Shaping the Future: A Look at Innovation in Northern Ireland's Public Sector

The Innovation Lab and CES have been working together to explore the state of innovation within the public sector. What is happening? Is there an innovation gap? Are we better at generating ideas than implementing them? If so, why, and how can we improve implementation? How can we foster the level of innovation needed to deliver the outcomes we are all committed to?

A joint team, involving the iLab and CES was established to explore these questions with around 100 members of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, who, broadly speaking, work at the level immediately below the senior leaders originally interviewed. Our approach was informed by evidence about innovation, complex systems and immunity to change (as experienced by people, organisations and whole systems).

The full paper outlines the themes from those conversations and is intended to stimulate thinking and action, and this article aims to summarise some key insights that we feel still deserve attention.

Although the report was commissioned in 2018, many if not all the learnings are still relevant today, if not more so, considering how much change the world has undergone in the intervening years.

Perspectives on innovation from public sector leadership

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 in itself is inadequate without prototyping, testing and follow-through to implementation. Implementation needs to be considered early in the innovation process.

It’s cultural. Organisational 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. If we continue to do what we’ve always done, we will continue to get the same 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.

Forms of Public Sector Innovation

Innovation in the public sector varies by scope and scale. Discussions covered a wide range of public sector innovations, some systemic, some radical and many incremental.

  1. Incremental - Going on all the time; individual staff and teams improving and streamlining how work is done day by day, like Continual Improvement.
  2. Radical - Development of new services, delivery methods or processes leading to marked improvements in performance like Shared Services.
  3. Systemic - Major shifts that transform whole sectors, industries or organisations; complex, transformative and take time to implement, like Devolution of Government.

Insights from each innovation stage

So, what do we know about public sector innovation at each stage in the process? First, a refresher of the process itself.

The Innovation Curve illustrates the process of innovation from the exploration of opportunities and challenges, through delivery and implementation to system change. The curve predicts a pattern to innovation; as we travel though the stages there is a defined growth eventually leading to whole system change.

Stage 1: Exploring opportunities and challenges

Innovation begins with the recognition and definition of an issue or problem. Problem definition ensures that innovation addresses the real issue and not a symptom of it. This stage requires an understanding of the problem context and clarification of the opportunities and challenges. Genuine exploration can only happen when the right people are involved.

Stage 2: Generating ideas

Do we spend enough time generating ideas? Great organisations spend time on blue sky thinking, recognising that investing in that speculative space is crucial for ongoing success. There are many tools that can help with idea generation.

Stage 3: Developing and testing

This includes pathfinders, pilots and prototyping to prove the value (or otherwise) of an innovation. This stage provides a safe place to fail and to learn. Teams such as the Department of Finance’s Innovation Lab, provide a place to experiment, to prototype, to run Beta versions of new systems and to test out ideas in a safe way. This stage also allows for initial plans for implementation to be developed.

Stage 4: Making the case

This requires evidence of impact and is not a single activity. The case may need to be made and remade as the problem is defined and redefined, and ideas are developed and tested. Making the case requires clarity of purpose and outcomes, measures of impact, determination and expertise. We are competing for limited funding and have scarce capacity to deliver change.

Stage 5: Delivering and implementing

The Delivering and Implementing stage in the Innovation Curve refers to the process of putting an agreed plan into effect. ‘It focuses on operationalising the plan – the ‘How’ rather than the ‘What’ . Research shows that implementation is itself a staged process that takes time, involves a range of activities and requires certain conditions. It is vital that implementation is considered from an early stage, whilst mindful not to constrain or rule out ideas.

Stage 6: Growing, scaling and spreading

This stage requires capacity and resources. In spite of concerns about work volume many of us have difficulty letting go of projects and programmes of work that we are familiar with and attached to, even where the evidence supports the change. We need to compare the relativity of the impact of programmes, manage the internal politics and be open to pooling budgets for common good, freeing up some of our existing funding.

