To coin a phrase, innovation is local governments’ must have fashion accessory of the moment. Gone are the ‘boot cut jeans’ of transformation and ‘shell suits’ of place-shaping, innovation is bang on trend and any self-respecting progressive local authority simply won’t be seen in anything else!
There are good reasons for this current unbridled enthusiasm. Digital disruption has pretty much turned the world on its head over the last twenty years or so, leading to the rapid decline of countless numbers of hitherto sacred names and the equally rapid introduction of new ones; take the demise of BHS and relentless rise of Uber as two pertinent but by no means isolated examples.
The origin of the word innovate comes from the Latin ‘to make new’, which helpfully encourages a need for rethinking at a fundamental rather than peripheral level. This is an important principle because genuine innovation is unlikely to be ‘pain free’ in a political sense; it will push our thinking and challenge the age of maxims that have defined our public services from the time of Beveridge and indeed, even before that. We need to be ready for this pain because there is an inherent danger that the ubiquitous and fashionable trend for ‘innovation’ will disguise the hard choices that thinking anew really confronts us with; leading to innovation fading away like all fashions do; ultimately killed by the very local politics it has the potential to revitalise.
So we need to treat innovation not as an ephemeral article of fashion, but as a challenge and call to arms to renew the pioneering spirit of local government that built the great Victorian cities and created the fundamentals of society that still exist today. And to do that, innovation needs to be led.
It’s easy to become blasé about the sheer depth of change that digital disruption has created in our lives. We are in the midst of a revolution every bit as dramatic as the industrial revolution, with hopes, fears, opportunities and insecurities all being played out as a result of the changes we are experiencing. The abrupt epiphany we experienced about the security of our personal data as a result of scandals including Facebook and others, is the tip of an immense iceberg – mostly good, occasional malign – that underpins the shifts that digital innovation has created in our lives. Our lives are increasingly inured to a digital world; commerce, communication, information, networking, dating, commuting, eating; the list is endless and evolving at a spectacular rate. Public services and local government in particular has been perhaps slower to grasp the realities of this new world and while the sector has changed considerably over the last two decades, much of that change has been turgid and the pace has been far, far outstripped by digital changes in wider society. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the same people who are embracing the new digital world, from millennials to baby boomers are the self-same people who make up the communities we represent and if we can make digital innovation work in one part of their lives, then we can make it work in those that local government has some element of influence over too.
But to be successful, we need to be smart.
We have to resist the temptation to turn digital innovation into a policy or programme. Rather, we need to observe where we can connect services and people and use digital means to create fluidity between the two. This is much more about creating the condition for innovation to work and then using technology to nudge people along.
Let’s use a negative to illustrate the positive. Imagine twenty years ago – in 1999 – that the still relatively fresh New Labour government had come up with a new policy on digital commerce. Imagine that almost a decade before the advent of the first iPhone, they decided to implement a policy that meant that in twenty years’ time – by 2019 – half of all shopping would be conducted via device like a tablet, laptop or smartphone and that as a result of this compulsory policy, the very nature of the high street as we know it (in 1999) would be in peril, with many household names having disappeared or been driven to the point of extinction.
There would have been uproar, with people rightly indignant about government interference in our lives, the death of the high street and the creation of a remote society of automatons, hunched over electronic devices, living out their existence in a virtual rather than actual world.
But of course, that’s exactly what has happened over the last twenty or so years; not because government legislated for it, but because innovators rethought the fundamentals of what technology made possible and gently nudged and enabled us to embrace it. If we want to glimpse the route to leading innovation in local government, we need look no further than the society all around us.
The truth is that local government should be proud of its long history as an innovator. It shaped and in many cases literally built those great Victorian cities. However, as we know, building things is very much the easy part of societal progress; the bigger challenge is the ideas that forge movements that eventually turn into the things that define and underpin our communities, such as the provision of community health, infrastructure and basic sanitation and healthcare. While that’s what local government did nearly two hundred years ago, enabling us to make sense of the industrial revolution and its new ideas, we once again are confronted by the equally demanding challenges of the 21st Century.
So while Innovation is certainly in fashion across local government at the moment, perhaps on reflection it’s more of a ‘little black dress’ than a pair of ‘boot cut jeans’; style that has stood the test of time and which will hopefully remain with us for a good long time to come.
Aidan Rave May 2019