Is innovation overrated?

David Walker was at the launch of the Demos collection on Unlocking Innovation I went to last week and wrote a piece in yesterday’s Guardian with his thoughts.

From the Demos perspective, they are splendidly contrarian – and so well worth reflecting on.  He has two main ideas, which seem to get a bit tangled up together in places, but I think the essence of them is that:

  • service users may not want much innovation – for at least some sorts of services, bureaucratic regularity may be precisely the requirement
  • service providers may know something about service provision – and so by implication, should trust their own professionalism rather than indulging the loss of confidence which leads to the conclusion that customers have all insight and providers have none

Walker seems slightly to confuse the question of whether customers want ‘innovation’ with the question of whether some public services need to be based on consistent rules and the consistent application of those rules.  For any given set of service entitlements, there are clearly different ways of delivering them which may be more or less attractive to different customers in different circumstances.  That attractiveness, moreover, will not be static – it is a function of service expectations generated from a wide range of sources which go far beyond the boundaries of the particular service in question.

The second of Walker’s points is perhaps the more interesting.   Do public services – should public services – have the self-confidence to assert their expertise in service delivery, or should they always defer to the desires of their inevitably amateur customers?  But being more interesting doesn’t stop it being a false choice.  There are plenty of organisations whose commitment to customer service is not in doubt but which do not express it through overt participation in service design.

The solution  (or resolution) is, I think, to be clear about who can be expected to be expert about what.  We are each of us experts on ourselves and our needs.  Few of us are expert in designing and operating large scale service processes.  So we can say – and can be helped to say more clearly – what it is we want and how we would like to experience its delivery.  Our views on how best to bring that about in terms of organisational or service design may be less compelling.  That’s why individual self-managed care budgets are a good and powerful idea – and it’s also why they are a less universally applicable example than they are sometimes presented as being.