#8: Policy would be more innovative

Michael Harris /   June 13, 2012 at 8:31 PM 2,699 views


This is the eighth in a series of posts on ‘Ten reasons why we need a new approach to developing social policy’, originally published in 2012. The first post in the series can be found here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, the fifth herethe sixth here and the seventh here. In the posts, we argue that social policy should be developed by and with the people who use and provide public and voluntary services.

With less money and, in the case of ‘rising tide’ issues such as an ageing society, less time as well, we need plenty of new ideas in social policy – but where they come from matters.

Steve Jobs said that: “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” True, but a lot of innovation is sparked by seeing people’s needs close-up and figuring out better ways to meet them. This is why practitioners have created many of the best new approaches, and why we should distinguish between two types of innovation – those that seem like a good idea on paper but should stay there, and those that are good in practice because that’s where they’ve come from.

Firstly, paper innovation, or as we’ve it called it here before the ‘blueprint approach‘.

A few years’ ago Demos pointed out that government holds a ‘pipeline’ view of innovation, meaning that:

  • new solutions are mostly developed in Whitehall departments and R&D labs in large technology firms (and indeed sometimes in think tanks);
  • innovation grows out of major hardware solutions implemented at scale and business process re-engineering;
  • process innovation (or ‘lean systems’) is the most effective way of improving efficiency;
  • innovation is driven only by market or quasi-market competition; and
  • the primary job of public servants and frontline practitioners is to implement what emerges from this pipeline.

The current Government would claim to have moved decisively away from this kind of thinking with its emphasis on ‘open public services‘, in which decentralisation, localism, choice and outcomes-based payments will create many more opportunities for grassroots-led innovation. But it continues to push ‘solutions’ such as lean and shared services, adheres even more than its predecessors to the importance of competition, and can’t restrain itself from introducing big ‘top-down’ reforms such as universal benefits and the Work Programme, Academies and free schools, Police Commissioners and the NHS reforms – many in the name of greater localism, it says, but with the obvious irony that they all are being pushed (imposed) from the centre.

Innovations dreamt up by civil servants and think tanks can be whizzy but can also lack groundedness, practicality, a proper analysis of possible bad outcomes, and a constituency of support necessary for successful implementation (pace the NHS reforms in particular). It would be tragic as a result if ‘innovation’ became a dirty word amongst practitioners – something that’s largely ‘done to’ them rather than ‘done by’ them.

Fortunately however, there is a better way.

Secondly, then, practical innovation. Many of the most exciting ideas in public services over the past few years have come from practitioners and service users – personalisation and direct payments, family friendly policies, user voice (from the disability rights movement in particular), Nurse Family Partnerships, the Expert Patients Programme, The Swindon LIFE programme (developed by Participle with 15 local families), Keyring and Shared Lives in social care, the Richmond Fellowship’s RETAIN programme and Star Wards in mental health.

This isn’t surprising. Practitioners and users are much closer to problems, and they can see for themselves the ways in which existing services aren’t working (especially ‘failure demand‘ and where this stems from). Unlike most policy wonks, practitioners find it difficult to insulate themselves from the frustrations of services users, their families and local communities. Consequently, practitioners’ intelligence is akin to what W. Edwards Deming called ‘profound knowledge‘, rather than the partisanship and prejudice that often characterises policy debate in the Westminster bubble.

Practitioners can also test out for themselves the viability of alternative approaches (though they often do it surreptitiously, which tells you something about how far we still have to go to create a system that supports frontline innovation).

This has important implications for policy. Practitioners and service users experience policy – they see firsthand how the approaches designed at the centre, from funding and commissioning to regulation and performance measurement, actually operates at the frontline. They are better positioned to anticipate how it will be interpreted and implemented, not according to the perfect blueprints of its creators but based on what happened when previous policy encountered reality. This includes the likely unintended consequences, for example, how measurement and targets can be ‘gamed’.

From this, practitioners are also better placed than policy wonks to identify ways that policies act as barriers to better provision (whether the policy in question derives from central government or their own service or organisation), and so how policy could be reformed to create a more suitable and supportive environment for services including innovative approaches.

Think tanks can and have supported some of the practitioner-developed innovations mentioned above, and this has been important. But more often than not think tanks neglect others’ ideas in favour of their own (as part of the ‘battle of ideas‘ they cling to), and don’t do enough to build alliances with charities and campaigners.

We might also wonder why it is that receiving a ‘seal of approval’ from think tanks matters so much, given their typical remove from the reality of life on the frontline.

What’s out-of-date then – what should be our priority for innovation – is the way we innovate in policy, including challenging the largely closed ‘innovation industry’ that inadvertently reinforces the idea that innovation is a specialised ‘elite activity’ beyond the reach of the rest of us.

Instead, to get more fresh new ideas we need to go beyond the same old suspects. Focusing more on practitioner-led innovations will mean a greater practicality in new ideas. It will also – if we chose to listen – mean policy that’s better suited to frontline innovation.

After all, if government can ask practitioners for suggestions of where to save money, there’s no reason it can’t ask them for their ideas to improve policy.

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