative is suggesting an incremental improvement to an existing product which will yield a marginal profit over a number of years.

Leadbeater believes too many opt for the latter. Being innovative, he contends, depends on the “sensible and creative application of spare resources. Everyone doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and only that, won’t get innovation … [it] requires people to challenge the status quo.”

Another sticking point, he says, is: “Who in the right mind would appoint someone to their senior management team to challenge how they got there in the first place?”

Failure is an option

“Innovation is impossible unless you fail.” You have to learn from it as it is the “exploration of uncertainty”. Innovation is not innovative if you know from the outset what is going to work and what is not.

Leadbeater points to a challenge not faced for a decade in which innovators have been “doing more with more”, but in these difficult times that upward curve will not continue. There now needs to be more done with less, which is, he says, is a “completely different challenge”.

In Manchester, he says there 400,000 adults who can’t read or write to an 11 year-old level and there are a further 100,000 on unemployment benefit. In one study he conducted he found that there were 150 families in Swindon who are “major recipients of multiple public services”, costing, by his reckoning, £250,000 to £300,000 a year.

Some of those families, he explains, have been receiving those services for 16 years.

Having spent some time with the social workers looking after those families he calculated that 80 per cent of the social worker’s time was spent filling in forms, 10 per cent was used collecting information to fill in those forms, and only 10 per cent was spent in direct contact with a family.

That is the question

The innovation question which is asked is all important: “If you ask ‘how do you improve an existing service’ question, you’ll get a better version of the existing service. If you ask ‘how do I get a better social outcome’, you open up a bigger scope for better delivery of current services.”

Often, for people in the social system, there is a plethora of services coming to them, but Leadbeater says they could be more integrated and “technology can play an essential role in that”.

Comparing Northern Ireland to Denmark, given its 73 per cent of the economy coming from the public sector, he claims that 90 per cent of workers in the country benefit from a tax process that requires them to click a box on a web-based form to approve their tax estimate.

Half jokingly he continues, saying that in Northern Ireland he cannot understand why Northern Ireland has a tax office “if you pay everyone and then take their tax off them, why isn’t the tax and payroll done at the same place?”

The next step

When the right question has been asked, it then needs to be decided whether it is service-based or self-help-based.

He cites fires in the home as an example: “In 10 years there has been a massive reduction in the number deaths from fires in the home,” and asks whether this is down to fire engines’ performance or smoke alarms.

In spite of quicker response times and better machinery to cope with fires, he puts much of the decrease down to the technological advances in smoke alarms.

The equivalent in services such as health is that an authority strategically needs at least 20 years to shift to a more homebased system. In education he says parallels can be drawn with providing computers for schools but also extending that capacity for learning into the community.

In social care, the biggest gains come from shifting where a decision is made. In traditional terms, a patient would make themselves known to a local authority, which in turn assesses the needs of the applicant and will allocate a care plan.

Leadbeater calls that system “interesting” as “once you’re in that system there is very little incentive to get better, to exit”. A better system, he outlines, would be allocate a finite budget to a patient or the patient’s carer, and let the decision on how that is to be spent rest with them, similar to how a healthy person in work will manage their own finances.

Getting there

Public services, he suggests, is all about people’s processes, and needs very little capital investment but rather space, time and support. All that contributes to creating an environment in which people are motivated to do different things, he suggests.

As with all projects there must also be a starting point. Therefore the value of the existing service must be measured. That, he says, is not always done: “Our experience is that the public sector is awash with numbers but no one knows how much it costs.”

The most difficult part, however, is once the environment is such that people are comfortable with innovation, you have to convince someone outside of the sphere that it is a good idea, “getting them in the mindset to invest to save is absolutely critical”.

Options for the final step

When the decision to innovate is taken it is important to design it to spread. Asking for extra money, he suggests, is often the “kiss of death” as it will be seen as an obstacle. “It is frontline managers who you need to make into advocates of innovation because if innovation becomes like a spaceship and comes from an alien planet, it will prove very difficult to take up and spread.”

That spread can come about in two ways. The first, the ‘McDonalds model’, has a set formula which is rolled out and that can be seen largely in every UK city as the premises are absolutely formatted. While that could be part of what is needed, Leadbeater believes more strongly in the ‘chinese restaurant’ model.

“No Chinese restaurant will be exactly alike,” he says, “though they might have similar dishes”. That is what the public sector needs – not just innovation but adaptive innovation.

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