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Archive for the ‘Innovation’ Category

Mr Preview with Morecambe & Wise

There may be dark clouds hanging over the future of the Comprehensive Area Assessment and the national indicator set may be facing a spring-clean, but there appears to be a political consensus that the total place initiative is a good thing. 

True, total place hasn’t found favour with John Seddon who describes it as ‘total bollocks’ but from what Caroline Spelman has been saying, it seems increasingly likely that something like total place will continue beyond the general election.  So there’s a growing interest in what total place means for us all. 

On Monday afternoon I participated in a seminar organised by the New Local Government Network, part of a research project the NLGN is doing exploring what total place has achieved so far and its potential in the future. 

The official line is that total place is a new initiative that looks at how a ‘whole area’ approach to public services can lead to better services at less cost. It seeks to identify and avoid overlap and duplication between organisations – delivering a step change in both service improvement and efficiency at the local level, as well as across Whitehall. There are 13 pilot areas participating in the scheme. 

Local government practitioners could be forgiven for feeling a bit jaded and seeing total place as just the latest new solve-all initiative – there has been a constant stream of them from BVPIs to NIs, LPSAs and LAAs, CPA and CAA. 

(Looking back, it’s often been the same letters in the acronym but in a different  order. Perhaps we should have responded to Whitehall as Eric Morecambe did to Andre Previn when told he was playing all the wrong notes – I’m playing all the right notes, not necessarily in the right order.) 

I remember that on his first day as the Communities Secretary, David Miliband, travelled to Maidstone to meet the then leader and chief executive of Kent County Council.  Kent has maintained an enviable reputation for being at the forefront of most of the new initiatives in local government in recent years and is one of the total place pilot authorities. Its chief executive, Peter Gilroy, spoke at the NLGN seminar about Kent’s experiences to date. 

He spoke very enthusiastically about the potential the internet offers to the public sector and the ways in which it can fundamentally shift approaches and behaviours.  Total Place must understand, he said, that Web 2.0 is part of the transformational agenda.  One example he gave was the spiralling costs of needs assessment, where he said new technology would need to be used to cut costs.  Peter suggested that the UK public sector is significantly behind the pace when it comes to making the most of web-based technology and highlighted our low level of ambition on extending broadband capacity compared with other European countries. 

The key thing, he suggested, about total place is that it seeks to reconfigure services based on customer profiling rather organisational functions and forms. Perhaps recognising local government’s predilection for structural changes, Peter argued that, ‘restructuring is a killer of innovation.’  Innovation, he said, is about being obsessed with people’s experience of public services and Peter referenced the use that Kent has made of Terry Leahy’s work on customer profiling. 

Based on Kent’s experience of being a pilot, Peter highlighted the following issues: 

  • councils don’t need new powers, we can get on and do things and then wait to see if you get challenged;
  • There have to be benefits and incentives for people to share
  • Imagination is key

Molly Lewis, Capgemini’s Head of Local Government Consulting, then spoke about the work that Capgemini is doing on total place.  She outlined Capgemini’s four routes into total place: 

  • Customer perceptive – as Peter Gilroy had emphasised, transforming the customers’ experience for a particular market segment.  This work starts with the customer and supports joining up at the front line to deliver better outcomes for less cost;
  • Partnership Operating Model – creating the governance and operating model for the public sector partnership for the place;
  • Counting a different way – financial modelling to support evidence-based investment decisions;
  • Cost efficiency – taking money out of the system.

While statistics don’t always tell the whole story, sometimes they can be compelling.  Molly outlined work that Capgemini is doing with four pilot authorities on offending and explained that within the UK, 65% of offenders re-offend within two years and 65% of children with parents in prison go on to offend.  As with so many of the social problems that we seek to tackle, the cyclical nature, from generation to generation (highlighted in recent reports emphasising a lack of social mobility in the UK compared with other countries) points to the need to find new approaches and interventions. 

Amongst a number of factors that need to be in place for successful total place projects, Molly emphasised the need to avoid making assumptions about what customers value and to create community support by engaging directly with them.  She also said that being focused on something specific rather than trying to transform everything was key to success. 

During the subsequent discussion and workshop session, one of the issues that cropped up a number of times was the effectiveness of local strategic partnerships.  It was acknowledged that there are lots of issues that get in the way of partnership delivery.  Some colleagues from other authorities questioned the added value from partnerships and how they can become more business-like, less discursive. 

