“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices” - Wiliam James
If you’ve been around as long as I have, you’ve no doubt heard the same tedious stereotypes trotted out around the private and the public sectors, writes Mark Compton-James: "Private sector organisations are innovative, agile and efficient. The public sector is slow, inefficient and lacking in creativity." It always makes me smile. It provides a makeshift camping ground for lazy, soundbite journalism but not much else.
A more useful insight around this might be that large organisations (irrespective of public or private ownership) require a level of governance and process that can restrict their flexibility, on occasion slows down their response to an emergency, makes it hard for them to deal with nuance and can allow inefficiencies to go unchallenged. Even that is a broad rule of thumb and not an immutable law. At any rate that governance, that process is how big organisations direct and monitor activity. It isn’t perfect but the alternative is the Wild West!
Most public sector bodies struggle with some or all of these challenges. But so do large, private sector organisations. With the exception of innovation. Innovation is a little different. It depends very much on how you define it. If innovation is the creation of shiny, new things (and that’s a valid definition) then the public sector does lag behind private enterprise bar in a few niche areas (e.g. the military). However, if innovation is the knitting together of existing things to create something new, the use of what you already have to build something that is greater than the sum of its parts, then the public sector is ahead of the game.
It's worth exploring how this innovation manifests itself in local government. There are tangible real world examples of brave changemakers turning perceived wisdom on its head in local authorities up and down the country. They’re passionate about communities, about local services, about delivering “... waves of improvement” (as an old boss of mine used to say). The genesis for this change often comes from the local communities themselves.
Georgia Gould, Leader of Camden Council, lifelong resident of the borough and a champion of change and transformation for citizens led by citizens, articulated it perfectly in our discussion. Her reasoning on why a place like Camden was a hotbed of ideas was clear: “Camden is a place of huge diversity. Over 100 languages spoken. Lots of people from different backgrounds. That means a different vision of what the future might be.”
Thinking about it, looking to the community is so obvious. Why wouldn’t you fall back on your greatest asset to inspire innovation and drive change? As a result, Camden has been focussing on how they build on the strengths in those communities, how to listen to their ideas, enable them, support them and back them with the right resources. It has led to some truly inspirational innovation but the one that landed with me involved children. Again, Georgia’s words do it far more justice than my own.
“The most extreme power you have as a council is the power to take a child away from the family. It's real. It’s difficult. It’s the hard edge of state power. Our Children’s Services did some amazing work around this using relational activism. They worked with a group of women who had been through that experience with Camden Council. These women looked at every part of our service and how could we stop this happening in the future. It was deep work about forgiveness and redemption underpinned by vulnerable conversations for both social work professionals and the women. But, as a result of that, there's been a real shift in the way we work. We now measure success in terms of the strengths of our relationships.”
See also: Leeds' Chief Executive Tom Riordan on change managemenet and the myth of the heroic chief executive
My gut reaction was to leap out of my chair and punch the air. As a local government nerd, it was everything I thought the public sector should be. It was experienced professionals working alongside the community and learning from their lived experience. It was passion and commitment writ large ensuring that the things that are truly hard get done. There is no way Amazon or Tesco or Disney could match that for innovation. There is no way that Oracle or Rio Tinto or Persimmon could match that in terms of work that changed peoples lives. But then I paused. That is lazy thinking. It’s simplistic and it’s squarely in the chocolate teapot camp. Even worse. It’s harmful. Of course local government (or central government or the NHS) can do amazing things the private sector can’t. But the reverse is also true. So could there be some cross-pollination, some seeding of ideas between the private and public sectors?
As if anticipating my line of enquiry Georgia spoke unprompted: "I try and read a lot and I feel like sometimes like a bit of a magpie always looking for ideas. From other places, if I ever hear of somewhere that is doing interesting work and in specially the areas that we're really focused on where we will immediately go to visit."
So this is another thing these changemakers in local government share - they’re not precious. They’ll take the best idea rather than hang on to their own dogmatic way of doing things and they have the confidence to share the credit for that idea. Be it the use and management of public space in Barcelona or the care of the elderly in Holland. Whether it comes from the community or academics at the LSE or UCL. There are no barriers. It is ‘None of us are as smart as all of us’ writ large. And I know there are far more brilliant minds than mine on the verge of something special in the private sector. It would be foolish to think otherwise. A highly skilled group of laser focussed, equally as passionate people on the brink of solving some seemingly intractable problem. To quote Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it's done”.
So the next time you think you understand innovation think again. True innovators take from everywhere and exist everywhere. If you need further proof beyond my simple musings, can there be a better example than what we’re going through right now? The academic brilliance of our top universities, the technological know-how of a leading drug company, the selflessness of a volunteer test cohort, the logistical excellence of the manufacturing industry and the unwavering commitment of the NHS is digging us out of a COVID-shaped hole literally one shoulder at a time.
Georgia Gould said it best: "It's kind of extraordinary. I've seen it through the pandemic. The way that Camden deployed hundreds of staff doing testing. People volunteering to give up their time in so many different ways and go the extra extra mile. That’s local government. I really do feel everyone's a changemaker.”