Few can object to ‘innovation’ when it aims to deliver improvement. But ‘innovation’ is not a positive thing in and of itself, and questions should asked of whether the Government ‘s enthusiasm for ‘innovation’ is anything more than the latter. Up to £3billion has been allocated to the ‘innovation budgets’ of Government departments, with a further £2.5billion spent by the DIUS by 2011.
The Government is right to pursue innovation in policy design and implementation. Technology and specialisation has progressed such that a Minister needs a full range of advice and ideas in devising policy strategy. In management too, how senior staff engage with frontline staff can also be improved through ‘innovation’.
But an NAO report into innovation has found that this hope is not being replicated in practice. Their investigation notes that those lower down departmental ladders often adopt a ‘risk-averse’ attitude to innovation; increasingly loath to relay good ideas because ‘national performance measures, targets, budgets and national initiatives’ remove the incentive to do so. This surely entrenches processes that risk becoming stagnant, as workers simply carry out their daily tasks without critically thinking about their role and how their work could be done in a more resourceful way, boosting their own and the department’s productivity.
After all, frontline employees are often those with the brightest ideas. They could be the most recent graduates in touch with contemporary theories and practices or simply those that have operated in their role for a sufficient length of time to see how it could be done more fruitfully. Engendering an environment where staff of all levels feels confident to listen to each other’s ideas is then essential, as a department that adapts and adjusts to their external environment will no doubt be more efficient and effective at delivery level. More than this, workers should be actively encouraged to pass on ideas, with reward for good ones and encouraging feedback for those that are not implemented. But current departmental practice – both in terms of who it recruits, who it promotes and how it operates – discourages this.
Worryingly, Tim Burr, the head of the NAO, states:
"Despite the large sums of money being invested in encouraging innovation, central government isn’t making the most of the opportunities to improve the delivery of public services."
Although conceptually difficult to gauge, it is imperative that the money used to stimulate innovation in Government departments is tracked and that outputs are tangible. Real pursuit and documentation of new ideas - and how they have been implemented - will help the Government to see if departments are indeed active in supporting advancements and utilising budgets successfully. Innovation will ensure that departments are proactive as well as reactive, and good ideas can save money too. Particularly important in the context of an economic downturn, innovation will help departments to do more with less.