Innovating innovatively

Demos has published a new series of essays – Unlocking Innovation:  Why citizens hold the key to public service reformAs with any collection with seventeen authors, the quality looks a bit uneven (said condescendingly, without having actually read more than a few fragments), but there is some good and some provocative and some good provocative stuff here.  And the helpful Demos people have got the editors talking about the key ideas (with some very strange opening crackles as if they had somehow managed to record it on to a dusty LP), so nobody else has to read the book either.

The key theme is the central need to put citizens/clients/customers at the heart of the innovation process and to get away from a business process view of what counts as innovation.  As Paul Coen of the LGA put it at the launch event, the bit that matters is the point of contact between the service user and the first line staff provider of that service – so if that is not the focus of innovation, something important has been missed.

To get there, the editors, Sophia Parker and Simon Parker identify five principles:

  • from process-led to demand-led innovation
  • from solution-centred to problem-centred innovation
  • from best practice to next practices
  • from managerial to relational models
  • from innovation to interaction

Or to translate (I think) from think tank into slightly less abstract language:

  • start with people
  • concentrate on understanding problems and the problem before attempting to find solutions
  • allow different solutions to emerge and grow rather than finding one and enforcing it universally
  • make sure decision making isn’t dominated by system and process owners
  • use technology to support social interaction, not to deliver monolithic services

Slightly oddly, one of the most reassuring part aspects of the book is that it seems a bit old fashioned.  The enemy it attacks – of top-down, Whitehall knows best, one size fits all innovation – is a real one, and one that is far from vanquished, but it represents a model that already few would be proud to advocate.

That’s important not because it matters whether or not the caricature is accurate – and like any good caricature, we can in any case clearly recognise the face through the distortion – but because it risks making ‘user innovation’ and ‘service innovation’ opposites, rather than accepting that they are different elements of the same process.   At the launch, Sophia Parker made the point that innovation should not start from process improvement, although it ‘may well’ lead there.  It’s easy to agree that innovation shouldn’t start from process improvement – but it’s hard to see the value of innovation which doesn’t result in improved processes.