Creating a Culture of Innovation in the Public Sector

Former Head of Innovation at Kent and Essex Police, currently our Innovation in Policing Consultant, Martin Wilson, sets out some of the challenges that confront the public sector. He considers how people can work better together to identify improved ways of working, and foster a culture of engagement, innovation and improvement. Martin suggests that co-working and innovation across blue light organisations can and should also include the wider involvement of community and voluntary sectors.

Martin Wilson
by Martin Wilson

Public sector organisations have less money to deal with increasing demand. There are a finite number of responses to this challenge which could include finding efficiencies across the business, narrowing the mission and reducing service, or perhaps accepting higher degree of risk. What has now become commonly accepted is that there has never been a greater need to innovate and to transform. So, against a backdrop of budget cuts across public services one of our new challenges is how to encourage innovation and to effectively harness the thinking power of a whole organisation – like ‘crowd funding’ for ideas – we’re looking to harness the thinking and the problem-solving abilities of our people.

I’m of the view that this activity takes more than simple aspiration or intent. To successfully develop a culture of innovation there needs to be a raft of building blocks in place so that there is the space, and the opportunity to think, to challenge and to transform.

The culture of an organisation is clearly influenced, and indeed should be defined, by its leaders. So, where leaders want to bring in new thinking they will need be clear about that, reflect it in policy and create the eco-system required to encourage critical thinking and deliver tangible innovation.

Key Elements of an Innovation Culture

Leaders need to be explicit about the value of change and innovation. They can personally extend the invitation to an entire organisation to engage in ideation and problem solving. There is a shared responsibility to identify what could be done better and to challenge or improve practices. This is about meaningfully engaging and affording the opportunity to present new ideas as well as to address the big issues that the organisation faces.

  • Engaging People

For engagement to be comprehensive there needs to be more than a single approach here. A meeting at HQ, chaired by someone from the ‘top team’ can be greatly fruitful and it says a lot about their personal leadership if when they put that time aside and create the forum where ideas can be discussed. Ideally such forums would be replicated at a local level by senior managers to extend the opportunity and to reach the wider group. I’m also a fan of solutions like idea management software as they can extend the engagement far wider and get to a significant proportion of the workforce.

  • Capturing and Distilling

An organisation needs more than one way of encouraging problem solving and innovation and often the greatest challenge is creating clear processes for capturing and distilling ideas. We can develop and filter ideas where people have the opportunity to share their thoughts and to allow their ideas to be considered and discussed by the wider organisation.

  • Taking Calculated Risk

A culture of innovation can be nurtured if ideas can be quickly implemented and given the funding and the support to succeed. But where an initiative or pilot is not offering the right results there needs to be credit given to those who were brave enough to try and those with the strength to stop what doesn’t work.

  • Pilot and Implement

Where we afford our people the chance to come up with new and better ways of working we also must have the top-level mandate and the budget to either test concepts or to actually deliver new projects. People will be more likely to engage when they have evidence that leaders will listen and act upon the best ideas.

  • Reward and Recognise

Where leaders are clear that they want a culture of engagement and innovation then it follows that there will be great value in very publicly rewarding those who have contributed. It’s worth noting here that not everyone is going to be an entrepreneurial thinker. It’s important that we can also recognise the people who set out why an idea won’t work and the ones that help to develop or implement a concept.

Innovating in Partnership

My other area of interest is how you collaborate to innovate across agencies. Many of the big issues that exist in communities just don’t have a single cause or a single organisation that is wholly responsible for finding the solution. So, if you take an issue like rising knife crime in the capital do you continue to deploy existing strategies in greater doses (with less resources) or is there opportunity to take a more ‘whole system’ approach and to engage the widest range of stakeholders when looking to collect and collate thinking on how the issue can be tackled. Perhaps we as a collective community have a shared responsibility to address it. If that is the case then this poses a real challenge in terms of working together across the whole innovation lifecycle from ideation to the delivery of interventions that can be orchestrated right across the community, statutory and voluntary sectors.

So, I think we can identify that some of our bigger problems require thinking that crosses the boundaries of our public-sector agencies and must involve our communities too. This involves collaborating, working together and considering how we do this at every stage of the innovation process.

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