How to be a public sector entrepreneur - RSA

How to be a public sector entrepreneur


  • Picture of Ian Burbidge
    Former RSA Head of Innovation and Change
  • Picture of Neil Reeder FRSA
    Neil Reeder FRSA
    Highly experienced economist providing analysis on services to improve social outcomes
  • Enterprise
  • Public Services & Communities
  • Public services

With politics deadlocked and technology changing fast, the public sector needs innovation.

But the traditional approach of driving change in the public sector - from the top-down - feels slow and inflexible for today’s networked world.

What does it take for innovation to work in the public sector, where problems and interventions are usually person-centered and place-specific?

This is the question we discussed at a May meeting of the RSA’s Creativity in Public Services network

Innovation in the public sector

Because problems and solutions are specific and local (and a range of others that the RSA called ‘immune responses’ to change in earlier research.), innovation in the public sector often spreads slowly, and/or patchily.

You might think this is a good thing if you want more local solutions. But when you’re looking for evidence of impact before taking any new action, or trying to standardise and scale innovation, it can be disheartening.

How to deal with this? The best answer lies in taking approaches to public sector innovation that enable different needs and characteristics to be respected. Where to find these? Public sector innovation requires a willingness to draw on ideas, even ones ‘not invented here’.

For example, the ‘Daily Mile challenge’ – for children to walk or run a mile every day – was developed at St Ninians Primary School by head-teacher Elaine Wyllie in 2012. But its beautiful simplicity and persuasive nature (it’s an entirely voluntary scheme) have now led to its endorsement by more than 1.8 million children in 66 countries.  

Fortunately, there are many people that can provide inspiration. They’re using innovative approaches and designing imaginative interventions to address some of societies’ biggest challenges. For such public servants, acting entrepreneurially is how they quietly challenge the status quo and seek new opportunities to do things differently.

Creating an entrepreneurial mindset in the public sector

RSA Fellows in our Creativity in Public Services network reflected on three major barriers to public entrepreneurs:

  1. The skills and tools needed to do a good job were often lacking or compromised, for example IT systems that are no longer fit for purpose.
  2. Entrepreneurs are often held back within organisations, with some cultures nudging staff to seek permission at every stage, or severely constraining time and space to think and reflect.
  3. Central government’s tendency to promote short-term fads that lack tailoring to local solutions. The benefits of innovation often take a long time to emerge, particularly for preventative work.

Yet RSA Fellows remain optimistic, as you might expect. Skills and tools were seen as less important than bringing an entrepreneurial mindset. This included valuing people by listening to their opinions (even if expressed in form of complaints) and their suggestions for improvement.

An entrepreneurial mindset also includes recognising when good enough is good enough – not looking for perfection on a large-scale, but instead achieving small wins repeatedly to create sustained improvement.

A forward-looking mindset is a vital part of this process, with a determination to achieve improvements working in partnership with others.

We’ve seen an important example of this with social prescribing. That’s the approach of promoting wellbeing through social rather than medical means, by giving GPs the ability to prescribe patients non-medical services like volunteering or social activities.

The two major pioneers of social prescribing have strong links with local communities: the Bromley by Bow Centre in East London, which was the first Health Centre in the UK owned by patients, and the Compassionate Frome project in Somerset. 

A key message from our discussion was that although structural challenges are often daunting, they can be overcome by fostering local ownership of the change you want to see, ‘creating a world you want to join’, identifying partners to work with, supporting front line staff, and developing mixed funding models. (Plus the vital amount of time, effort, and luck!)

The entrepreneurial route to change

Ultimately, the reason public entrepreneurs are important is because they create outcomes that citizens value.

They know how to develop a rich understanding of the issue in all its complexity and bring the entrepreneurial mindset to tackle it. In doing so, they act as a broker, collaborator, re-framer of problems, surfacer of ideas, champion of what works, challenger of the status quo, and navigator of barriers to change.

They are aware of the inherent tensions between making a case for and facilitating change whilst simultaneously making a case for and delivering stability. Holding this tension lightly is critical.

Critical to affecting real change in this new context is to move from a ‘needs and hopes’ based way of pursuing change to an opportunistic and adaptive way – we see this as the entrepreneurial route to change.

RSA Fellows, if the energy in the Creativity in Public Services network is anything to go by, are actively pursuing these opportunities.

We would though like to see still more progress on this vital agenda, by leveraging experience in the network to identify good practice and provide mutual support.

If you have ideas on how this might be achieved, get in touch below.

Contact Steering Group members Neil Reeder, Helen Megarry, Noel Hatch and Paul Neville FRSAs via MyRSA

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