Necessity is the mother of innovation: turning burning platforms into launchpads for reform

By on 20/09/2021 | Updated on 20/09/2021
Innovation as a survival skill: during the pandemic, civil servants have had to deploy governments’ assets and capabilities in radical new ways to protect people’s health and livelihoods. Illustration by Katy Smith

In the face of the pandemic, civil servants have taken big risks to protect their populations – short-circuiting established processes to launch innovative services and transform working practices. At a recent GGF webinar, top civil servants from the UK, Canada and Finland discussed how leaders can maintain this pace of innovation after today’s burning platform has been doused. Liz Heron reports

Under the pressure of the Covid-19 pandemic, civil service organisations around the world have had to adopt innovative ways of working – modifying or ditching traditional processes and finding new ways to address urgent, life-threatening challenges.

As the dust settles on the first stages of the pandemic response in many developed countries, civil service leaders are reflecting on what they’ve learned about how to work more innovatively – and at a recent GGF webinar, they came together to share their experiences.

Susan Acland-Hood, permanent secretary at the UK Department for Education, was so struck by the increased dynamism of civil service operations under pandemic conditions that she’d drawn up a list of the “Ps of pandemic innovation” – giving them as purpose, priorities, people, permission and process, plus the catalyst of burning platforms.

“The first ‘P’ is purpose,” she explained. “There is something colossally powerful about a single, compelling, clear reason to do things differently. I think this is the same reason that we see innovation related to things like space travel and, perhaps a bit less edifyingly, war.”

Susan Acland-Hood

The second P, priorities, involves leaders telling staff to focus on the issue of the moment and let other things take a back seat; while the third, people, is about quickly moving relevant specialists to the place where their skills are most needed. The fourth factor is giving people permission to act, removing constraints and easing concerns about achieving perfect results; and the fifth, process, involves putting long-winded standard procedures aside to enable faster action.

Acland-Hood, who was chief executive of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service when the pandemic began, pointed out that the pandemic rendered many existing working practices non-viable – creating “burning platforms” that led people to embrace changes they had previously rejected. Prior to the pandemic, she said, she “had been engaged in a relatively vigorous debate with quite a lot of people in the legal world about whether or not it was a reasonable thing to conduct certain types of court hearing by video.”

Then COVID-19 arrived, and “literally from one week to another, I went from people telling me that it would be a travesty of justice to conduct a hearing by video, to [people] banging on my door and saying: ‘Where’s my video hearing? I don’t want to come to court in a pandemic.’ And those shifts of mindsets made it possible to try things at scale and at pace in a way that’s very difficult to do in normal times.”

Innovation amidst upheaval

Finland, which was ranked number one in the world for good government by Singapore’s Chandler Institute of Governance, has captured its goals around innovation in its Strategy for Public Governance Renewal. This was developed in the midst of the pandemic last year, while civil servants were working from home.

Vesa Lipponen, chief information officer at Finland’s Ministry of Finance, explained that the strategy – which was developed remotely using online platforms ­– came up with a broad mission statement best translated as: “Public governance builds sustainable wellbeing in the midst of upheaval”. It sets out five goals for public governance by 2030, and seven policy directions for the coming decade.

Lipponen said setting goals and being able to imagine that things can be different are important aspects of the strategy. “It’s very important to say that out loud,” he said. “And trust is built actively. We try to trust everyone and to nurture that culture and then to make open government that works together – not only as a government, but also with the private sector and the third sector.”

Clearing the path

Oliver McKenna

Oliver McKenna, chief technology officer for EMEA with webinar knowledge partner Workday, said there are many examples of government innovation exceeding expectations during the pandemic. The task now, he said, is that of “creating an environment where people have got space and room and agility” to continue innovating.

Successful innovation involves setting out a vision or “big, hairy, audacious goal” and then creating that environment, he said. “So turn down the volume and red tape. Create a bit of space.” Most employees want to “develop our careers; to be recognised; to get the opportunity to give our best,” he said: employers should tap into that enthusiasm, helping people to remove the barriers to innovation.

For example, Workday sends out a weekly survey asking staff: “Have you had the opportunity to do your best?” Employees’ answers provide a great way for managers to engage with their staff, he said, finding out what may be holding people back and how those constraints can be removed.

