Blog: How to improve the public sector – stop coming up with new ideas

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In this blog Oliver Reichardt explores the idea of a year without new initiatives. Instead he suggests we spend the time looking for the best ideas that are already out there.

Patient hotels provide accommodation for patients, and sometimes their families, who need to be close to a hospital but don’t need a hospital bed.  They offer a less oppressive environment to stay in, more freedom and also save a huge amount of cash, being far cheaper than hospital beds.  They’ve been used successfully for decades in Scandinavia.  So why has this innovation, which is good for patients, their families, and hospital finances, not been used over here (a few exceptions aside) despite the obvious benefits?

To take another healthcare example, some Local Authorities, such as Norfolk County Council, give out free slippers to the elderly which are designed to prevent falling over.  The non-slip slippers reduce falls, which can lead to broken hips and other accidents that take a long time to heal in elderly people and are very painful.  They also save the NHS a huge amount of money, with falls among the elderly estimated to cost £19 million in Norfolk alone.  This is another idea which improves people’s lives and saves money, yet has been patchily implemented.

In a previous job I spoke to a number of Local Authorities about why they didn’t implement this non-slip slipper scheme despite the obvious benefits.  Some had never heard of it, while others said that they had tried it and it hadn’t worked for a variety of reasons. 

One officer said that the costs of the shoes fell in her budget, while the savings accrued in other budgets, so she couldn’t afford to do it.  She had tried charging for the slippers but of course few people are going to pay for new slippers when they already have a pair.  An officer from another Local Authority told me they had tried it but people didn’t like the designs, they hadn’t got the right sizes and other issues meant the take up was low.  Throwing out the idea because implementation was difficult, rather than seeking advice on how it could be done successfully, is pretty poor behaviour.

Throwing out the idea because implementation was difficult, rather than seeking advice on how it could be done successfully, is pretty poor behaviour.

These are just two examples of what must be hundreds of innovations across the public sector around the world that are used successfully in one place yet not replicated elsewhere.  Almost every foundation, trust and organisation is focused on the new. As everyone who has applied for funding knows, it’s much easier to get funding for a new idea than for spreading an old one – even one that’s already been shown to work.

 My colleague Joe Hallgarten suggested we have a ‘gap year’ for schools with no new initiatives for a year.  How about going further - having the entire public sector free from any new ideas at all for a year?  Rather, time is spent by people looking at ideas that have been successful elsewhere and exploring whether they would be suitable in their work (as not every initiative travels successfully).  The risk is lower compared to a completely new idea as it’s been proved successful elsewhere, costs and benefits are easier to work out, and you already have someone to ask for advice.

 A successful idea sharing website that was international, well-designed, open for contributions and focused on the public sector would surely be a great asset.

To go one stage further, wouldn’t it be great if there was a website where people working in the public sector across the world could post innovations that they have tried, tested and shown to work, so that others may benefit too?  There have been a few attempts (such as this LGA one, though it’s only UK based) but none that have really taken off.  A successful idea sharing website that was international, well-designed, open for contributions and focused on the public sector would surely be a great asset.  Now that’s a worthwhile innovation.

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  • Yes, perhaps a year of consolidating existing good practice, which to be adoptable would have to have been implemented successfully and survived the early euphoria stage to a functioning and evaluated stage. How to encourage sharing and learning without spawning new Departments of Idea Sharing? An open access idea sharing website is the most promising idea, and perhaps to start off with it 'only' being UK based would avoid the allure of foreign examples blinding people to sound home grown examples.

  • Hi Daniel,

    To take your points in turn, it depends on the business or voluntary organisation but the principle would still apply that there are many innovations in all sectors that aren't widely spread and so spending the time looking at those that would apply to your organisation rather than trying to come up with new ideas would be beneficial.  There are differences, such as many businesses operate in a world of patents and secrecy, so it may not be as easy for some organisations.  It also may be that these types of organisations are better at copying others quickly, for example because of the profit motive, but i'm not an expert on comparisons in this area.

    Is a policy gap year feasible - definitely, is it likely - definitely not!  However pushing politicians to think about these issues is still valuable and yes a long term settlement would be beneficial, my idea was not meant to replace broader policy thinking but complement it.


  • There are of course some fantastic ideas out there and loads of initiative being shown by some very hard pressed people. It is a pity that other places do not adopt them more speedily. However I assume that we would not for a minute suggest that business should innovate less, or indeed the voluntary sector, so why would we prescribe this as a blanket treatment for the public sector?

    You're right about the problem of a plethora of initiatives, sometimes launched in a highly centrist way which will make traction extremely difficult, leading to another initiative when it doesn't work. However do we think that some kind of policy gap year is at all feasible in the first year of an incoming government of whatever hue (or mix of hues)? They will need to make their mark and they could do so by building a long term direction for the setting in which public service operates.

    I agree with you about a need for stability. What is most needed is not less innovation, far from it, but a long term settlement for public service, in policy, funding and extent of devolution. This framework needs to be based on some kind of articulation of mutual responsibility, an appreciation of the capabilities of people and consensus on what public services are there for (and what they are not). This also requires support to a means to cut through budget and bureaucratic silos to make good things happen in order to secure healthy community development. 

    Finally, perhaps a better example of a platform for knowledge and practice sharing can be found on the Knowledge Hub.

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