While I acknowledge Peter Gilroy’s point about the need for councils to get on with things rather than seek new powers, my personal view is that it is a challenge for ‘partial’ councillors to deliver ‘total’ place.  If local councillors were directly accountable for schools, policing and primary health care, then surely that would enormously simplify total place.  Rather than forever being locked into the competing agendas and different work practices of local councils and national Whitehall departments, re-invigorated unitary ‘total councils’ would be making the key decisions that shape the local community.  The old arguments about local administration instead of local governance could finally be laid to rest. 

The Office of Public Management published last year a report entitled, Lessons Learnt from Total Place so far.  The report is based upon interviews with the great and the good – the likes of Sir Michael Bichard, Lucy de Groot, Gerry Stocker and two London borough chief executives. 

One of the points that the report makes is that over time, processes tend to harden.  Good dialogue is replaced by process monitoring.  In a telling phrase the report suggests, ‘localities need continuing permission to develop local solutions.’ 

Most people’s experiences of local strategic partnerships would be that the introduction of the Local Area Agreement has tended to shift focus away from talking about local issues to monitoring delivery against national indicators.  But I don’t believe we generally feel we need permission to develop local solutions. 

The report comments that underlying mind-sets are based on programme delivery – monitoring progress using our beloved, red, amber and green traffic lights.  But how well does this work in tackling difficult social problems, particularly where there are unrealistic timescales?  

Linked to this, is it going to be helpful or counter-productive if total place becomes totally synonymous with saving money.  Experience to date seems to point to the need to build relationships, spend time really understanding the customer perspective and having the freedom to think laterally.  Faced with the need to find cashable savings fast, will those elements of total place which can most contribute to the kind of transformational changes described by Peter Gilroy be pushed aside and lose out to the counting?  Will the metrics vanquish the magic?  

‘Imagination is everything, it is the preview of life’s coming attractions,’ was the uplifting note upon which Peter Gilroy, quoting Einstein, concluded his presentation.  The challenge is, despite the cuts, to keep imagining a better future and to value creativity more than compliance and process.

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townhall or whitehall?

In the current financial climate this seems like a good time to be thinking about where public services are best carried out – by councils, by regional bodies or by central government.  Or maybe there are some things we do which don’t require the oversight of elected representatives at all?

When the media want a view on these questions, they turn to Tony Travers but it seems to me that the blogosphere is a good place to get views.  So, if you’ve ten minutes spare, please complete the short survey I’ve put together.

Click Here to take survey

As an added incentive, one randomly selected respondent will get a £20 HMV/Waterstones voucher.  I will share the results of the survey here.

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In a Work Foundation report, Public Value: The Next Steps in Public Service Reform, David Coats and Eleanor Passmore suggest that our pre-occupation with constant reform of public services may have its downsides.  They argue that,

‘the continued use of the language of reform has convinced the public that something is wrong. After all, ‘reform’ is usually needed to eliminate abuses, reduce inefficiencies or address other sources of inadequate performance. By creating the impression that public services demand a permanent revolution, ministers have lodged in the public mind the belief that public services are poor and that initiative overload has failed to resolve any of these problems.’

Reading Alan Milburn’s speech – Reforming public services – which he made at the start of September to the Eidos Institute in Brisbane, I felt that they may have a point.  In the speech, Alan Milburn talks about the ‘new problems’ politics must confront and then cites improving health, beating crime, regenerating communities and safeguarding the environment.  Of course none of these are remotely new but somehow we’ve become accustomed to the language in the speech, phrases like ‘propelling change’ ‘a different kind of state’ ‘a paradigm shift’ which creates this sense that it is only through constant reform that progress can be achieved.

Of course we need to challenge the status quo and try out new ideas and approaches but I wonder if sometimes we need to give reforms a chance to succeed before the next wave of changes. Has change become too much of a panacea?

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Charles Darwin's tree of life sketch

Charles Darwin's tree of life sketch

In a collaborative study the United Nations, European Community and other organisations including Defra are exploring the economic benefits of biodiversity.  The study intends to put a value on forests, deserts, animals and plants to ascertain the value of ‘natural capital’.