Stage 7: Changing systems

Our objective is for good innovation to permeate the whole system. It is important to take stock and understand the impact of the change on the immediate and wider system. If we fail to pay attention to the impact of the innovation, we fail to learn. We also miss opportunities for further positive impact and are blind to adverse impacts. Without feedback we cannot adapt, adopt or learn as a system.

The state of play today

Now that we know how innovation should happen, let’s look at some sentiments that emerged from our research about how these stages operate in the public sector currently.

Killing off old policies and programmes

The challenges of safeguarding and then landing good innovation into a system already populated with multiple layers of programmes, services and systems was universally understood. This gave rise to discussions about the need to take decisions to run down, retire and even stop using legacy systems and processes that are no longer fit for purpose. This was recognised as a significant challenge for leaders.

Senior leadership commitment

The commitment of senior leaders is seen as particularly important to drive innovation around the curve, to take a strategic perspective of the organisation and work to remove the obstacles in the way. Early buy-in at a senior level was seen as crucial – without leadership cover it is difficult to drive change.

Collective leadership

Leadership does not rest with the few. Leaders exist at all levels and there is untapped potential throughout our organisations to lead in new ways, to share authority and enable decision making by the right people for the problem.

Systems thinking

Effective innovators think about and demonstrate an awareness of the system(s) in which they operate, identifying common purpose, system dynamics and impacts for common good. In Peter Senge’s words, ‘Systems thinking is a way of thinking about, and a language for describing and understanding, the forces and interrelationships that shape the behaviour of systems6’. This includes an understanding of the context in which a problem resides, whether it is a discrete problem or a complex social issue. Good situational awareness, diagnosis and exploration are fundamental to resolving problems.

Early involvement of stakeholders

Early involvement of the people affected as well as those with accountability or others who have a stake in the problem’s resolution is essential. This includes service users, staff and their representatives, other departments, organisations and sectors. Failure to engage those who need to be involved will lead to other failures.

Integrating policy and delivery expertise

The separation of policy and delivery people within the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) has been replicated in innovation, with a tendency to handover from policy developers in the early stages to implementation teams in the latter stages. This creates a disconnect and loses the added value that comes from working together through the process.

Beyond silos - collaboration

We need to work across boundaries to address complex social problems. There is evidence that this is happening, although not yet at scale. On the front line there is often good collaboration, for example, between social workers, teachers and health visitors. Collaborative working is more than sharing information and/or coordination of activities and resources. Innovation to solve big public problems requires cross-department and/or cross-sector commitment to change, to plan together, to reprioritise, to invest time and to pool resources. System collaboration is needed but complicated through some of our approaches to governance. Budget allocation on an outcomes basis may assist, as well as collaborative design of interventions.

Knowledge, skills and behaviours

Innovation requires determination and understanding of change. The application of specific skills and techniques such as user centred design, systems modelling and behavioural science can greatly enhance the quality and sustainability of our innovations. Service improvement and ‘Lean’ techniques with the accompanying skill development will also build capacity for innovation.

The innovation gap

The image below resonated with everyone we spoke to. This gap between creation and implementation is not unique to the public sector. The statement that ‘great ideas stay small for too long’ may be true but they do also get out eventually, although not always as we had intended. Viewed from a longer perspective we can see the changes we have made. A more strategic approach to innovation can ensure that those changes are the ones that we have innovated, created, planned for and implemented.

What leaders can do to manage the innovation equation

As leaders, we need to recognise innovation, wherever it is going on, and create the conditions where public entrepreneurs can flourish.

  • Where there is risk aversion, manage the risks.
  • Where resilience delivers the same old thing, build confidence to experiment and deliver something better.
  • Where process no longer serves purpose, innovate to find a better process.
  • Where people are too busy doing the day job, make innovation ‘how’ people do the day job.
  • Where boundaries get in the way of the greater good, take a collective view.
  • Where short-termism frustrates innovation, build shared vision and commitment.
  • Where uncertainty is the excuse for inaction, let purpose be our guide.

We put together a separate actionable post specifically on what leaders can do, including an Innovation checklist. You can read it here.

Related Guides


Work with CES

Get in Touch