Constraints on public spending mean proving the business case for technology projects is tougher than ever before. But agile development is allowing the best organisations to continue to innovate while still saving money. Building innovative services to a budget can mean better services and better value, not reducing features or functionality.
Sticking to a budget, or even working on a reduced budget, does not have to mean limiting innovation. On the contrary a focus on costs can fuel creative thinking. Limits can increase the focus of creativity. Writing a haiku can send a stronger message than a longer story. Equally, innovation is not just an overhead or an addition to a project – it is a way of thinking which should run through the entire organisation.
However, there are certainly barriers to innovation within the public sector just as there are in other organisations facing tougher budgetary controls. Across the board cuts are not likely to encourage experimental thinking, but more targeted budget reductions can push adoption of new solutions. Several councils have cut call centre budgets by providing automated or manned chat facilities to websites for instance.
True innovation needs real cultural change
Creating an organisation which fosters and encourages innovation is about culture as well as systems, but getting the right technology in place can certainly help. Technology platforms built in silos will act as a barrier to cross-department co-operation. Building systems which are interoperable and based on shared standards will make it far easier to cross pollinate and create applications which can be applied across an organisation. They will also bolster and strengthen inter-departmental contact and co-operation. This will allow the best ideas to spread and scale quickly with limited additional costs.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s recent report “Fostering innovation in the public sector” identified three factors to enable civil servants to innovate:
- Ability, which includes social as well as technical skills,
- Motivation, which comes from working environment and targets as well intrinsic qualities and,
- Opportunity which includes giving people the freedom as well as the resources and connections across the organisation. A well-crafted budget which is flexible as well as rewarding innovation can support all three of these factors.
Bureaucracy and regulation are often blamed for stifling public sector innovation but it is usually culture rather than rules which can be a dominating factor. Culture plays a massive part in allowing people to take an imaginative approach whether to think or work differently – blaming health and safety or data protection avoids risk but limits new ways of thinking and working.
Whether that be to re-use ideas and assets developed for one purpose and reimagined as another. Introducing commercial creativity – enabling existing services to continue by re-imagining how other services could be run differently. Approaching a problem from a different perspective- a customer perspective or a business perspective – i.e. making a service pay for itself or helping users to help themselves.
Lessons from central government
Central government has identified this and put in place working practises to foster such cultural changes and now local government is taking the lead. One way in which this manifests is in a shift to agile working practises, in its broadest possible sense. This allows teams to build services which innovate in response to feedback and demand from their users. This means moving away from build, test, release development schedules towards constant, iterative development of products and services. It means testing systems as they evolve over time and building in the flexibility for them to change over time as required. It also means forming teams which reflect all the skills and disciplines of an organisation and are truly collaborative. Such processes should allow organisations to not only build better existing services but also offer new services as they are needed.
An example from central government is delivery of data services as demonstrated by the Office for National Statistics which has moved from providing information to policy makers and politicians to offering services to individual citizens and independent businesses. By focussing on improving citizens’ understanding of available information and making its data accessible via APIs and better visualisations it is changing both its own role within government and widening the role of government data. But the ONS has achieved this one project at a time, while adhering to shared standards, not by trying to open everything all at once.
A smaller example of an innovative new service is the mobile application initially created by West Midlands Fire Service. The brain child of a serving fire fighter 999Eye aims to ‘supercharge’ emergency calls by giving operators the ability to take control of callers’ mobile phones and use them to collect video, GPS and other data while the call is being made.
Deciding exactly what resources to send to an emergency is a complex task best carried out by professionals not random members of the public. The application can send live video footage or still images from the scene along with precise location data which gives emergency responders the information they need to make better decisions on what first response resources should be deployed. The pilot software for the app was created for a few thousand pounds and now, albeit with further investment, it is being trialled across the country.
The idea did not come from a sophisticated cross department brain storming session, it was written on a piece of paper and posted into a suggestions box. The Watch Commander, Matt Wroughton, with no previous experience of software development, was able to make the idea a reality with the help of a miniscule budget and the support of senior management within the fire service. The fire service is not famous for its software development skills. But good management, a tiny budget and some motivated individuals look set to change how emergency calls are made not just in the UK but around the world
Innovation does not require a huge budget
For innovation on a budget to be possible, it needs a management culture which gives people the freedom to think and act differently to create new and better services and the courage to take on brand new challenges. While getting the right technology platforms in place is crucial it is really this cultural change which will drive an organisation and its services forward. Fostering that co-operative culture and supporting it with the right technology means innovation can be a natural part of everyone’s working day.