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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Laird

Should public services be “experimental”?

Updated: Apr 6, 2021

Writing for Pioneer’s Post, MV Director Andrew Laird urges public service managers and practitioners to be more open to the prospect of experimentation…

What is the right level of experimentation in public services? This is a question that we are hearing (and posing) a lot in our work with public service commissioners and front line staff. Sometimes the question is whether there should be any experimentation at all. As public services are squeezed there may no longer be an option, unless those responsible are content to see services suffer a slow death by a thousand cuts – a thoroughly unsatisfactory experience for those in the community who rely on them.

At Mutual Ventures, we talk a lot about public service entrepreneurship and any entrepreneur will tell you that experimentation (the process of trial and error) is critical to the development of new ideas. The current financial situation facing services will generate a lot of creative thought – but you have to be prepared to allow space for that creative thinking to a) find practical application b) possibly fail c) adjust and try again.

There are certainly culture issues here. A lot of excellent frontline professionals, working in areas such as children’s social care, are noticeably uncomfortable when words like “experiment” are used alongside words they are more used to like “safety”.

It has taken a leading health service thinker from the US, Prof. Don Berwick, to set this challenge in plain terms. In an interview with the healthcare publication HSJ, Prof. Berwick said that the NHS should be seen as an “ongoing experiment”. Among other things, he suggests a more active role for the Care Quality Commission and NHS Improvement for collecting and sharing innovative ideas that have been shown to work.

Speaking at the King’s Fund (and quite possibly inspired by Prof. Berwick), Ed Smith the chair of NHS Improvement expanded on this. He admitted that the NHS seems to have a “talent elimination” policy through the practice of punishing managers who “fall at the first hurdle”. These are unusually plain spoken words from a person in such an official position.

I think it would be a huge positive if a culture more tolerant of well-intentioned failure could be brought to in-house public services. In the meantime public services being delivered by social enterprises are not waiting for permission – they are innovating right now. And they aren’t afraid of failure.

Organisations like EPIC (Kensington and Chelsea youth services), Social adVentures (Salford public health services), Explore (York Libraries service) and Oncourse Southwest (Plymouth Adult education) are all pushing the boundaries. They are actively supporting staff to come up with new ideas and are creating safe spaces for them to prototype new ideas. Prototyping is essentially trying out an idea on a micro scale first to show up any fundamental issues which can be addressed before wider testing.

Prototyping is very different to piloting. The public sector pilots all the time. However, these pilots are usually on a large scale, usually more normative (based on theory) than empirical (based on collecting facts) and often end up taking as long as a full scale roll out would take anyway. By the time it’s rolled out and any lessons are learned, the variables have often completely changed. This is why public service professionals get nervous around talk of “innovation” and why we need to change mind-sets towards smaller scale prototyping.

The survival of public services is dependent on allowing the brightest professionals a safe space to experiment.


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