The power of networks

Dr Vik Pant, chief scientist and chief science advisor at Natural Resources Canada (NRC), said his department uses a “digital accelerator” to build pilots, prototypes and proofs of concept that apply digital technologies to the agency’s goals.

Dr Vik Pant

Recent research showing that strong collaboration is the foundation of effective and efficient innovation has prompted NRC to use artificial intelligence and data science in an attempt to understand the department’s “collaboration eco-system” and find “synergies and complementarities” that could boost innovation, he explained.

Researchers such as Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson have up-ended the traditional, hierarchical view of organisations, said Pant, challenging the idea that collaboration can be driven from the top down. Instead, they argue that networks – rather than structures – drive collaboration and thus facilitate innovation.

“Staff members within organisations self-organise into these communities of practice that are based on mutual interests and shared objectives,” he said. “So knowledge work in an organisation is then performed across these networks… Each community of practice is a network of knowledge and resources.”

Digital collaboration

Pointing out that many collaborative networks now operate online, using platforms such as Slack, Asana and Microsoft Teams, Pant explained that analytics technologies can be used to understand exactly how knowledge is being shared and developed within these communities of practice.

“This is where we enter the world of advanced analytics for knowledge network analysis,” he said. “Working with our partners in the software industry and with our own data scientists, what we are doing is tracking interactions down to the most finely tuned level… We can have access to those data sets in a privacy-preserving way so that we can really graph-mine those webs of social knowledge and networks of collaboration.”

“Natural language processing” techniques can be applied to the subjects bubbling up in these collaborative networks, he added, enabling staff to identify and analyse key clusters. Discriminative analysis, for example, enables data scientists “to see new networks as they are forming” and try “to predict the likelihood that they will succeed or go in the right direction”, said Pant. Meanwhile, generative analysis allows experts to start “proposing these new communities, where perhaps they need a little bit of fostering or nurturing to get started”.

“This can all be done in a privacy-preserving way, so there [are] no concerns around surveillance and monitoring and snooping, because what’s important here are the interactions, not necessarily the people who are interacting,” he stressed. “As long as you can collect this data about interactions, mine it for patterns, spot trends and then apply that to the future, you can drive the collaboration eco-system in your enterprise in a much more insightful and foresightful manner.”

Protect your innovators

Vesa Lipponen

When innovative ideas do come out of the workforce, said Lipponen, senior leaders should protect staff as they experiment to find a way forward. “My idea is that you make innovation as fun as possible – and then work as a shield,” he said. “If there is a failure, the leadership should take the major impact, not the people who are actually trying to do their job.”

In Finland, he added, the pandemic has driven rapid progress in the adoption of new platforms and working practices, including approaches that were previously deemed impossible. However, he stressed that governments don’t have to come up with the most innovative ideas or technology themselves: it’s often better to adopt existing models. And while there is “more room for doing things differently” in the wake of the pandemic, he cautioned that governments are not start-ups: it takes time for new ideas to be implemented, requiring patience and “willingness to listen”.

Revisiting her ‘Ps’, Acland-Hood said it would be possible – if more difficult – to harness the power of purpose and priorities in non-pandemic times. “I think we can do better at sequencing – at saying: ‘This is the thing right now where we are looking for revolution rather than evolution’,” she commented.

The Department for Education is currently trying to embed innovation into its spending review process and conversations with ministers, she said – seeking big shifts in its approaches to pandemic response and skills provision, and exploring how to “move people more fleetly” to urgent tasks that need attention.

“I think we can keep giving people permission,” Acland-Hood said. “And I think there are ways of working with ministers to help generate safe space for innovation, and to help them frame the way that they’re promising things to the public that allows for and understands some of the risks that are inherent in new forms of activity.”

“I think there’s absolutely a role for leaders here in consistently asking the types of questions that invite innovation, creativity and challenge, and in offering air cover when people take chances,” she concluded. “Finally, we can keep on looking for the burning platforms: the places where views are shifting, or there’s a window of opportunity.”

The webinar ‘Making innovation routine: creating more inventive civil services’ was hosted by Global Government Forum on 7 September, with the support of knowledge partner Workday. You can watch the full 75-minute webinar on our dedicated event page.

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London. She worked on daily newspapers for more than 16 years as an education correspondent, section editor and general news reporter. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

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