Learning lessons: we need to encourage more policy sharing and less innovation

Sophie Wilson from the Institute for Government argues that there is too much focus on innovation in public services, and the we should focus more on learning from, and expanding, ‘what works’.

We all like new things. Whether it’s the latest gadget or an app to switch your heating on remotely, innovations are exciting. And this is no different in public services. Countless innovation funds and piloting programmes encourage local areas to develop and test ideas ranging from government initiatives such as the Transformation Challenge Awards through to programmes led by the voluntary sector like those available to social entrepreneurs from UnLtd. Without funding for early stage ideas you don’t get things off the ground.

So while there’s no denying the importance of trying and testing new approaches to public services; the emphasis on innovation over duplication means local areas may risk repeating the same mistakes or focusing resources on challenges that have already been solved elsewhere. This is something picked up on in the Institute for Government’s paper Joining up public services around local, citizen needs  which highlighted how a limited sharing of ‘what works’ in different circumstances can mean that the lessons from effective practices are rarely built upon (see p.12). Barbara Young, formerly chief executive of Diabetes UK, has also consistently argued the need for more plagiarism in the voluntary sector. In this way, encouraging more areas to copy instead of create could be a route to efficiency savings as well as better services for citizens.

Blunt replication of programmes or strategies from one local area into another is unlikely to be the solution to the challenges facing public services today. However, there are opportunities in increasing the diffusion of effective programmes through the sharing of innovations, ideas and practice, and the subsequent adoption or adaption of these ideas in a new local area. It is unlikely that a programme can, or should, be scaled up and rolled out across the country in exactly the same way. Local areas are different and public services should be able to cater for this diversity as recognised by the Government and its devolution agenda. But, greater sharing between local areas around how they can implement a new programme, the barriers and enablers to doing this, the resources and capabilities needed, as well as links to useful contacts could help areas to shortcut parts of their design process and help to save time and money. Context matters. Nevertheless, applying what we already know and adapting this with a new environment in mind can support local areas to build upon existing practice and avoid reinventing the wheel.

In fact, local areas are already doing this; whether getting ideas from conferences, participating in professional networks like SOLACE, or independently setting up visits to areas that appear to be doing something interesting. But, this is not yet something that systematically occurs across local government; whether because of a distinct professional culture or cultures, transport links, misaligned incentives, a lack of time or one of a myriad of other factors.

In response, the Institute for Government are starting to think about how to encourage greater sharing of practice between local areas. This has begun with a look at some of the intermediary programmes and organisations that connect local areas with each other or with interesting practice and ideas such as the LGA peer challenges, the Audit Commission or the seven What Works Centres. We want to understand what limits local areas from sharing more frequently, and increase attention on the diffusion process itself as an important, under recognised means of supporting areas as they redesign or recommission services.

As is often pointed out, devolution provides an opportunity to innovate by designing services around local, citizen needs. But increasing localisation also increases the importance of finding effective ways of sharing practice between local areas to make sure learning spreads throughout the country. This is especially important in the context of tightening budgets and increasing demands. Copying from your neighbour may have been frowned upon in the classroom, but it is an essential part of designing a smarter state.

Sophie Wilson is a researcher at the Institute for Government. If you’re interested in hearing more or contributing to the research she is involved in, take a look at the IfG’s project page or get in touch with her at sophie.wilson@instituteforgovernment.org.uk