Ten reasons why we need a new approach to developing social policy – 8. Policy would be more innovative

This is the eighth in a series of posts on why social policy should be developed by and with the people who use and provide public and voluntary services. We’re publishing the rest of the series over the next week, and we welcome your comments.

With less money and, in the case of ‘rising tide’ issues such as an ageing society, less time as well, we need plenty of new ideas in social policy – but where they come from matters. Steve Jobs said that: “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” True, but a lot of innovation is sparked by seeing people’s needs close-up and figuring out better ways to meet them. This is why practitioners have created many of the best new approaches, and why we should distinguish between two types of innovation – those that seem like a good idea on paper but should stay there, and those that are good in practice because that’s where they’ve come from.

Firstly, paper innovation, or as we’ve it called it here before the ‘blueprint approach‘. A few years’ ago Demos pointed out that government holds a ‘pipeline’ view of innovation, meaning that:

  • new solutions are mostly developed in Whitehall departments and R&D labs in large technology firms (and indeed sometimes in think tanks);
  • innovation grows out of major hardware solutions implemented at scale and business process re-engineering;
  • process innovation (or ‘lean systems’) is the most effective way of improving efficiency;
  • innovation is driven only by market or quasi-market competition; and
  • the primary job of public servants and frontline practitioners is to implement what emerges from this pipeline.

The current Government would claim to have moved decisively away from this kind of thinking with its emphasis on ‘open public services‘, in which decentralisation, localism, choice and outcomes-based payments will create many more opportunities for grassroots-led innovation. But it continues to push ‘solutions’ such as lean and shared services, adheres even more than its predecessors to the importance of competition, and can’t restrain itself from introducing big ‘top-down’ reforms such as universal benefits and the Work Programme, Academies and free schools, Police Commissioners and the NHS reforms – many in the name of greater localism, it says, but with the obvious irony that they all are being pushed (imposed) from the centre.

Innovations dreamt up by civil servants and think tanks can be whizzy but can also lack groundedness, practicality, a proper analysis of possible bad outcomes, and a constituency of support necessary for successful implementation (pace the NHS reforms in particular). It would be tragic as a result if ‘innovation’ became a dirty word amongst practitioners – something that’s largely ‘done to’ them rather than ‘done by’ them. Fortunately however, there is a better way.

Secondly, then, practical innovation. Many of the most exciting ideas in public services over the past few years have come from practitioners and service users – personalisation and direct payments, family friendly policies, user voice (from the disability rights movement in particular), Nurse Family Partnerships, the Expert Patients Programme, The Swindon LIFE programme (developed by Participle with 15 local families), Keyring and Shared Lives in social care, the Richmond Fellowship’s RETAIN programme and Star Wards in mental health.

This isn’t surprising. Practitioners and users are much closer to problems, and they can see for themselves the ways in which existing services aren’t working (especially ‘failure demand‘ and where this stems from). Unlike most policy wonks, practitioners find it difficult to insulate themselves from the frustrations of services users, their families and local communities. Consequently, practitioners’ intelligence is akin to what W. Edwards Deming called ‘profound knowledge‘, rather than the partisanship and prejudice that often characterises policy debate in the Westminster bubble. Practitioners can also test out for themselves the viability of alternative approaches (though they often do it surreptitiously, which tells you something about how far we still have to go to create a system that supports frontline innovation).

This has important implications for policy. Practitioners and service users experience policy – they see firsthand how the approaches designed at the centre, from funding and commissioning to regulation and performance measurement, actually operates at the frontline. They are better positioned to anticipate how it will be interpreted and implemented, not according to the perfect blueprints of its creators but based on what happened when previous policy encountered reality. This includes the likely unintended consequences, for example, how measurement and targets can be ‘gamed’. From this, practitioners are also better placed than policy wonks to identify ways that policies act as barriers to better provision (whether the policy in question derives from central government or their own service or organisation), and so how policy could be reformed to create a more suitable and supportive environment for services including innovative approaches.

Think tanks can and have supported some of the practitioner-developed innovations mentioned above, and this has been important. But more often than not think tanks neglect others’ ideas in favour of their own (as part of the ‘battle of ideas‘ they cling to), and don’t do enough to build alliances with charities and campaigners. We might also wonder why it is that receiving a ‘seal of approval’ from think tanks matters so much, given their typical remove from the reality of life on the frontline.

What’s out-of-date then – what should be our priority for innovation – is the way we innovate in policy, including challenging the largely closed ‘innovation industry’ that inadvertently reinforces the idea that innovation is a specialised ‘elite activity’ beyond the reach of the rest of us. Instead, to get more fresh new ideas we need to go beyond the same old suspects. Focusing more on practitioner-led innovations will mean a greater practicality in new ideas. It will also – if we chose to listen – mean policy that’s better suited to frontline innovation. After all, if government can ask practitioners for suggestions of where to save money, there’s no reason it can’t ask them for their ideas to improve policy – which is also what this project is about.


7 Comments on “Ten reasons why we need a new approach to developing social policy – 8. Policy would be more innovative”

  1. Alex Kenmure says:

    Something I am struggling with (I guess both intellectually and more importantly professionally) is whether there is any place for “paper innovators”, or if by their very involvement they can’t help themselves muddying the waters and creating a divide with practicioners.

    I am, to all intents and purposes, a paper innovator and am painfully aware of the limitations I bring with me. But I also think I have something to contribute, despite my extreme lack of “frontline” experience and exposure. So – does the benefit I bring outweigh the potentially harmful impact I might bring to innovative impactful policy? You can see my existential dilemma – if policy wonks aren’t best placed to shape policy, what are they best placed to do?

