Tim Devine, technology expert, and Kate Robertson, defence and security expert at PA Consulting discuss how fusion could be the answer to the UK’s issue with public sector innovation, allowing the government to pool together the different pockets of innovation
The UK has an issue with public sector innovation. Plenty of exciting new ideas are bubbling up and both central and local government are trying them out successfully. But the activity is happening in pockets, not at scale, and it struggles to get beyond the early stages of development.
For example, in the last few years, we’ve been involved in prototyping a new kind of adult social care that uses Amazon’s Alexa technology to give vulnerable people more autonomy in their own homes. It’s been a big success and attracted a lot of attention. But it’s one of at least four similar government-funded projects with different sponsors. What if government could somehow pool this innovation. Would these pockets of activity become more than the sum of their parts?
This same question occurred to the authors of the UK’s 2018 National Security Capability Review. They concluded that the UK’s economic, security and influencing capabilities must come together instead of working exclusively in separate government departments. Only then can the country tackle its challenges and achieve its objectives. This thinking has gone on to produce ‘Fusion’, the Cabinet Office’s push to pool the strengths of government to focus them better on the challenges of the day.
Let innovation lead
Fusion is an exciting idea, not least because, if it happens, the UK will be a huge step closer to getting another enormous benefit: making the most of its ideas. Could Fusion help the UK move to a position where, instead of government driving innovation, innovation drives government?
Set new goals
Bridging boundaries between government departments could certainly streamline some of the complexity involved in turning ideas into reality. Take the long-running quest to provide connectivity for phone calls on trains, for example. Several players are involved, including operating companies, Network Rail and technology providers. This is complicated enough. But there hasn’t been an agreement as to who is responsible or what the technology choices are. If all those involved work to cross-departmental goals, with a proportion of their budgets attached to them, this barrier could recede.
Ask better questions
Fusion could also, in theory, resolve the departmental wrangle if it led to a streamlined framework for innovation. And that, in turn, might help solve another big problem. Step one in any successful innovation project is to be clear about the problem you’re trying to solve – the question you want your idea to answer. And the government needs to ask more specific questions because if the brief is woolly, the response will be too.
Often, government poses a question that’s too general. So different providers all answer their own version of that question. And the result – in the rail connectivity example – is that there’s still no consistent service across the rail network, even though cellular technology has existed for 30 years. It might have been different if the brief had been along the lines of: help people use their smartphones at a certain bit rate on the UK’s main railway lines, by a certain date.
This could ease other problems that dog the UK’s ability to capitalise on its ideas. First, it could co-ordinate resources and ideas so the best ones have a chance of turning into fully-formed reality and making a difference on a substantial scale. Currently, innovation is scattered around departments and quangos, with no overview of the whole lifecycle of an idea. This is why ideas mostly don’t make it beyond the early stages when many more could reach maturity.
Second, it could offer a longer-term perspective on deep-seated problems beyond the electoral cycle and the political need to produce big ideas and immediate results. And that might, in turn, mean a more substantial response to big challenges like the ageing population, the affordable housing shortage and climate change.
Third, co-ordinating innovation from the centre could help foster a new culture across government. Not one that just stimulates ideas, but one that delivers on them. This could see government willing to take more calculated risks on ideas in the way that the private sector or social enterprises do. Problem-solving and risk-averseness rarely go together.
This would lay the foundations for establishing innovation as a professional function at all levels in government. People, from senior levels down, will need to adapt culturally – a process the central organisation could help enable. But the most helpful lever will be new career structures that let people move between different levels of innovation, from making existing operations work better to finding new ways to solve problems.
By making departmental agendas less prominent and pushing cross-government goals to the fore, Fusion could be just the shake-up the UK needs to bring innovation to life.
Tim Devine, Technology Expert
Kate Robertson, Defence and Security Expert