Innovation in Monmouthshire – why are we bothering with this?

In this post, John McConnachie, our Training Manager, explains why we are taking a new approach to the way we work – making innovation a fundamental part of how we do business. Here he explains how it’s not as soft and fluffy as it might sound.

Over to John:

Some recent perceptions of what we are aiming to do in terms of innovation, go no way to begin to explain what the outcome for us in Monmouthshire is. Innovation is absolutely critical within local government and contributes to Monmouthshire’s mission to deliver 21st century services in the most challenging time in my work life memory.

Why would I want to work in a local authority without innovation and creativity?

Essentially all our teams are businesses in their own right and have to balance demand for services with the available resources. It’s obvious to most who watch the news, that resources are a huge problem in the way that they are ever stretched and the demand to receive services continues to increase across the world.

Innovation is about problem solving. That’s what it is. It’s not something new or strange, it’s about solving problems. We have a big problem that we are trying to solve in local authorities and in Monmouthshire were serious in our intention to innovate.

Any business that isn’t innovative is at the mercy of every variation that happens in terms of pressures and resources in a changing, challenging environment, and will have no real control over its destiny or power to do the right thing during difficult times. Is that what we should accept? I don’t think so.

An innovative business will always have an eye on the future, be generating ideas, new possibilities and solutions all the time, in order to solve business problems and maintain the strength to deliver the right outcome when the going gets tough. That’s what I’m in this for.

Not doing the same old thing

Businesses, like local authorities, who stand still and look inward will soon become out of date and have no real grasp on best practice that exists elsewhere and possible creative solutions.

I, alongside my colleagues, want to work with services/teams and to connect with citizens to design and deliver the absolute best that we can in this time, between us to work co create and co-produce stuff that matters. Stuff that matters to people in Monmouthshire.

Council success and improvement

I’ve worked in three different local authorities as well as quite a few private companies and know what it feels like to work in a place where nobody cares about success or improvement and where there’s no pride in who we are or what we do. In those places there’s no innovation or drive to be better. Nobody wants to rock the boat. That’s not where I work. That’s not a place I will work in ever again.

Success is important to me and my colleagues and that’s why I’m working and doing different things. I know that you don’t fix any problem by trying everything that’s already been done before. Something has to change to get a different result. It makes sense to me though it can be scary and I’m scared of not succeeding. Who isn’t?

Clear outcomes

Yes, it’s quite scary this innovation stuff. It’s quite scary putting yourself out there and doing your best, trying things out for the very first time. Trying a new method or technique even when thoroughly researched it is quite challenging when it’s not been tried before. You could make a big mistake I say to myself. It’s important to have a clear outcome and be clear about what difference it will make to people, so that if it doesn’t work out immediately, you have a pretty good measure of why. And I’ve learned that you also have to accept that people want to criticise what they first don’t understand.

It’s fair to say I’ve not experienced that many fuzzy or fluffy feelings when putting myself out there to define what’s important to people and how we can experiment and create new models for delivery. Though I am absolutely clear about why I’m doing this.

Connecting with people

What I have found is a growing number of people who care enough to engage with their own community to do stuff, fix stuff and try different things. Being out and about in Monmouthshire I know how new media and technology is changing the way people behave and some of it is really quite positive. I love the openness of being able to connect with people from all over and share ideas and practices.

We in the county council are beginning to learn how we need to behave differently so that we’re in sync with people and able to keep up with what they care about.

Innovation lab

We are beginning to create an innovation lab, as we call it. It’s nothing more than quite a large room in a building we are sharing with a number of services and business partners. The room is very much a work room. A room for ideas, problem solving, learning, and focussing on issues for the people of Monmouthshire.

The room is a place for everyone to access. The space is great, and thanks to donations of chairs, tables and some basic equipment we’ve commenced a full scale project to teach colleagues, local business people and citizens all about innovation, what it means, and to learn to use new creative tools and techniques to solve real community challenges/ problems.

