In the public sector
In the past, governments were often pioneers of social innovation. The great municipal reforms of the 19th century created a new social infrastructure, as did the welfare reforms of the late 19th and 20th centuries. More recently some of the most important technological innovations were associated with public organisations – from the Internet (DARPA) to the World Wide Web (CERN). But there are many structural features of government that inhibit risk taking and innovation. There are barriers (from cost based budgeting and departmental structures, to audit and accountability processes, as well as a lack of career rewards) and few enabling conditions such as the dedicated budgets, teams, and processes found in business or science. These conditions too often squeeze out new ideas and impose standardised solutions rather than allowing many flowers to bloom.
The result is not necessarily a lack of innovation in government. Government at every level has been the site of almost constant change – particularly in the last 30 years. The problem is that the public innovation process (centred on political manifestos and commitments) is by its nature centralised and episodic, a problem compounded by the structural limitations to innovation on the front line of service delivery. One response to this has been to reduce the scope of the state and parcel various activities and services out to contractors from the market and third sector – such as prisons, healthcare, adult education and so on. But this trend has had its own problems.
If the state is to fully realise its potential as a critical force for the kind of social innovation required in the current period of transition, then there are profound structural issues that need to be addressed around how the state raises and allocates its funds, and how it is accountable for them. In this section we look at some of the devices that have been used to make public bureaucracies more creative and innovative. Some of the thinking here is set out in more detail in a series of publications on public innovation that have been published by the Young Foundation and NESTA. We begin with some of the high level issues and then move onto more specific tools.