Creativity in Public Services

23.04.2015 Blog

Most people would say they are in favour of creativity in public services, but many have struggled to implement this in practice.  As part of the Royal Society of Art's (RSA) ‘Power to Create’ ethos, it is convening a new London wide network to share ideas and offer support around this theme. On April 16th, a kick-off workshop was held at Fitzrovia Community Centre, where various people shared their experiences of innovating in public service provision.  

Amongst the speakers we heard from was John Isitt, Director of Insight at Resonant. He discussed a project that he had worked on which attempted to understand why women in Tower Hamlets were less likely to respond to invitations for cervical smear tests. After conducting focus groups, he found that many local young women were turned off by the medical jargon contained in letters from the National Cancer Screening Service. Additionally, some felt that cervical cancer screening would benefit from a brand in order to seem less threatening.

Resonant were then able to design an intervention in the form of a different kind of first letter, which was written in more accessible language, tackled various myths about screening, and featured distinctive images. This helped to increase screening attendance by 24%. While it was inspiring to hear about the success of this intervention, it was frustrating to hear that the learning from the pilot had been lost in the wake of the Health and Social Care Act, due to changes in staff and priorities at NHS Tower Hamlets which led to the intervention being abandoned.

In this context it was particularly interesting to hear the presentation given by Baillie Aaron, Spark Inside CEO and founder. Spark Inside is a social enterprise which connects young offenders with life coaches to help them create fulfilling and productive futures, and is the first initiative of its kind in the UK. Baillie spoke about the lessons she had learned about fostering creative approaches within the criminal justice system, and in particular she mentioned the need to ensure that the work one is doing is aligned with government policy, in order to ensure sustainable funding. 

For example, the government is currently concerned to reduce re-offending. A recent evaluation of a Spark Inside program showed a re-offending rate of 12.5%, as compared to a national average of 70%. Furthermore, all clients were actively engaged in employment, training or education on leaving prison. Baillie spoke about a particular coaching client who had been helped to tap into his inner resourcefulness, and after his release from prison went into every shop on a high street with his CV, until one of them was persuaded to offer him a job.

In addition to the presentations from John and Baillie, we heard from Joan Munro of the ‘Accelerating Innovation in Local Government Research Project’. She spoke about the need for local government officials and councilors to be more tolerant of risk if they are to foster creativity, which sparked a debate as audience members pointed out the very public consequences of failure within this sector, typified by the vilification of Sharon Shoesmith following the death of baby P. We also heard a final presentation by Rozelle Bentheim, who spoke about the need to promote creativity through story telling.

Reflecting on what I had heard, I was reminded of a line from Baillie’s presentation – "if we carry on doing the same, we will get more of the same" (in this case, a $25 billion youth offending bill). It was inspiring to consider the possibility of other approaches to tackling familiar problems, and I hope that the new network will provide a fertile ground to share learning and discuss challenges.