Social Frontiers: The Myth of the Heroic Innovator?

19.11.2013 Blog

After a year of planning, Social Frontiers finally arrived last week. The two days were full of great presentations, and discussions from researchers across the world who are focusing on social innovation. Over the next few weeks we’ll be reporting back in more detail on some of the presentations and discussions. One that I particularly enjoyed  was titled ‘The Myth of the Heroic Innovator? Collaboration, Competition and the Public Sector’.

The session featured two presentations, one by Jacob Torfing and Eva Sørenson on ‘Enhancing Social Innovation by Rethinking Collaboration, Leadership and Public Governance’ and another by Fergus Lyon, Leandro Sepulveda and Ian Vickers on ‘Processes of Social Innovation in Mutual Organisations: The Case of Social Enterprise Spin-outs from the Public Sector’. Both presentations dealt with the question of innovation within the public sector and in the delivery of public services.

Jacob and Eva’s presentation dealt with the role of collaboration in enhancing social innovation within public services, based partly on case studies that they had conducted in Denmark. They explained that, for a long time, innovation was perceived as something that was only relevant to the private sector, and public innovation was considered to be an oxymoron. This perspective, however, overlooks the innovation advantages of the public sector, including a well-educated staff and a large budget. It is clear when we look at the public sector over the past thirty years that a whole range of innovative services have been developed, such as online education and neighbourhood renewal programs. Historical studies of the development of social policies confirm that innovation within the public sector has been a constant presence, yet this has often been episodic and accidental, failing to enhance the organisational's overall capacity for innovation. It is only recently that a discourse has developed around public sector innovation and that thought has been put in to how to best encourage the innovative capabilities of the public sector. Jacob and Eva argue that this has involved a misguided search for ‘public innovation heroes’ in the form of individual policy makers and managers, and insufficient recognition that innovation is seldom the result of the efforts of a single actor.

New research confirms that multi-actor collaboration strengthens and improves all phases in the innovation process. Eva and Jacob were clear that they are not defining collaboration as meaning ‘unanimous consent’, but rather they follow Barbara Gray in seeing collaboration as the constructive management of differences in order to find joint solutions to shared problems. They see innovation as a ‘team sport’, involving key actors whom they defined as convenors, facilitators, and catalysts.

The role of the convenor is to bring together the relevant actors, and spur interaction and the exchange of information, views and ideas. The role of the facilitator is to get the actors to collaborate by constructively managing their differences and engaging in processes of mutual learning that bring them beyond the least common denominator. Finally, the role of the catalyst is to create appropriate disturbances and stimulate the actors to think out of the box, and develop and implement new and bold solutions. This hierarchy of people is able to set the agenda and mobilise resources, and Eva and Jacob hold that the enhancement of collaborative innovation in the public sector is predicated on a shift from New Public Management to Stephen Osborne’s vision of New Public Governance. In New Public Governance, citizens are co-producers and co-creators of welfare services, and the solution is public-private collaboration through networks and partnerships.

Jacob and Eva stressed that work on collaborative innovation is still in its infancy, and further research is needed. Firstly, they would like to see comparative case studies as well as quantitative studies, in order to further document the effects of multi-actor collaboration on public innovation. Secondly, they would like further research to look at the question of why stakeholder participation in co-created implementation tends to be stronger than in co-created initiation and design. Thirdly, they want a detailed mapping of the political and institutional barriers and drivers of collaborative innovation. Fourthly, they wish to identify the dilemmas associated with the exercise of innovation management, and reflect on how they are managed. Finally, the political conditions for a transition to a model of New Public Governance must be assessed.

Fergus Lyon and Ian Vickers gave a presentation on the ‘Processes of Social Innovation in Mutual Organisations: The Case of Social Enterprise Spin-Outs From the Public Sector’. This presentation was looking at the boundaries between public and private provision of services. The authors drew on interviews and case study evidence from organisations involved in health and social care provision, which has seen increasing numbers of public sector spin outs and mutual forms in recent years.The most significant innovation most frequently reported was the new organisational form itself, with the transition from the public sector to a social enterprise model often involving high levels of staff engagement and debate. In many cases new treatments and therapeutic work integration had been developed, often inspired by a more holistic understanding of the relationship between an individual’s physical and mental well-being, freed from the limiting effects of ‘red tape’. Furthermore, many organisations demonstrated strengths in change management led by entrepreneurial and inspirational leaders, who were skilled in fostering a more ‘open climate’ for new ideas and innovation. Fergus and Ian stressed that the maverick qualities of these entrepreneurial leaders were present while still in the public sector, being person-specific and not linked to the social enterprise form itself, however when operating in the context of the public sector innovative services had to be piloted ‘under the radar’.

The results of the case studies presented by Fergus and Ian showed a diversity of innovation existing in these new mutual organisations. In particular they focused on the development of novel services drawing on the involvement of multiple players, including staff, users and commissioners, bringing to mind Eva and Jacob’s points about the importance of multi-actor collaboration. The case study interviews suggested that innovation can be faster and easier in social enterprises compared to the public sector, although with the caveat that many of the most innovative elements identified were developed by socially entrepreneurial leaders and key staff while in the public sector. In addition, studying the process of innovation during a period of dramatic organisational change showed the importance of understanding the trajectories of innovation, with organisations able to draw on both the existing routines that they had developed while in the public sector, and also new routines related to greater staff engagement, and control over resources.

After the presentations there was a lively and rich discussion. Eva Sørenson responded to Fergus Lyon’s talk by noting one concern raised by the existence of innovation in public sector spin-outs, namely what the mechanisms are for information on these new ways of working to be collated and fed back, for the betterment of public services and hopeful encouragement of a broader innovation culture. Other questions raised by Fergus and Ian’s talk included: are mutuals alternatives to the market economy? And how do they fit into the broader rhetoric about outsourcing public services?

An interesting legal point was raised regarding the fact that private citizens are able to do whatever they want, unless the law forbids it, while public sector authorities are only allowed to do what the law expressly allows. There is an intriguing middle space here, as public sector officials themselves are able to act in ways above and beyond what is expressly allowed by the legal framework. There was also discussion regarding the fact than an elimination of risk can often amount to an elimination of innovation, and a story told about a municipal director who told his staff that at every meeting they had to report two errors, with the two best errors netting rewards. This recognised the fact that if one does not commit strategic errors, one is not attempting to do anything. 

Regarding multi-actor collaboration, the point was raised that it is important to overcome certain barriers regarding co-production of services, such as a general unwillingness to entrust users with responsibility regarding their own lives, and difficulties in seeing criminals in particular as competent in this regard.

Notwithstanding the many issues, I was inspired to be a presentation which looked forward to so many opportunities for innovation in the delivery of public services, and gave pointers as to how this might best be achieved.