Mindworks’ Weblog

Thinking Matters

Some thoughts for the Whitehall Innovation Hub

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 5, 2008

Thanks to a post on Simon’s blog (Simon, as you’ll recall from earlier posts, is WordPress’s representative on planet Earth and, like me, a former civil servant though not quite so former as I am) I now know that something called the Whitehall Innovation Hub has been created at the National School of Government (or the Ecole Nationale D’Administration, as I think they’d like to be thought of, having apparently downgraded themselves from a college to a school via various name changes)

Simon’s post was the fifth hit on Google when I searched for this just now – see this – the ranking may have changed since I searched, but the top four hits were from egovmonitor.com, publictechnology.net and Simon.  So Simon, a freelance web consultant who lives just down the road from me, is in the top three organisations to break the news at the place most people will go to find out what’s going on – Google.  That says something.

Anyway, as this blog is entirely about people and their ability to innovate, I feel a public duty to throw my half-pence worth into the debate.  I often ask people what they would do if they were running their organisation (the results are always interesting, particularly if you ask them privately and promise not to tell anyone) so this is what I’d do if I was running the Hub.

  1. Stop doing all the things which stop people innovating. Large organisations are virtually designed to stop people innovating and as the civil service (aka Whitehall) is a very large organisation, it’s full of things that stop people innovating.  There’s a good reason for this: if everyone innovated all the time life would be chaotic: everything would continuously be changing  and no one would know what the heck was going on.  So ignore that first sentence.  But I really would look hard at barriers to innovation and find ways of unblocking them.  It’s not rocket science.
  2. I’d also look hard at Whitehall’s tendency to hire other people to do its thinking.  I’ve banged on enough about the £3bn public sector bill for consultants in one year – £1.8bn of which was in Whitehall – which raised the PAC’s collective eyebrows somewhat.  But it’s simply a fact that if you hire other people to think for you, you aren’t  doing the thinking.  And that stops you from learning.  Innovation is largely about learning, so this is a Bad Thing.  We need civil servants to be innovating themselves, and given the tsunami of money that’s been thrown at consultants, I doubt whether they’ve had much practice recently.  They don’t even get to firefight, and firefighting provides massive potential for learning.  I linked to this management consultant’s blog over the weekend.  She argues that civil servants can’t firefight  so someone has to pay her £1000 a day to do it for them.  Big missed opportunity.
  3. Next (or, more likely, at the same time) I’d talk to some innovators.  I wouldn’t sit in Sunningdale, lovely place though it is, thinking great thoughts about innovation, consulting leading academics, chewing the cud with NESTA, IDeA, the Design Council and the rest (although I’d certainly have a chat with them and ask them to write their advice on one side of A4).  I’d be out and about, finding innovators at all levels in the government machine and videoing them with my Flip camera (did I mention I have a Flip camera?) to find out how they were able to do it.  Then I’d post the interviews to Youtube so that everyone else could find out.  That would be both simple and fun.
  4. The Hub is going to look at incentives, so I’d have to think about that.  I’ve touched on this before.  Really good innovators should have the incentive of earning a lot of money.  That usually works as an incentive.  They could even, as I suggested in an earlier post, earn more than their bosses.  Happens all the time elsewhere.  So I’d look at that idea too. And I do mean innovators and not inventors – see below.
  5. I’d think hard about creating a career civil service again.  This sounds dreadfully old fashioned, but I’d re-read Arie de Geus’s The Living Company to remind myself that it isn’t.  De Gues (a senior manager at Shell for many years, not a guru, consultant or member of a think tank) uses the analogy of companies as organisms to analyse why some companies (unlike most) have particularly long lives.  He even refers to Richard Dawkins (who was excellent on Channel 4 last night, I thought, not least because he pretty much kept away from the whole God thing).  Many of the best companies grow and nurture their own talent, rather than hiring it in.  The logic for doing so, both in terms of cost effectiveness and building the internal capability to manage/innovate is, to my mind, irrefutable.  I think the Public Accounts Committee agrees with me.
  6. I’d get on and do some innovating in my own team. Act as a role model.  I’d run the whole thing online and not have an office.  As I’ve already established on this blog, 99.8% of people don’t have good ideas in offices and the other .2% only say they do to impress their bosses.  I don’t have an office already (unless you count the converted end of my garage, from which I write, and it’s much too pleasant and useful to be called an office) so I’ve got a head start.  I once met a brilliant local government direct services manager who didn’t have an office either.  He spent all his time out and about with customers, suppliers and his people.  On the few occasions he went into HQ he used a spare desk or an empty meeting room. He also had some really good ways of managing: for example, he asked all the people who worked for him in managerial jobs to improve at least one thing they or their teams were doing every month.  That’s innovation and that’s the sort of person I’d want to video with my Flip.  Simple.
  7. I’m going to stop at 1000 words (post posting note: this turned out to be wrong), and WordPress is telling me that that was 902 so I’ll have to be quick.  Above all I’d find ways of tapping into what Clay Shirky calls the ‘cognitive surplus’.  Watch the youtube at this post to find out what he means.  And I don’t just mean the cognitive surplus of civil servants, although they must have some surplus, what with all those consultants doing all the thinking and that. I mean the cognitive surplus of the public – us – the people that civil servants are serving.  Customers can innovate too.  A very good way of tapping into cognitive surplus is to use the same technology that I’m using to communicate these blindingly obvious thoughts, as Mr Shirky also – rather brilliantly, in my view – points out.
  8. Lastly I’d work hard to stop ministers – and Prime Ministers – from meddling and try to persuade them to lead instead.  For reasons I’ll have to mention in another post, this could be problematic.  But imagine if Gordon Brown had made the speech shown here?  If our PM had been President during the Apollo programme he would, every morning at 6.00am, have phoned Von Braun to ask how it was going and to offer his own thoughts on booster separation technology and the design of the LEM.  Enough said.

I’m sure  that all this will have occurred to the seconded academics and Design Council, NESTA and IDeA people etc. who make up the Hub, but at least I’ve got it off my chest.

PS – have just emailed a link to this to Clay Shirky.  If the hubbers get him to talk to them – as I think they should – I think I deserve a cut of his fee, don’t you? :0

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2 Responses to “Some thoughts for the Whitehall Innovation Hub”

  1. I do hope they read this, it all makes perfect sense. One other point, there’s an awful lot of goodwill out there (as well as inside the civil service) – such as blog posts like this. People are prepared to help and invest time and thinking to make ideas like this work. I hope the NSG taps into it.

  2. Thanks Jeremy. I was thinking about this some more as I drove between a couple of meetings this morning. Big Consultancy creates the opposite of Shirky’s cognitive surplus: a cognitive deficit. I expect you’ve looked at the PAC and NAO reports, which say just this.

    Part of the problem is to do with incentives. Currently there’s a massive incentive for consultants to get into government and ensure that the cognitive deficit is maintained. It’s not their fault – it’s just the way that this government has played it. The big boys would be mad not to exploit the opportunity: they are business people after all, not public servants.

    Perhaps we should set up a shadow Whitehall innovation hub and tap into all those minds which, as you say, are sitting out there. The Provisional Innovation Hub, maybe? Or the Real Innovation Hub? Both sound good to me.

    As I said in the post the hub team might be thinking along exactly these lines already. It would be difficult, I suggest, to fault the logic. But it’s important to consider what their incentives are as well.

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