Innovation for Public Good conference – what would unlock public sector innovation?

Seamus McAleavey opened NICVA’s Innovation for Public Good conference with the observation that “when things are good we have a tendency to moan about the status quo, but when things are bad we cling to the status quo”.

Under the current budgetary and economic conditions, he argued that we cannot survive by continuing to think about doing more with less, but instead need to think about how to do things differently.

Kelly Wilson replaced her DFP minister Arlene Foster (who was called away to an NI Executive meeting). She’s the director of Strategic Policy and Reform Division) and said that departments were critically aware of the demands on public services as well as public expectations.

She highlighted the Northern Ireland Innovation Strategy (DETI) and noted that innovation doesn’t have to be radical or on a large scale. Effective change can be small. But government needs:

  1. … to take risks. The public sector’s requirement to be financially accountable has made it risk averse. It needs to become comfortable being less risk averse: a journey not an overnight change. A balance must be struck between regulations for accountability and facilitating innovation in public sector.
  2. … senior leaders to be supportive and willing to take risks.
  3. … to try new things. The Innovation Lab is one demonstration of NI departments’ commitment to innovation.
  4. … to promote and embed a culture of innovation. She highlighted Nesta’s ‘Nudge’ approach to behavioural insights.

The keynote speaker was Geoff Mulgan, chief executive of Nesta. He began by remembering that today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Ada Lovelace, the ‘mother of computing’.

Innovation productivityWhile he segmented his talk into business, public sector and civil society, Mulgan admitted that discussion in each of these fields is no longer separate: the same language, methods and ideas are common across sectors.

If a business doesn’t innovate, it stagnates, stops growing and won’t create new jobs. Smaller countries (like Estonia) are driving innovation, perhaps more nimble and agile than larger lumbering countries.

Mulgan referred to Nesta’s summer report on the 2030 NHS. Rather than just throwing increasing amounts of money at the health service to “protect” it, a different, less hospital-based vision of the NHS was required. Planning for 2030 would need to take into account genomics, peer to peer mutual support, behavioural economics, along with new digital technologies self care and care for each other.

He suggested that opening up public sector data was one way to boost innovation and allow feed in ideas from external analysis. The role of the Alliance For Useful Evidence was highlighted and the possibility of a What Works Centre for NI.

One casestudy looked at public parks. With belts tightened and cuts being made, what’s the alternative to public parks slowly sliding into disrepair? Could parks be run with half their current budget? Can money be generated from services or events within park boundaries?

economist automated_job_lossesCan more be done to fit people to jobs? And fundamentally, can we prepare young people for the jobs that will survive the net wave of automation, robotics and computerisation. (Will Uber require drivers once driverless cars are available?) The jobs that are predicted to have longevity are those requiring creativity, social intelligence, and dexterity (using your hands to make things).

mindset matters for innovationMulgan finished by reminding the north Belfast audience that mindsets are as important as programmes when it comes to fostering innovation: optimism, openness to experience; and paranoia. Nothing motivates like a bit of fear. Harness that energy and that’s where the innovation will come from.

During the Q&A with the speakers and other guest panellists, DETI’s Eoin McFadden argued that we don’t have a choice about innovating: the disruptive influence of technology on markets cannot be stopped. He reminded the audience that long distance truck driving is one of the most common jobs in many US states … but California is trialling autonomous trucks.

NICVA innovation panelGeoff Mulgan suggested that building real life work with businesses into the school curriculum helps children realise why learning is important. He cautioned against relying on economic growth alone to solve every problem. Innovation must go hand in hand with other changes. (Finland are experimenting with Basic Income.)

One perceptive question ask about the ethics of “experimenting” with services and service users who may be sick and potentially vulnerable. The need for – and existing practice of – ethically checking policy initiatives to prevent unintentional damage was agreed.

The Q&A concluded with a swerve towards Minecraft and Nesta’s Christmas List which includes PrintCraft’s ability to 3D print designs created in the game. An innovation for your stocking ahead of further public sector changes next year!

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  • TruthToPower

    Automation is all very well but if every job is automated, the wage base from which the ability to purchase goods/services is derived, dwindles so fewer goods/services are purchased and so on to the logical conclusion that innovation is all very well but if it doesn’t fuel the economy, we will have a society full of interesting gizmos that v few will be able to afford.

