UK chief operating officer tackles the constraints on innovation in government

By on 21/03/2023 | Updated on 21/03/2023

At the Innovation conference in London on 21 March, UK civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm mapped out the barriers to innovation in government, and suggested ways to tackle them – without relying on the ‘lone visionaries who like to break things’

The UK civil service has demonstrated its ability to innovate, its chief operating officer said today in a keynote speech, but “there’s more that we need to do, including investing in skills, making sure people have the tools they need to innovate, and empowering staff to take on risks, stripping back unnecessary hierarchy and bureaucracy”.

Speaking at the Innovation conference – which attracted hundreds of public and civil servants from around the world to Central Hall Westminster – Alex Chisholm, who is also the Cabinet Office permanent secretary, identified the obstacles facing innovation in government and highlighted areas for improvement.

“Government is sometimes seen as inert and unresponsive. ‘The Blob’ has entered the British political lexicon,” he said. Yet the civil service can be highly innovative: during the pandemic, it took less than eight months for the Vaccine Taskforce to roll out a brand new vaccine; a government programme designed and produced 14,000 ventilators inside three months; and departments processed a million benefits applications and 512,000 furlough payments in a few weeks. Here, said Chisholm, “long-term investment, empowerment and a properly recognised, urgent collective need were the seedbeds of success.”

Legitimate constraints

There are solid reasons behind some of the constraints on innovation in government, said Chisholm. “Steady and dependable public service delivery is the top ask of government,” he noted, and civil servants must remain accountable for the money and powers delegated to them by the population.

“When the collective good is at stake, governance honed for high-risk innovation is not the right model,” he commented. “We cannot accommodate the Randian lone visionaries who like to break things before breakfast. Change in government must work through persuasion, by aligning and coordinating the energies and behaviours of many colleagues and stakeholders. We encourage idiosyncratic and original thinkers to join us inside government, but we cannot be a space of unilateral freedom for the persuasive tech prophet that venture capital loves to back.”

Nor will government ever be subject to the competitive pressures that help drive innovation in the private sector. “Our core task is to provide the inescapably publicgoods we need as citizens,” said Chisholm. “The adrenalin of the fear of being toppled cannot, therefore, be very powerful in motivating the state – that great and inescapable natural monopoly.”

Dismantlable barriers

However, Chisholm also pointed to a range of “avoidable pathologies that we should seek to change.” Some of these lie in government’s financial processes: “Many parts of government depend on yearly funding of uncertain magnitude and focus. The capacity to fund new projects can get squeezed out by the pressure to meet immediate service requirements or to absorb unplanned new pressures. And… the vast bulk of funding continues to be allocated to specific institutions – departments and public bodies – even though more and more opportunities and challenges are cross-government in scale and scope.”

Government’s funding of experimental work in vaccines and ventilators shows a way forward, Chisholm suggested, and its investments in digital platforms “can give even huge and ancient organisations the nimbleness of youth.” Civil servants can “learn from the ways that tech innovation has deployed capital to generate rapid and useful change to prioritise our own investments,” he argued.

Chisholm acknowledged that “multiple layers of hierarchy, and numerous stage-gates in decision-making, are without doubt a barrier to innovation.” Large companies, he commented, “undertake periodic restructurings to try to simplify and streamline and delayer. Yet the curious feature of government is how our equivalent moves – so-called ‘machinery of government’ changes – tend to be about the scope of responsibility, not our internal organisational structures.”

Civil servants must also be supported “to take useful risks,” said Chisholm, noting that systems of accountability such as the Public Accounts Committee – a parliamentary committee that publicly cross-examines departmental leaders – can disincentivise innovation. “Not every attempt at innovation will succeed, and our accountability mechanisms need to acknowledge that,” he said. “In rightly seeking to empty the bath of blobby error, the collective, social ‘we’ must not throw out the beautiful innovation babies that might grow into our saviours tomorrow.”

Skills is another area for improvement. “We need those with the right skills to be supported and championed – a theme noted in last week’s GGF ‘Digital Leader’s Toolkit’,” said Chisholm, pointing to a major piece of research published earlier this month by Global Government Forum. “As the report rightly says, we need to help our people develop skills which help us to see and grasp opportunities for innovation,” he commented.   

The digital leader’s toolkit: 21 ways to transform government’, published in early March, explores seven key barriers to digital transformation – and provides three ways to address each obstacle.

