Public service innovation and the public entrepreneur - RSA

Public service innovation and the public entrepreneur

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  • Public services
  • Social innovation

The RSA’s thought leadership around public sector reform

The RSA have long been a thought leader regarding public service, value creation and innovation, a common thread through which is the need for new models of thinking about, and providing, publicly-funded services. For all that New Public Management was able to create a clearer output focus in public services, it reinforced silos of delivery, left professionals disempowered, created perverse incentives and crowded out creativity and innovation. Yet despite this widely acknowledged position there is no clear paradigm emerging in its place. This thesis was explored in ‘Altered States’, the lead article for the RSA Journal in 2017 and which looked at how the notion of thinking systemically and acting entrepreneurially could be a way forward.

We therefore argue that a new ‘operating system’ is required for our public services, one which harnesses the opportunities of today and is fit for purpose for tomorrow. This must be a new paradigm, not just ‘innovation theatre’. As Goldsmith and Kleiman argue, “when it comes to more systemic change, ad hoc innovation can give the illusion of widespread progress, distracting time and attention from the more difficult and broad-based need for structural innovation.”

Our research in this space has long asked - could a new approach enable public services to adapt to an environment of complexity and uncertainty, compounded by global forces such as Covid-19 and the climate crisis? In seeking answers these and questions like them, we build on a long tradition of RSA research and ideas around public service innovation. This is shaped across in three broad areas: social productivity, service transformation and place-based approaches to public services, all underpinned by the developing thinking around innovation in public services.

As we wonder about the challenges the next decade hold, particularly in light of the disruptions of 2020/21, it is helpful to summarise some of the core research into public service reform and innovation undertaken by the RSA over the proceeding decade. Our legacy in this space is significant. There remain ideas and insights across this body of work that are as relevant today as they were when we first published them.

Social productivity

At the start of the 2010s the RSA hosted the Commission on 2020 Public Services which developed the concept of “social productivity” - the idea that public services should be judged according to the efficacy with which they help citizens achieve the outcomes they want to see. It proposed a power shift underpinned by social, economic and financial reforms. During this period, the RSA sought to practically apply the principles of social productivity in several areas - principally:

Service transformation

The RSA has explored many of the big picture challenges facing public services, against a backdrop of austerity, dwindling resources and economic strain. It held onto the core principles of social productivity, but also integrated the insights and thinking derived from the Connected Communities team. Exemplar projects and themes included:

  • Developing the concept of “demand management” - with a big focus on shifting towards preventative, early action approaches to public services. This was against a backdrop of spiraling demographic and fiscal pressures, especially for health care and local services.
  • Developing the concept of “community capital,” underpinned by years of practical work using social network analysis methods. The core argument was that the development of social and community resources can support health and wellbeing, with implications for the types of support that public services offer.
  • Continuing to explore the idea at the core of social productivity: that the relationship between citizen and state needs to change, away from paternalism and towards more equal partnership. The project with Virtual Staff College on the changing narrative of the citizen-state relationship was an example of this.
  • The role of volunteering in public services, not just as a core component of localism but also as a response to austerity and devolution.
  • Looking at place-based collaboration and partnership working Transforming Together (published in 2017), which offered a way of applying the RSA’s ‘think like a system, act like an entrepreneur’ model to local public services

‘Whole place’ approaches to public services

Clear themes emerged through our work on devolution, place-based policy-making, economic development and community capital as a critical resource for public services. We explored the notion of place as an organising principal for local public services; examples included:

  • The City Growth Commission (2013-2014), a highly influential inquiry chaired by Jim O’Neill. The Commission helped to shape the devolution agenda, which became a major area of policy interest from 2013. 
  • Data projects Heritage Index and Open Public Services Network highlighted the critical role of local data in catalysing public sector and civic action.
  • The Inclusive Growth Commission (2016-2017) was a successor to the City Growth Commission, focusing on the distribution of economic growth. But critically, it was underpinned by a place lens. The central question of the inquiry was: Are there place-based approaches for promoting inclusive growth?
  • Moving beyond a service lens and adopting a greater ‘place’ lens for understanding how public authorities can support social outcomes. Heritage, Identity and Place was an exemplar of our interest in this area, as was recent work with the Health Foundation in which we explored the relationship between local economic development and population health outcomes.
  • Thought leadership on various areas of public services: social care, health and prisons in particular. This naturally led us towards projects such as Health as a Social Movement (2015-18) - a strategic intervention into a major public service challenge, brought together our ideas on approaches to health rooted in locally-based institutions (eg community capital) in the context of macro challenges (demographic, fiscal, managerial) to existing institutional systems.