I fear that we are firmly in Thomas Gradgrind territory here, an unyielding obsession with facts and quantification.   Gradgrind, ‘with a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to.’

If life on earth is a process of natural selection between inter-dependent but competing species, then clearly bio-diversity is fundamental to existence – do we need a cost-benefit analysis to demonstrate this?

Oscar Wilde famously observed that, ‘A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.’  And it seems to me we must live in cynical times to be seeking to price the financial value of our planet’s finite natural resources.  This is particularly so when you consider how much we still don’t know.  It’s estimated, for example, that there are between 10 and 30 million species of insects but only 950,000 have been identified.  As for the total number of species of bacteria, nobody really knows, estimates range from 10 million to a billion.  So while Domestos may kill 99% of known bacteria, that really isn’t much to boast about.

Coral reefs support extraordinary biodiversity.  It is not unusual for a reef to have several hundred species of snails, sixty species of corals, and several hundred species of fish. Of all ocean habitats, reefs seem to have the greatest development of complex symbiotic associations.   In Nurturing the innovation reef  Mario Morino suggests that innovation is like a coral reef.  Marine biologists don’t fully understand what causes the reef to form but we do know that human actions can nurture or harm the process.  The same is true for innovation, he suggests – a natural chaotic unpredictable process that is hard, perhaps even impossible to foster.  ‘We must focus on finding ways to nurture and accelerate the natural processes of innovation once they’ve begun naturally.

So let’s nurture the diversity of the reef – both the coral and the human.  After all the same DNA molecules build the cells of the coral polyps, the sea urchins and the sponges that break them down, the parrotfish and us.  We are all natural capital; all worth investing in.

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At the Adelaide Festival of Ideas last month, John Daley the CEO of the Grattan Institute, an Australian think tank, made a thought-provoking speech about the need for governments to select fewer priorities for change.

Strategy is much over-used word in government generally and the production of strategies continues apace both at the local and national level.  Daley reminds us that strategy is about choosing what’s important based on rigorous analysis and prioritisation.  It requires decluttering the mind to focus on a handful of things that will make a big difference in the long run.  Stopping things, Daley argues, creates time to do the stuff that really matters.  I think that for councils in the UK that’s something we find hard to do but the spending squeeze is likely to force us to declutter.

So what then when we’ve done the decluttering are the things that really matter and which we should be focusing on?

Daley categorises the ultimate aims of our lives into personal fulfilment, social interaction and sustainability.  He argues that as well as its significant economic impact, school education is one of the most important levers for promoting individual happiness, increasing social interaction both in communities and through effective democratic participation, increasing awareness of environmental issues and in overcoming disadvantage.

Education, education, education, as Tony Blair famously said.  That begs the question, should councils be as relaxed as we seem to be about the steady erosion of our role with regard to education?  As schools become more and more autonomous, the role of the council and of elected member oversight of education becomes increasingly marginalised.  Yet education may be the single most important factor in helping to achieve our aspirations for sustainable communities.

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August is a good time to catch-up on some of those reports that have been languishing in the reading tray.  I’ve been dipping into Expressive Lives, a Demos collection of essays exploring the changing nature of cultural engagement.

In his essay, David Lammy MP, argues that technological and social changes are making the ‘expressive life’ a possibility for millions of people, enabling them to create, to express themselves and to share their art in ways that would have been unimaginable even 15 years ago.  He suggests that this, ‘opens up a whole new set of possibilities that have the potential to enrich our civic and political life as well as the personal experiences of the individuals who create and enjoy art.  And it offers the prospect of reconnecting us with the values of community, self-reliance and local exchange that can help us to build the good society.’

In his essay, Bill Ivey, Director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University, suggests that the twin pillars of expressive life are heritage (belonging, community and history as expressed through art and ideas grounded in the cultural expressions and practices of family, neighbourhood and ethnicity) and voice (a realm of individual expression).

How best to frame the institutions that provide for this expressive life?  In the conclusion to the collection, Samuel Jones of Demos suggests five guiding principles for future policy: 

  1. Culture, creativity and the arts should be seen from a cross-policy perspective
  2. Government should support both publicly funded and private practice
  3. Young people must be educated to taken an active part in the expressive life
  4. Our expression should be recorded and stored equitably to provide heritage and foster a sense of identity
  5. Institutions should stimulate and enable conversations about the values expressed in our cultural and creative choices.

 ‘Changes in our behaviour, developments in technology, the increased frequency with which we encounter different attitudes and beliefs and changes in world-views and values brought about by the recession,’ Jones argues, ‘combine to put culture and creativity at the centre of policy.’

Often cultural services within local government have suffered from falling under the dread category of ‘discretionary services’.  Already in the climate of making savings, leading local government figures such as Michael Frater are suggesting they will be vulnerable.  This Demos pamphlet suggests a rather different view of the world.  Perhaps if we really grasp the potential of cultural services we would find that they may play as big a part in building the kind of communities to which we are committed, as some of the core services like social care.  And if values are as important as the work of the Campaign Company suggest they may be, then a stronger emphasis on cultural services may help to ensure that more of our interventions achieve the desired outcomes.

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I’ve recently attended a couple of sessions exploring innovation organised by the Young Foundation as part of the London Collaborative.  At the first Geoff Mulgan spoke about how social innovations happen, what is it that makes them grow and become successful.  He mentioned the foundation’s social innovation exchange and that President Obama has set up an office of social innovation.

Geoff Mulgan highlighted four lessons from research into innovation:

1. innovation comes from connecting small groups, individuals and social entrepreneurs to big organisations, government etc.  In science and medicine those connections are well-established but in our world there are very few such intermediaries.

2. for innovation to prosper there needs to be effect supply and effective demand

3. many social innovations cross sectors (i.e the state, the market, the household) as they develop.  So single sector policy tools are not likely to be fully effective.  Support for innovation, Geoff Mulgan suggested, should be ‘sector-blind’.  This strikes me as a key point before we start to creating council-based innovation teams!

4. the field is rich in ideas and methods but largely unaware of them.  As the appetite for the IDeA communities of practice suggests, we want to learn from each other but there is still probably more to do, especially to get a better flow of ideas between Whitehall, townhall, the third sector and the private sector.

Steve Johnson of Capital Ambition also spoke at the first event and emphasised that there would need to be a willingness to accept failures.  He explained that increasingly Capital Ambition sees itself as being in the business of new ideas.  This strikes me as definitely the right focus.  Whereas previous Capital Ambition has been focused on driving improvement across London in terms of the current regulatory regime, going forward and in the context of the spending squeeze, its role in promoting and sharing new ideas will be very important.  In this new environment, Steve Johnson suggested, shared services between boroughs will be a necessity.

Rob Whiteman, Barking & Dagenham’s chief executive, spoke at the second session.  If you’ve been lucky enough to hear Rob speak before you will know what a great speaker he is.  He quickly cut to the chase, saying that the challenge of innovation is how do we as councils create the framework and organisational culture that enables innovation.  One practical thing they do at B&D is once a month there is a meeting-free, email-free day.  Some of my colleagues might suffer withdrawal symptoms just at the thought of that!

Some of the key points that Rob made included:

  1. We need to capture the energy and thinking of the frontline – customers and staff
  2. We are good in local government at producing processes – we need to avoid trying to create a process for innovation
  3. There’s not always a business case for innovation at inception – what does that mean in terms of project management, risk assessments etc?
  4. Innovative solutions are sometimes developed by getting the right people in a room and giving them the scope and space to problem-solve

Two interesting questions that Rob posed were:

  1. How do we spend more public spending on the public and not ourselves? (see Julian Dobson’s blog for more on this idea)
  2. How best do we dis-invest in performance management?

Philip Colligan (LB Camden) also spoke at the event and offered further helpful insights.  For Philip, three factors are paramount: 

  1. know your business – if you understand where the pounds go that gives you the basis for coming up with new ways of doing things
  2. co-production is often a feature of innovative solutions
  3. understanding impact – we need to take the trouble to properly evaluate the impact of the interventions we make.  Philip gave an example of how his authority is working with Imperial College students to do an in-depth evaluation of a behavioural change project involving council tenants’ energy consumption.

During the discussion, it was suggested that often our existing systems of stewardship in local government are about stopping things happening and that we need to turn that on its head so that our systems of stewardship facilitate innovation.  One person suggested that we need to do away with our long-winded person specs and simply say – ‘wanted – people with sunny dispositions!’

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