Innovation: creating space and focusing on real problems
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We want to be clear that this report is not intended to address innovation policy for the UK, or even all of the innovation in the public sector. Innovation is a far wider topic than digital. But we thought it was worth making a few observations about how innovation within digital government can be strengthened as, whilst some organisations are using these techniques, many are still not.
Innovation rarely happens on a national or global level. It tends to start smaller. The idea might be a small process change, a tweak to some wording, or something more complex. The public sector has to be open to these innovative ideas and that they can come from anywhere. It has to be prepared to take the occasional risk.
There are times when a public sector organisation will have a problem for which it needs an innovative solution. In this case the public sector might need to release information about the problem to help people come up with potential solutions. This might include a description, some desired success criteria, some data, some thoughts on user needs, some documentation on capabilities.
Openly releasing such information can help stimulate creativity and innovation to solve the problem.
The organisation will then need to bring together a small group of people to test and develop some ideas: some potential users, a support community, some of the agencies and frontline workers that deliver the service, some of the back-office staff who have to build it. It will vary, there is no simple list, but we have to bring together the people involved to see which ideas are viable.
Typically people have to be bought together face-to-face: that is where ideas really spark. Ideas and innovation created locally between people, communities, public sector workers, researcher and the complex range of agencies that they all work with.
Openly publishing the results of that discussion is necessary even if there was no progress. It may be that one organisation decides not to proceed with an idea but another finds it the perfect fit for their problem. Or that another organisation wants to join with the originators and combine resources to jointly solve the problem.
Using public spaces and social infrastructure for such purposes is recommended. It makes them living spaces used by the community.
It helps bring digital communities to life when we move from and between the digital world and the real world. These communities will contain a range of people from communities, the mixed economy and the private sector. This mix creates a fertile ground for ideas.
There has been much focus on ‘hackdays’ where digital specialists come together. This has been a wonderful training ground but the term is off putting to many people. By deterring these people the day can lead to a focus on technical solutions built by technical people and not necessarily solutions to real problems built with all stakeholders.
Moving from ‘hackdays’ to ‘challenges’ will be beneficial in the future. These challenges could be set by the public sector organisation based on policy priorities; or the public could suggest them. Setting up a challenge with information and data about the problem, the capabilities and limits of the public sector, with information about user needs is key to providing focus.
In some cases these challenges might require funding to compensate people for their time or to provide sufficient capacity to create a sustainable solution. The funding might come from the public sector organisation’s own innovation fund; it might come from a partner such as Nesta or a charity; it might be crowdfunded .
By running challenges focused on real problems, using public spaces and public information, by using active and engaged communities we will unlock the best of creativity from across the country.
To take an idea from its original concept, through a viability check and in to life (where it still might fail) takes time and money. People choose to invest that time for differing reasons. Some will spend time out of a feeling of ethical responsibility for the public good. Others might look for a financial return and request to retain some or all of the intellectual property.
It is necessary to consider the sustainability of the idea. Can it scale? If works can it be taken to other regions and organisations? This challenge will be eased if there are common, open standards across the public sector. We will discuss this problem in the next chapter.
These recommendations, taken together with those elsewhere in the report, will lead to improvements in local digital services in the period to 2020 and beyond.
Putting local authorities, cities and city-regions on this upward trajectory is essential given the serious challenges many face in 2015. But to be successful and to create the types of inclusive communities people want to see in the future these initiatives must be truly people powered. Engaging citizens in designing and developing services that they care about to create the space that they want to live in.
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