    I guess the ideal is for policy wonks and practitioners to work together, but in reality maybe we carry too much baggage to make this work. It would take an incredibly high level of maturity for a whole cohort of think tank/policy professionals to hold their hands up and say “we don’t really bring effective innovative thought to the process so let’s get out of the game”.

    As is too often the case I’m not sure where I am going with this, but I think my point is the battle of ideas will continue to rage on if the message policy people are hearing is “your ideas are no good”. Maybe one of the challenges for this project is as much exploring how practitioners value policy support and challenge, as it is exploring how policy professionals can start valuing the insights and profound knowledge of practitioners.

    • I certainly think that there’s a place for paper innovators – but it’s not the position they occupy at the moment. On this blog I am of course often reacting to the current state of affairs and trying to point out some of its absurdities (people just out of university with 2:1s in history telling experienced practitioners how their services should be organised etc). Personally I’ve felt most useful as a policy generalist when I’ve helped to promote what a group of innovative practitioners are doing and found a way to present it to policy audiences. Collating and analysing evidence is also valuable and something that most practitioners and service users don’t have the time or resources to do. What I’m much more critical of is thinking that we have (all) the answers. Awareness of our limitations is the key, and would make for better policy work. So it’s not a case of getting out of the game, more how can we develop a new kind of playing field, where as you say practitioners could receive policy support and challenge, and policy people could gain much more practitional insight and intelligence. I’m hopeful we can do both, and that there’s enough of us on both ‘sides’ to make it happen.

  2. nosapience says:

    No policy ever created innovation, not even the ones designed to inspire innovation!

    But creation is not the job of policy, it is the job of mavericks and accidents. But policy and “policy wonks” do have a vital role to play in normalising the new stuff. The best policies advocate the good (not the best that’s a trap) practice that’s already there.

    In moving from random chaos through experimentation onto implementation and normalisation of the new way, policy is a vital step. To be successful the creativity of the policy writer is needed in the sophisticated and the subtle … not the politically driven penchant for sticky titles and a sentence long subtitle underneath in smaller writing! Not subtle!

    No, the policy writer’s job is to set the conditions or strategies that amplify the behaviours that give the outcomes you want and dampen the behaviours that don’t. Interpretation and implementation is the job of ‘ordinary practitioners’ and great policy protects them from the half witted numpties in the middle muddle who got their job by kiss high-numpties, who similarly wouldn’t recognise the good stuff if it walked up and introduced with, “hello I’m the good stuff”.

    And by the way the good stuff does that all the time, policy is our loud hailer to validate the good stuff and give the middle muddle some kiss-arse ammunition. not a bad view of the idea here: https://plus.google.com/u/0/108839011589153529926/posts/GXrKJC6mDgk

    • Alex Kenmure says:

      Interesting comments above.

      “normalising the new stuff” – that’s an interesting thought. I quite like thinking of it in that way actually. Also that this implies a different dynamic where policy professionals sort of work to practitioners rather than management structures. De-professionalisng “policy”? I’m really fascinated to see how people would react to that, and what changing the playing field actually entails. There seems like a lot of work to be done about building trust and relationships between the people who have something profound to say (practitioners), and the people who can help them be heard (wonks – I hate this term, I should stop using it).

      I think this blog has touched on the subject before, but independence seems important here in building credibility, and that is very tricky when currently one’s professional credibility is usually measured by how well thought of you are amongst the upper echelons rather than the wider community. Disrupting that playing field is very difficult – how ready are people to let go of being told they are important by a minority, and take a more of a “silent partner” role in facilitating and supporting the majority?

      • Regarding the points on reputation in your last paragraph, I’d like to think that we’re shifting into an era where credibility is determined a bit more democractically. I’ve known people in the policy world who make it their exclusive aim to be well-regarded only by the most powerful person above them rather than their peers or the wider community, and that’s their choice, but in my experience they aren’t well-regarded and they don’t make any real or lasting impact on the world. In contrast, in a social media world I think that insight, honesty, integrity and being a facilitator are the main factors in buliding an audience, and that this is the new route to credibility for policy professionals.

    • I agree, which is what makes gimmickry (developing and owning the big new idea) in policy work so distracting and counter-productive. The question then is how we create more channels through which the learning from practitioner experimentation and development can feed through into good policy work; this one of the objectives for this project but we need many more channels if we are going to shift how the majority of policy gets done.

  3. Policy is rarely ‘made’ it emerges – often in the most unexpected, unpredictable and unplanned ways. We must not be captured by established thinking patterns eg ‘innovation’ is what we’re after; practitioners know best what will work; it’s a battle between practs and wonks; etc, etc. These, themselves, are all notions that are (like Left and Right, Blue and Red) trapped in the past and based on the twin cultures of (i) rationalism and (ii) the Western drive towards ‘big ideas’. Both these are now largely discredited notions. Policy emerges as a result of values, culture and public discourse. In a democracy, policy is fundamentally a political act and therefore lives primarily within the political way of thinking not the technocratic one. It is messy not clean. One thing that can be improved is the process of public discourse. This new think tank approach can be a useful forum for that. To do that effectively it must avoid creating a culture of dichotomy. Everyone has strengths and limitations. Practitioners live with issues on the ground and are good at thinking technocratically. But they are not necessarily trained or able to embark on systems level thinking. Neither are they necessarily any good at (or have any interest in) thinking politically. Policy makers and, to a lesser extent, people who live in think tanks are usually able to do just that but may not be fully aware of the technical practicalities of implementation on the ground. Each can bring different things to the party. I think we can improve the process. But, in that process, we should not maintain the pretense that people are what they are not, or that somehow there is such a thing as ‘independence’. Important elements of a good policy process are (i) one that is designed for, and able to live in, the messy, real world of human beings (ii) one that recognizes that policy is, ultimately, political not technocratic.


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