Finally, Chisholm stressed the need to recognise and reward innovation. “This Thursday we have the finale of this year’s Civil Service Data Challenge, which has been supported by the Global Government Forum,” he said. Last year’s winner – a scheme to apply AI technology in peatlands restoration work – will improve natural habitats and avert CO2 emissions, he said; and the project is “important also for the wider signal these awards send about what gets noticed and valued.”

Read more: An ideas accelerator: how the UK’s Data Challenge built two new public services

Macro and micro

In a discussion following Chisholm’s keynote, civil service leaders from the UK and Singapore identified further barriers to innovation – and suggested ways to address them. These exist at both the institutional and the individual levels, said Sapana Agrawal, the Cabinet Office’s director of modernisation and reform: most government bodies aren’t set up to promote innovation, while “people feel their leaders aren’t supportive of them in terms of giving them cover to take risks.”

Funding and political cycles can also present obstacles: “Often innovation needs a longer runway, and we don’t always have that,” said Agrawal. And civil servants too often develop policy by deciding “what the process is going to be, instead of committing to an outcome and allowing ourselves the space to experiment.”

The powerful tool of evaluation is insufficiently used in government, she added: “That’s to do with skills, support to uncover feedback, and our risk tolerance: what do we do if we get lots of bad feedback?” Negative feedback is immensely valuable, she said, “and if you work in a technology company, that’s how you feel about the feedback. In government, I think we often feel quite exposed.”

Gina Gill, chief digital and information officer at the UK’s Ministry of Justice, contrasted how performance management works in the public and private sectors. When working in business, she recalled, “I was incentivised to take risk. I was incentivised to innovate. I was incentivised to make things more efficient or to change things. And I don’t think that we are here” in government. In the private sector “you did well in your performance conversation if you had genuinely been driving change, rather than if you had managed risk and made sure that we didn’t look bad in the press”.

The Civil Service Data Challenge, now in its second year, invites civil servants to submit their ideas for how to make better use of data in government – and puts the best on the path to implementation.

Singapore solutions

These issues are very familiar, commented Kok Ping Soon, chief executive of Singapore’s digital agency GovTech: “Governments around the world are all the same!” Elected leaders, for example, are often uncomfortable with the risks inherent in experimental and innovative work. “What happens if that particular experiment doesn’t work out?” he asked. “There’s going to be a certain political price: are you prepared to pay that political price?” It’s important to explain to the public that this is “an experiment and it may well fail,” he said: what matters is not whether every pilot is picked up and rolled out, but whether “the money is spent wisely.”

Kok urged civil service leaders to encourage the creation of interdisciplinary teams, and to empower their digital professionals. “Are your IT teams on the leadership table?” he asked. “If you’re not bringing the technical expertise all the way up in front, early on in policymaking, in designing [operations], how are you going to get innovation and leverage technology? How can IT not be an order-taker, but one that creates a solution?”

In Singapore, he explained, the government has helped promote innovation by pairing up talented technologists “with a ‘bureaucracy hacker: somebody who’s good at [standard operating procedures], at writing funding papers, at managing procurements… Somebody who can make the right connections for that person, because he needs to know who to talk to [in order] to understand the problem; to get funding; to get support.”

As well as exchanging staff with the private sector, added Kok, governments could benefit from arranging secondments with one another. “Why should that porosity and exchange be between public and private sector, but not between governments?” he asked. Here his views chimed with those of Chisholm, who’d pointed out that “this is the Global Government Forum on innovation. Innovation works best when people learn from each other” – and that means internationally, as well as domestically.

Catastrophic events such as the pandemic, Chisholm argued, can drive innovation in government – but “obviously we don’t want to depend on shocks like COVID-19 for stimulus, nor to wait for our fiscal position to get so parlous that the stern father of invention takes the shape of cuts to the provision of collective goods.”

Instead, civil servants must build on the progress made under the pressure of COVID-19, developing the skills and techniques to become more innovative – both as individuals, and as organisations. Only in this way, Chisholm said, can government meet the public’s needs – and the pressure for change is steadily growing. “As you look at the backlogs and financial pressures acquired through COVID,” he concluded, “the pressures building from demographic change, rising expectations of individuals and households, alarming geo-strategic shifts, continuing evidence of global financial imbalances, these needs are now urgent and in plain sight.”

The Innovation conference was held in Central Hall Westminster on Tuesday 21 March, and organised by Global Government Forum with the UK Government, the UK Civil Service, the Cabinet Office and the Government Digital Service.

Want to write for GGF? We are always looking to hear from public and civil servants on the latest developments in their organisation – please get in touch below or email [email protected]

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *