Innovation in times of constraint - David Albury

Fiscal constraint is currently a key consideration for public sector agencies around the world - how do we innovate when there are so many competing priorities for the resources of agencies?

Recently David Albury, from The Innovation Unit in the UK, presented to the Executive Level Leadership Network on the issue of 'innovation in times of constraint'. I was able to attend, and hear some thoughts on public sector innovation from one of the leading thinkers in the field.

Some of the key points raised by David were:

  • The 'ICE' balance for public sector organisations - balancing innovation and efficiency over cuts. Cuts can include decommissioning and disinvestment, eliminating non-core activities or activities that are better done by another organisation. Efficiency can get you more or the same results for less, but it does not alter the nature of the inputs or outputs and does not position the agency to be any better at meeting future challenges. Innovation, particularly radical innovation, is about getting significantly better outcomes for significantly less. Agencies need to consider how these are balanced in achieving their aims.

  • The drivers for innovation include:


    1. Long-term challenges which are becoming more pressing - such as the ageing population, or climate change

    2. Persistent issues with no known pathway to solution - issues where there has been a plateau in performance such as management of drug and alcohol problems

    3. Increasing pressures and demands on public services - that we as citizens have changed expectations about what government can deliver and are no longer content to be passive consumers of services

    4. The Global Financial Crisis has led to a massive tightening of public finances


  • We now know much more about how to achieve radical innovation than we have previously, and that the focus needs to be not just on creativity and imagination, but on providing a disciplined innovation model/process.

  • A key part of stimulating innovation is to understand the demand for innovation. For innovation you need clarity about the goal - a common problem is a failure in understanding the real underlying problem or cause. Using ethnography and other such approaches can be key to getting this right.

  • Public sector agencies tend to be very bad at looking outside of themselves. High performing innovative organisations are constantly engaging in horizon scanning and looking outwards, looking to other organisations, countries or sectors for how they have solved the problem or a similar one. There's also a lot to be learnt from looking at the most extreme circumstances or examples.

  • To generate new insights and ideas we need to use divergent and convergent styles of thinking. We need to engage provocateurs, users and people who are new entrants to the relevant services. To produce genuinely innovative solutions you require new perspectives. Traditionally the public sector has been poor at engaging users in the process but we are getting better. We are also getting a better understanding of the tools and processes that can be successfully used - e.g. the six thinking hats developed by Edward de Bono.

  • In incubating solutions we need to make more use of design and modelling, or prototyping and simulations. The techniques of service design, which are very well-known in the private sector and parts of the third/not-for-profit sector, have been little used in the public sector (though this is changing).

  • We should avoid using the language of pilots. Pilots are based on the assumption that you have got something right, but that you just need to refine it before rolling it out further. Instead we should use prototyping. Prototyping suggests that we sort of know where we want to get to but that we also know that we will get it wrong and make mistakes along the way. We need to get there by stages of controlled experiments involving large groups of stakeholders and users.

  • If agencies want to innovate they need to focus on a small, key number of priorities and put resources around the innovation process for them.

  • The best innovations happen when there are connections through the organisation, and with users and stakeholders - when there is a sense of community.

  • We should avoid trying to measure innovation (or the outputs) and focus on measuring the potential or capability for innovation.

  • Times of constraint can be very productive for innovation. The impetus of constraint can provide the necessary push for innovation - but it needs to be combined with passion and honesty. Linking users with services can unleash real change that can save significant amounts of money. The challenge needs to be framed as an opportunity for achieving significant improvements to services and outcomes that will also save money. If it is presented merely as a matter of fiscal constraint, the innovation challenge will be deeply uninteresting to the professionals within the system (and presumably the users).


It was a very interesting discussion and there was evident interest by the audience in this important topic.

David was in Australia with the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG). I have tried for a faithful representation of David's presentation - any errors/misrepresentations should be considered my own.