According to Wikipedia, Innovation is a new idea, more effective device or process.
I would go further and say that “casual innovation” is the root of the private sector. It’s everything from a boffin and her new material science process to a long-term unemployed fortysomething getting the idea to act as an agent for his labourer friends.
In the private sector, innovation is both the spark and the fuel. It’s what makes people start businesses and it’s what keeps businesses alive. There are precious few businesses who stop innovating as they age – it cold be in process, in business development or in marketing – but they all do something. If they don’t, they are in constant risk of being surpassed and replaced by another business who can do it better, cheaper or make customers happier. If a customer isn’t happy with the product, the price, the delivery or the service, then they move on. And its risky because if a new innovation isn’t popular, it could torpedo the company.
I went for a haircut this week and my usual barber was closed for holidays. Impatient as I was, I wasn’t going to wait with a massive mop of unruly hair for another week especially after making the journey down. So I went looking for another barber. The first I discounted because while the barber was functional, I had’t returned there due to a problem in the delivery and service. I went down a side street and found a new barber and once seated the barber asked me who my “usual” barber was. Upon hearing my reply, they asked what they needed to do to secure my future business. To be honest, the fact they had the initiative to ask was enough for me to consider them. And, the icing on the cake, it was a good haircut.
It’s not quite the same in the public sector.
If a public service or product isn’t great, we can’t choose a different government. You can’t shop around for a better deal. Even where government services are privatised, a poor product or service experience doesn’t mean you can change supplier. You’re already tied into a multi-year contract with the supplier. You don’t get a choice – so whether you’re unhappy with your tax office or your bin collection or your educational curriculum – you’re too far removed from the contract to be effective in changing anything. Short of literally moving countries, there’s usually no way a customer can change their government services (and usually even an election has no effect).
This breeds a natural complacency and complacency is the Achilles Heel of Innovation. Worse still – it’s possible to have a culture of conservative inaction, of risk-avoidance and, potentially worse than that, wilful ignorance and paranoia.
It’s incumbent of public sector service owners to defeat these notions, however. We cannot change our government easily, so public servants who are wilfully ignorant or paranoid in their defensiveness are an oxymoron by definition. If anything, the relative stability of government should free departments to be more innovative. They don’t have to worry about who’s paying the bills and they don’t have to worry about making salary. They don’t need to worry that their innovation could alienate past customers.
I am encouraged by the MVP/Agile approach I’ve seen with some GDS services but there needs to be constant iteration of services. There needs to be service improvement especially in ‘taxes’ that we cannot avoid paying.
The public sector must understand that innovation isn’t always about leaps, it’s not always about cost-saving and it’s not always obvious. It’s entirely likely that innovation in the Healthcare system will actually end up costing us more as more people use it. We have a massive issue with people not availing of the services we do have (cancer screening for instance). Finding new ways to save lives will not reduce costs (though it may extend the useful life of a taxpayer). We can work on reducing the cost of delivery per customer using digital services in many cases but the role of a public service or product is to get used more. The best we can hope for is that more people use it and then the cost of development and maintenance can be borne by many more people (reducing the cost per customer).
This year I taxed my car online which, after having to deal with humans in a queue, was an absolute relief. The problem I’m having right now is that the MVP hasn’t progressed and changing the bank account means cancelling a direct debit and starting a new one. And that, I was advised, came with a small risk that my car may not be taxed for a period. That’s kinda unacceptable in this day and age.
It’s necessary for public services to evolve. It’s necessary for them to “update” their services. We can’t afford to force our customers (citizens) to only use web browsers that are in decline. We can’t afford to force them to use Internet Explorer and Firefox. We have to assume that our customer may only have access to a smartphone and a slow, data-capped, 3G connection. We’re building services for people with fat broadband pipes on desktop PCs running monolithic Windows. By definition, the customers of the future will be mobile.
Re-think who the typical customer is. There will be customers of the public sector who don’t use “online” services but these are a vanishingly small percentage and it’s entirely likely their reasons lead to a need for bigger interventions.