Collaboration and social innovation are things we talk about a lot in public policy. They are axiomatic solutions to a supply-and-demand context that is already changing the way local government is organised.
We need more of both if public services are to be saved from a slow and steady slide toward marginalisation, under-funding and irrelevance. On this, many of us will begrudgingly agree.
Doing something about it and – crucially – making it sustainable – is more difficult. Innovation and collaboration are rife across our localities, with difficult times giving stimulus for a huge amount of creative thinking and novel partnerships.
Whitehall could certainly learn a thing or two. But at the same time, many would say these practices remain mostly at the margins; pockets of innovation in the face of budgeting processes and service contracting that are actually squeezing mandated savings in very traditional ways.
Those advocating a different approach (including myself!) need to be very mindful that the pressure on public leaders is immense, with many local authorities requiring year-on-year budget cuts that make the brain water, never mind the eyes.
We therefore have a duty to show why collaboration and social innovation are not marginal, but are central to addressing the hard challenges that are written clearly on budget sheets and organisational charts.
If we are honest, no one has made this case clearly enough. Partly because the case for, say, preventative work with families or co-production in elderly care can be hard to quantify and highly compartmentalised.
Where pilots have been rolled out, they have necessarily relied on mechanisms that reduce complex problems to binary triggers for payment and accountability. Innovation and collaboration are there, but they are isolated from the mainstream and the major budget lines.
The onus is on all of us to develop and bring a better evidence and methodological base to bear, both to understand what else could be done, but also how to work with the grain of enterprise already within local government.
This is the rationale behind the Unusual Suspects festival, which is taking place this week, from 2nd-5th September.
Over four days Collaborate, Social Innovation Exchange and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation are bringing together over 30 organisations and 1,500 people to ask what could happen if we really pushed these concepts to transform public services.
What would be the impact on communities? On commissioners and providers? And on the very nature of public service itself at a local level?
Organisations as diverse at Microsoft, Oxfam, Seoul City government and the Cooperative Councils Innovation network have committed to bringing together a group of ‘unusual suspects’ who will build a network and begin to force a change.
They are exploring a proposition: that innovation needs collaboration to thrive, and that public service collaboration can’t be sustained without innovation from communities. We welcome your views on how this is playing out for you.
Dr Henry Kippin is Director of Collaborate CIC, who are co-hosting the Unusual Suspects Festival from 2-5 September 2014.
A copy of the Festival Programme is available here.