In the corner of the room were building a “coaching space”, which will be a partitioned area (once we acquire some more materials for nothing!) for people to learn all about business coaching and how to have brilliantly successful meetings with colleagues and citizens which are always focussed on real outcomes.

We’ve even developed our own method for coaching which we are prototyping now, and hope to publish and make available more widely really soon. We’ll offer this to business people in the county if it helps them too. I think it will, because it has sustainability and ecology at its heart, something that we all need to focus more on as resources in many ways become more scarce.

We have posters and pictures beginning to fill the walls. They are learning aids to explain to course participants theories around coaching and other subjects such as:

  • communication, including how eye contact and body language plays a huge part in communications and how eye patterns are connected to how people think and generate ideas.  This also explains how people have a preference and learning style linked to visual, auditory information etc. and how we can communicate better with customers and citizens.

Other core areas include:

  • system thinking
  •  ideation
  • design thinking
  • project design/development

We have a core programme which is rooted in theories and methodologies from around the world of education, business, psychology and technology and is all designed to help colleagues learn to deliver better outcomes.

Other more unusual learning aids include the use of Lego, which is a fantastic tool to represent finance and can be used to generate options for designing budgets in effective ways. We used this many years ago as part of an exercise to identify how we could identify where to allocate “chunks” of resources liked to our priorities.

So as time goes on and more people use the space it will evolve and grow and people will get used to it as they see the benefits and understand what we are doing there. After all this is a new area we are developing.

Intrapreneurship

The “lab” is home to our intrapreneurship school- a training programme that has already been tested by 36 colleagues in Monmouthshire.

We’re bringing and building a programme of learning to colleagues that encompasses entrepreneurial spirit and attitude, bolstered with system thinking techniques ideation, problem solving and communication skills. It’s quite a heavy programme of learning that is beginning to produce entrepreneurs who are employed within our own organisation. Yes, they do this as well as the day job.

Our new intrapreneurs are picking up world renowned theories and models in order to generate new ideas, identify real solutions and bring them to life and already have produced some sophisticated business plans. These plans are not to justify shutting or cutting services like leisure centres and libraries in what promises to be the most challenging financial years in living memory – they are to invest in them, to grow and advance them.

We’re starting to ask communities about their ideas and how we can help them invest in building their own resilience in future.

Instead of cutting our losses now, we’re actively promoting ‘invest to redesign’ approaches that we believe can make best use of public resources so that we don’t have to resort to service closures, so we can still operate generous community schemes, so we can have  0% council tax increase, and provide optional models for services like green waste collection.

When you begin to consider that we are reducing our costs by around £14m over the next four years – ‘running core services efficiently’ – is just not good enough. It will not solve the problem.

Yes, this can be disruptive and challenging and the process of whole organisation change is neither quick, smooth nor fluffy.

We need pace

Incremental improvements are just not enough, given the scale and speed of the challenge we are up against right now.

We know we have more work to do to make the links between innovation, core services, budgets and delivering more of what communities want to see.

In short we need to and will get better at demonstrating these real life outcomes. This is crucial, because I believe people should be asking why we’re not doing more to support innovation, rather than question why we’re doing it at all.

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9 comments

  1. Innovation is fine in principle, but Mr. McConnachie’s post seems all about innovation within County Hall for the people who work there. Nothing wrong with that, and I for one think that MCC needs a massive shake-up in how it interacts with the citizens it is there to support, but navel-gazing innovation will accomplish little unless it translates into better outcomes for people in the real world outside County Hall. I can’t find anything in the post that I can relate to. There are no practical examples either of how this innovation has already made a difference to ordinary citizens, or how it is planned to make a difference in the future.

    If it is an innovation programme aimed at County Hall people, it would be helpful if Mr. McConnachie could explain what the ultimate purpose of the innovation is and how we ordinary citizens can see that it is working and delivering something of benefit or use to us. In other words, what difference will it make to things outside County Hall.