    Truck driving, taxiing, shelf stacking, counter assistants, postal workers, construction workers, maintenance workers of various kinds, soldiers, bar staff, waiting staff etc will be a thing of the past sometime this century at least in the West as the technology is there or at least well on its way to be there.

    What do those jobs have in common? They tend to be performed by people (not all but most) who do not possess high academic qualifications or those who do but cannot find a job in their sector of choice.

    These are their only job opportunities and now the rug will be pulled from under them. Where does this leave this sector of society?

    There’s no point in saying they can move in the service or financial or IT sector as this requires academic attainment which many people are not able to acquire. Not everyone is academic but they need employment.

    Remember that if you try to sell someone a service, that person needs to have a job to be able to purchase it.

    There’s only so many skilled workers an economy or demand can support. Where will this lead?

    A swelling of the underclass or precariat. With a dwindling purchasing economic base, there will be fewer people who can afford things, lower treasury receipts which means less scope for welfare. What will they live on? Prisoner of war style rationing of calories provided by mass produced handouts of cheap processed low quality food produced by machines at low cost?

    robots don’t earn and can’t spend money or can’t pay taxes. More robots and fewer human jobs means less cash for the government to spend.

    As for basic income : where will the money come from from a smaller tax base? Would it have an inflationary effect that will cancel out its initial benefit?

  • chrisjones2

    “robots don’t earn and can’t spend money or can’t pay taxes”

    Yes they can …we just have to amend the systems

    The problem will be constructively using the time of those displaced from jobs. Industries like coal and steel offer a (not very good example) and NI is ill prepared for this. Indeed all those nice young middle class kids in call centres are in for a shock as they will be some of the first to be displaced by robots – a lot sooner than they think

  • aquifer

    To invite innovation government would need to spell out what the current situation is, how they want it to change, and how much money change could cost with current methods. This transparency would show up the limitations of current programmes and their likely failure. Pet projects would stand naked. Innovative proposals would also challenge the silo structures of government. So innovation is unlikely to happen without leadership insisting on good evidence and transparency.

  • Sharpie

    Geoff Mulgan is an amazing personality – extremely brainy and he has dedicated his considerable intellect to making Nesta a real force as a think tank. He could have made a fortune in the City.

    Anyway it is nice to hear people talking about innovation but no more than that. innovation happens. The question is what to choose to do in life – where does Northern Ireland want to be in 20 years and to what cause will it pin its efforts. Without vision or direction there is drift and incremental advances. remember innovation is the same as evolution – it is there to prop up the existing system, not replace it. The only thing that genuinely disrupts the system is something brand new – a totally new concept of delivering a service – like Facebook, onto Air B’n B, onto Uber and Amazon. Those are disruptive.

    The sharing economy is probably the future to pin the colours to – recognising the future role of automation and accepting that rather than fighting it. What are the opportunities to create an open source economy that is far smarter than that we experience today where technology and ingenuity are far more freely available to resolve todays problems in a way that do not store up future ones.

    Trying to think of macro trends is disabling – we cannot stop the trend towards older people, but we can unleash thousands of small scale innovations to address it in practice.

  • murdockp

    Only Privatisation and competition will unlock innovation in the same way competition in the private sector produces the same.

    Innovation in the public sector will not happen in my lifetime in NI, it may do in England but not NI. Our civil service exists to deliver a socialist / communist dream with high levels of employment on generous terms.

    Backing up such a statement needs examples, only yesterday I took the train from Adelaide Street. There is no ticket machine to buy a ticket, the full employment culture means there is a ticket seller on the train at all times. The rest of the UK has delivered automation where tickets can be bought on line, through a oyster card, or from a machine. Here its is all about ensuring these innovations are not brought in as it will affect the full employment socialist status of the public sector.

    Even the £700m they are throwing at the problem to make the public sector smaller will never deliver anything, the culture of socialist is so deep routed, the employment numbers will just creep back up again.

    In short, there never will be bold innovation in the public sector in NI unless driven from Westminster.

  • Zig70

    I actually want my government to be risk adverse. I don’t want to hear that they winged it, didn’t record their actions or repeatedly made the same mistakes. The public sector here is a brain drain on the private sector. If I was smart enough, that’s where I’d be working instead of busting my nuts with no pension making someone else rich. The way to deal with all these upety smarts looking for new ways to empty bins is to pay the upper grades less. It would help expand the private sector too.

  • Croiteir

    Don’t expect any civil servant to gut either his budget or his staff levels as these are the measure of his importance