When an unexpected opportunity from the Fellowship network emerged last summer, Cecilia Tredget FRSA seized the chance to find out if emerging technologies could help her confront the impact of austerity on public services. By working with a group of Fellows in a situation where they were forced to challenge one another, she was able to unlock a completely new way of thinking
The economic climate continues to be challenging with the more pessimistic among us predicting that austerity could continue for another ten years. In the absence of much needed funding, public sector innovation has become absolutely critical. Few people understand this better than Cecilia Tredget FRSA - a local government leader in the East of England - but she’s also well aware of the reasons why innovation so often stalls. With little money going spare ambitious plans can easily wither, and staff (especially those in leadership positions), revert to ‘safety first’ negative prophesising and parochialism.
During the launch of a recent RSA report on technology and the Power to Create, an important point was raised about the value of networks. They hold real tangible currency, are a key indicator of social mobility and have the potential to awaken dormant entrepreneurialism. Cecilia’s story exemplifies this well. Because she is part of the Fellowship network, around this time last year she was contacted by Peter Clitheroe FRSA, who invited her to join a small group of Fellows keen on trying out a MOOC focused on human-centred design.
A MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course. Designed to be completed in groups, they harness the interaction of a conventional classroom environment while providing access to a much wider range of people by being web-based. MOOCs invite participants to work together, share learning and become part of an online community. As they’re not restricted by the limits of traditional educational resources, they actively encourage original thinking and are just one of many new technologies that enable more people to realise their creative potential.
Curious and quietly hopeful that it might provide a bit of much needed inspiration, Cecilia accepted the invitation and joined the group. It only took a couple of sessions to realise that the experience was far exceeding her expectations. The first surprise was the sheer quality of the training resources on offer which, once downloaded or designed, could be used again and again. In the context of her current work environment, it struck Cecilia that the training format alone would be highly valuable. A tough economic climate coupled with the ever-present shadow of redundancies can result in a culture of presenteeism, meaning that staff are reluctant to go off on external training courses of uncertain value. The flip side to this, of course, is that they miss opportunities to develop their skills and knowledge.
MOOCS have different structures depending on what they’re teaching, but this particular one which was hosted by Acumen but funded by Microsoft, took its participants through three distinct stages of human-centred design:
- Discover – participants go out and talk to people, e.g. ‘discover what it would be like if…’ and learn something new about the people they’re hoping to serve. They are encouraged to look at analogous settings and talk to experts as well as people on the front line.
- Ideate - come up with new ideas. Cecilia mentions that this stage is not just about coming up with ideas; it’s about how to refine the ideas and what weighting and criteria you use to decide which ideas are the best.
- Prototyping – testing the new approach, failing fast and redesigning if necessary.
The MOOC was particularly apt for the group, because like Cecilia, they were all experienced individuals in senior public sector roles - well versed in the ‘established way’. The course materials forced them to question the wisdom behind long-standing processes and strategies. Although they did not end up prototyping in the end, Cecilia found that she had gained enough from the first two stages to imagine how she could utilise the learning. This summer she is going to try and use the MOOC's framework to bring together social care, housing and healthcare in her organisation and completely rethink the way they work together.
In essence, the course helped to clarify Cecilia’s understanding that public service leaders need to start commissioning services that have been designed for the user, not for the organisation. She believes that MOOCs provide a way to completely re-evaluate how we organise public services and that the RSA’s Fellowship could be a crucial catalyst for inspiring more public sector figures to be involved.
She also concluded that at the heart of the issue, is a need to create more authentic leaders - something that has been much discussed at the RSA. The public need a sense that people in positions of power care about the communities they serve; that they have gone out and tried to ‘discover what it would be like if … (I was a single mother, unemployed, disabled etc).’
The RSA is working to enable more people to think and innovate in this way, because unlike other research bodies seeking to influence government policy, our work is rooted in people and in practice. We are accountable to 27,000 members of the public who have decided to support our endeavours by joining the Fellowship, and we are continually working on new channels to enable Fellows to have more impact.
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Following elections in autumn last year the new Fellowship Council for 2018 – 2020 started their roles. I hope Fellows in the London Area will join me in a warm welcome to new Councillors Ann Longley and Kuki Taylor, and to Bhavani Esapathi for her second term.