  2. Innovation? This isn’t the answer it’s Blah blah blah management speak. The usual rhetoric from managers/consultants for public bodies. The fact is public bodies are monopolies, with the consumer having no choice who to use. They are dinosaurs full of useless people you can’t sack working the system of flexi time, wasting money not making it. Innovation is created from entrepreneurs real people putting their money at risk. Get the simple things right first, this is said at every 6nations match, you need that foundation first. Where amongst all the new media is an open forum for rate payers? Any forum MCC have is heavily censored, innovate and start at the beginning: discover what your customers want!

  3. “Incremental improvements are just not enough, given the scale and speed of the challenge we are up against right now.”

    So what exactly are you proposing will replace incremental improvement?

    Does the Council have the necessary skills, timeframe and finances to completely restructure its service provision across all of its departments and maintain delivery?

    Does the electorate of Monmouthshire have the appetite to engage in this process?

    How will you ensure that involvement is truly comprehensive and inclusive?

    The rhetoric is always full of magnificent aspirations and regrettably, on too many occasions, short on effective sustainable actions.

    We definitely need to change the paradigm but we need to embrace a fundamental problem which, so far, has not been addressed. What you are proposing requires more inclusive participation in the political process by a largely disenchanted electorate. Participation will therefore be limited until there is an innovative solution to the broken democracy we are currently experiencing.

    Whilst up to two thirds of the electorate continue to distance themselves cynically or apathetically from political processes and membership of political parties continues its rapid decline we can no longer afford complacency. Politicians, local and national, need to re-engage with the electorate to rebuild trust by delivering policies that have been publically and transparently debated.

    Unless we address this fundamental problem the rest will be just tinkering around the edges.
    A good start would be to abolish the cabinet system of local government and allow wider participation in decision making by all elected councillors. It would also help if all councillors published clearly defined mandates detailing their concerns and aspirations for the county’s continuing prosperity and well being, explaining just what their overarching vision is for the future of Monmouthshire.

    • I agree with you. The councillors are not currently responsive at all. I have written individually to each and everyone to highlight major concerns. The response from the majority is nothing. Those that reply are not interested. The electorate are unsurprisingly not engaged. The councillors are self motivated, full of their own importance, and most are of an age where they are totally out of touch. Why do we need them at all? Innovation let’s really innovate and start again using private enterprise and competition. Imagine if councils were running a supermarket the way they run the council, do you think they would last long?

      • I agree with both Boozaholic and Chris Hatcher. But all we are doing is venting our impotent rage and despair at the parlous state of our local government. The fundamental problem is that the only people who stand for election are, with a few notable exceptions, geriatric nobodys who aren’t up to the job.
        Until we solve this one we’ll just go on railing at their ineptitude. Does anybody have any ideas? Is anybody willing to put themselves forward for election? My cop-out is that I’m too old.
        PS. I just watched a video of Cllr. Hackett Pain addressing a meeting on education, following the Council’s severe censure from Estyn. It was a perfect example of what Chris Hatcher called “Blah blah blah Management speak.” My heart sank. They really are in a world of their own. No mention of how they plan to tackle the Estyn findings, teaching children to read and write better, raising educational attainment, motivating children to learn, reducing truancy – the stuff that really matters. Cllr. Hackett Pain has had the Education responsibility for years. Why she hasn’t resigned or been sacked as the Member responsible for the debacle on her watch is a mystery to everyone in the Abergavenny area that I have spoken to. The two senior Education Officers left the sinking ship before the ordure hit the fan. So who is accountable for the debacle?

  4. […] John McConnachie provides a frank view about innovation in the public sector from local government i… “Any business that isn’t innovative is at the mercy of every variation that happens in terms of pressures and resources in a changing, challenging environment, and will have no real control over its destiny or power to do the right thing during difficult times. Is that what we should accept? I don’t think so.”1 […]

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