Innovation Lab in Northern Ireland


One of the nine projects in the Goal Programme for Public Service Reform and Innovation involves CES working with the Innovation Lab, a team based in the Department of Finance in Northern Ireland. The Lab was set up in 2014, and has a role in promoting and building capacity in innovation across the Northern Ireland Civil Service.

Innovation is now recognised as an important aspect of reform and change in public services, in Ireland, Northern Ireland and around the world. But what does innovation mean in the context of public services, what stops innovative ideas from spreading, and what helps it to grow?

These were some of the questions pursued by the Innovation Lab team in a series of interviews with senior leaders in the Northern Ireland Civil Service. Key themes emerging from the interviews were presented at an event in Belfast in February to stimulate thinking about encouraging innovation in the Northern Ireland Civil Service.

The event was opened by David Sterling, Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, with over one hundred civil servants attending. Speakers from the public sector described practical examples of innovation in action.

Key messages emerging from the day include:

  • Innovation involves thinking differently and doing things differently
  • It involves collaborating with other departments, agencies and stakeholders, and engaging with users
  • It requires change in organisational culture, particular skills and mindset, in order to grow.

Risk aversion can be a feature of the organisational culture in public services and is one of the main reasons why innovations aren’t recognised, or don’t spread after they have been introduced.

Rowan Conway from the RSA, an innovation organisation based in the UK, was the guest speaker and drew from her experience of supporting innovation. ‘Find willing partners, start small, learn fast and fail safe’, she said. ‘Push what moves.’

CES is working with the Innovation Lab team to produce resources based on the experience of the Lab.