A fear of visionary thinking

Innovative ideas in the public sector are often shelved because of fear but the right backing from senior managers or organisations can push through ideas that have been met with scepticism as the case of Vision Housing shows
Patent no. 1181988 designed by Edward Niklaus Breitung
Radical ideas in the public sector are often buried or change too slow but finding someone who appreciates the vision can see it pushed through. Photograph: Hulton Archive

How easy is it to distinguish an idea that is outside the box from one that is off the wall? Ask the good people of Redditch, Worcestershire, whose council recently came up with a proposal to heat a public swimming pool using energy generated from the crematorium next door.

Many swimmers and mourners alike were outraged, but on paper, however, the plans would save £14,500 a year at the pool and significantly reduce environmental impact.

Innovation in the public management sphere is often received in much the same way, and if ideas as radical as Redditch's rarely see the light of day, it is generally because they have been buried somewhere dark.

"One thing the public sector is very good at is hiding the bodies," observes Mark Napier, managing director of the Centre for Public Innovation.

One conspicuous example that floated, however, was a 2009 proposal to ease congestion at job centres.

"With increasing unemployment, some in the Department of Work and Pensions had been lobbying for a change in the system of forcing people to return every two weeks to maintain eligibility for their jobseeker's allowance," explains Patrick Dunleavy, professor of political science and public policy chair at the London School of Economics.

"Because of the pressure of numbers, it was mooted that those searching for more middle-class positions email in their job applications, rather than turning up in person. Ministers kicked it back, however."

Dunleavy adds that a lack of imagination and an "appallingly slow response to anything regarding technical innovation" are major impediments to change in the public sector – if change projects are even possible, given many organisations' fine staffing margins.

Consultants are closely associated with innovation but tend to propose the solutions that those in positions of influence want them to – in short they are extremely unlikely to suggest things that will get turned down, he says.

Innovations that are initially greeted with scepticism may succeed, however, if they have unequivocal backing from a senior manager. The Office for Public Management's Unblocking Creativity in Public Service report cites the commitment of then Metropolitan police deputy commissioner Sir Ian Blair to police community support officers as integral to their establishment.

Against "significant resistance" from the Police Federation, and complicated by convoluted organisational structures, policies and procedures, Blair's leadership "was critical in promoting the proposals and in overcoming obstacles in the development and implantation process."

Probation Service loses out

But change is also driven from outside. Mark Napier offers as an example Vision Housing, an award-winning London organisation that houses newly-released prisoners, established by Annys Darkwa, herself a former prisoner.

Despite being the obvious partner, the Probation Service initially refused to work with Darkwa. Now, four years after setting up, the organisation's clients have a reoffending rate 10 times lower than those of probation.

Had a couple of local authorities not taken a chance and given her a contract – and had Darkwa not pushed forward on her own, surviving on benefits and taking no salary for the first two years – it seems unlikely that Vision Housing would ever have seen the light of day.

Fear of innovation is endemic to the public sector, Napier says, with organisations preferring the status quo even if it doesn't deliver the results they want, and regardless of the demonstrable successes of alternatives.

"The public sector as a whole is incredibly risk-averse and will always stick to the parameters of success it knows, rather than take a chance on an unknown quantity that might produce dividends," he maintains.

"Some of the ideas being put forward may not be so off the wall, rather that the extreme risk-aversion of some chief executives and managers makes them seem so."

Restorative justice has also proved to be too radical – or too politically sensitive – a move.

Despite strong academic evidence for its efficacy and having delivered concrete results in cities in the north of England, it has been rolled out patchily and, again with the support of the police, against strong opposition. An obvious solution to justice minister Ken Clarke's agenda to reduce prisoner numbers, it has yet to receive wholehearted Home Office support.

"The justice minister arguing that actually prison doesn't work points up the difficulty of establishing what we mean by an off the wall idea," says Chris Yapp, senior associate fellow at the Institute of Governance and Public Management at Warwick Business School.

"What looks dotty to one part of the public sector may, with a change of minister, manager or ethos, seem more mainstream and become increasingly acceptable."

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