From ‘not invented here’, to ‘proudly found elsewhere’ - Eight insights about innovation in public services


Over the past two years, CES has been working with the Innovation Lab in the Department of Finance in Northern Ireland. The Lab aims to improve public services by creating new and ground-breaking innovations through design, experimentation and creativity. Working with the Lab was an opportunity for CES to bring experience about using evidence and implementing change to improve outcomes.

There has never been a more important time for innovation in public services. Citizens expectations of public services are rising, while public resources are in short supply. We know that to get different outcomes, we need different approaches. So why is it that new ideas in public services often get stuck? What makes them so difficult to implement, or to replicate even when they are successfully implemented elsewhere?

The development of innovation teams, programmes and labs in public services in Ireland, Northern Ireland and around the world signals an interest and commitment to making innovation happen. During the summer of 2018, a team involving the Innovation Lab and CES set out to learn more about innovation, and what is needed to embed creativity, innovation and implementation in public services. The team engaged senior public sector leaders in conversations about what innovation really means and how it can improve public services. Findings were shared at an event involving over one hundred members of the Northern Ireland Civil Service which took place in February 2019.

The next step involved putting together a short, practical report which could share learning from the process, along with practical tools. This report will be published later this year, bringing together insights, case studies and practical tools to help innovation grow in public services. The paper adapts Mulgan and Albury’s 2003 definition of innovation in the public sector in the context of new challenges facing public services:

Successful innovation in public services is both the creation and implementation of ideas leading to new policies, processes, structures, services and products that improve outcomes for people.’

Here are eight insights that the team gained from their engagement with public servants in Northern Ireland:

  • It’s a type of change: Innovation is about thinking differently and doing things in new ways to achieve a better result. It can also involve applying tried and tested approaches in new contexts.
  • It’s both creation and implementation: It is harder to implement than to create and this is where most organisations appear to come unstuck. Creation of itself is inadequate without testing and follow-through to implementation. Implementation needs to be considered early in the innovation process.
  • It’s cultural: Organisation culture affects our capacity and commitment to innovate. Innovation should be everyone’s business and not the responsibility of the few. This requires communication of what innovation means in plain English and support for staff to innovate. An innovative organisation provides safe spaces to think the unthinkable, to take up great ideas, to experiment and to have the confidence to fail. Until innovation becomes an unconscious element of ‘how we do things around here’ we will have to continue to drive innovation and build the space and capacity to innovate.
  • It’s essential to the achievement of outcomes: Interviewees talked about the rationale for innovation. If we continue to do what we’ve always done, we will continue to get the same outcomes. The Programme for Government in Northern Ireland sets an ambitious set of outcomes. We will not make things better for people, without innovation in thinking, policy and practice. We will not deliver significant improvements in wellbeing for all unless we are prepared to stop doing things that have little impact.
  • It’s collaborative: Societal problems have a wide range of stakeholders and exist in a complex context. Successful innovation requires understanding of that context and how to influence and problem solve within it. Whilst accountability may sit with one Department or Agency the solution more often sits with a broader group. Innovation requires collaboration across Departments, sectors and communities.
  • It’s about involving users early and often: Early and ongoing user engagement is essential, if we are to create new policies and solutions that will deliver sustainable outcomes. Failure to involve will undermine any sustainable solution. The application of the principles of user-centred design and co-production are vital if this is to be meaningful.
  • It requires data: Innovation isn’t soft and fluffy. Innovators need data to prototype, to benchmark and to measure transformation, using evidence to start new things, adjust course or stop doing things that aren’t achieving outcomes.
  • The ideas are out there: The challenge for leaders is how to enable individuals, teams and whole organisations to innovate, unlocking individual, organisation and system immunity to change. This requires a more strategic view of innovation and the resources available to our organisations.

This blog entry is based on a report produced by the Innovation Lab (Department of Finance, NI) and CES. The authors of this report are: Irene Hewitt, Malcolm Beattie, Majella McCloskey, Tony Young and Melanie Stone.

CES’s work with the Innovation Lab was one of nine projects featured in the Goal Programme for Public Service Reform and Innovation. To read more about the Programme and how it is supporting change in Ireland and Northern Ireland visit