Innovation in public services: think like a system and act like an entrepreneur

We recognise that traditional methods of public service design and delivery are not adequate to respond to the complex challenges we face in the world today. Our call for public servants, community leaders and all those interested in change to ‘Think Like a System, Act Like an Entrepreneur’ is based on our Living Change approach. Our approach is rooted in systems-, design- and futures-thinking and supports people, institutions, communities and systems to develop innovations, address complex challenges and create value. Core reports include…

  • Altered States. A framing of the need for post-New Public Management solutions to the way we design and deliver public services.
  • The role of mission-orientated innovation policy explored how the Government can invest in economic growth and innovation to solve some of the social and economic challenges of the day.
  • We explored how policy can be more successfully implemented, looking through the lens of the RSA’s emerging ‘social co-ordination’ theory framing – joint work with the Centre for Policy Impact and published as ‘Policy with Impact’ report and, drawing on our social movement work, Energy for change.
  • We partnered with ACCA, the global accountancy body, to co-publish a report into ‘Innovation in Public Service Finance’. This explored the role of impact investment in stimulating the innovation effort, together with the challenges to address and barriers to overcome.
  • We published two companion pieces looking at the role of enterprise innovation in tackling complex challenges. From design thinking to systems change centered on the need to fully understand the problem or issue at hand in order to make sensible commissioning and investment decisions. How to be a public entrepreneur explored the role of entrepreneurialism in public services to be responsive to change. Together these reports set out much of the thinking underpinning the RSA’s model of change – think like a system, act like an entrepreneur

Longer-term thinking and the post-Covid context

We are at a time when we have relied on our local public services more than ever, often as the first line of response to Covd19. At its heart Covid has revealed what happens when resilience is stripped out of our systems of support and when we fail to invest in preventative services. We find ourselves asking, to what extent might these, and other principles, form a revitalised public service of the future?

  • Most recently we have explored the role of foresight and futures thinking alongside strategy and innovation efforts for organisations, policy-makers and for society more broadly, and articles explore its application to public services.
  • We published a sense-check of the impact of Covid19 on local public services in autumn 2020. Using local case studies we looking at the innovations and challenges faced by local public services in ‘Seizing the moment – building local bridges to the future’.
  • Work funded by the National Lottery Community Fund has enabled us to explore community-led innovation in response to Covid19, looking through the lens of crises as a catalyst for change. Our enquiry unpacked the conditions that pre-existed Covid19 and the impact they had on local resilience, at how communities were coping with the worst of Covid19, and at their ability to respond to the impact of the pandemic.
  • Work with CPI, Lankelly Chase and Beverly and Etienne Wenger-Trayner has explored the role of ‘systems conveners’ working in our communities across systems (blog link when posted), a role vital for the public servants of tomorrow.
  • Forthcoming work explores local system innovations across health and social care and the role and impact of public entrepreneurs operating within a major public service organisation.

There is little doubt we must continue to explore the necessity of change across our public services, for two fundamental reasons. Our models of design and delivery are past their sell-by date and do not enable an effective response to the complex challenges of our time. We need new thinking and experimentation. Our ability to meet local needs is severely constricted, first by austerity and now by the cost of Covid-19. We need new funding and investment models together with redistribution mechanisms that take account of need. Fundamentally, we need open conversations about what all this looks like in practice. We can’t ‘build back’ because back wasn’t working before Covid-19. We can’t ‘build forward’ because we have no blueprint for what forward might look like. Figuring this out is perhaps the work of our time.

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  • This is a really helpful recap on the herritage of RSA thinking on public service innovation. The need for a new operating system is a good thought. I'm finding that the 'design ladder' is a good way to frame conversations with policymakers on this - we want to use 'design as strategy' so that public services are holistic, interoperable and end-to-end - all with a view to citizens getting more meaningful outcomes. You can read more and find the UK government's own reference list at:

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