Will Metro Mayors Bring More Experimentation To Public Services?

11/05/2017 11:39
Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

Last week saw the election of the first batch of metro mayors. Areas with a new mayor include the major urban conurbations of Greater Manchester (where former Labour Health Secretary Andy Burnham was successful) and the West Midlands (where former John Lewis boss Andy Street was elected for the Conservatives).

In a political world dominated by Brexit, devolution will probably be the main enabler of public service reform for the foreseeable future. There is a lot resting on the imagination and determination of these new mayors. At Mutual Ventures, we talk a lot about public service entrepreneurship and any entrepreneur will tell you that experimentation (the process of trial and error) is critical to the development of new ideas. Will devolution and the creation of new mayors facilitate this?

There are some good UK examples of innovation in public service, particularly in areas like children's services and health and social care where we are seeing some really interesting new ways of working. These often involve new more independent delivery models where unnecessary bureaucracy is removed and staff are empowered to use their professional judgement (check out Achieving for Children and PossAbilities as examples). At the very least this creates the opportunity to be more experimental and innovative - but is that enough?

In Canada, the government have committed to spending a fixed percentage of programme funds to experimenting with new approaches and measuring impact. They define experimentation as "testing new approaches to learn what works and what does not work using a rigorous method."

Surely, I hear you say, this is what every sensible government does day-in day-out? Not quite. Remembering that the proposition in Canada is that this experimental activity takes place during the running of a programme or a service. They are talking about actively supporting staff to continually experiment and are creating safe spaces for them to prototype new ideas. Prototyping is essentially trying out an idea on a micro scale first which will show up any fundamental issues which can be addressed before further prototyping and wider testing. Prototyping is very different to piloting, which we are more used to in the UK. The UK public sector pilots all the time. However, these are usually on a large scale, usually more normative (based on theory) than empirical (based on creating and collecting facts) and often end up taking as long as a full scale roll out would take anyway. By the time it's rolled out and any lessons are learned, the initially identified need has often completely changed. This is why public service professionals get nervous around talk of "innovation" and why we need to change mind-sets towards smaller scale prototyping.

This approach would be natural in a business environment - but the lack of a profit motive means that other drivers are needed. Whilst devoting a fixed percentage of spend to innovation and experimentation, as they have done in Canada, certainly sets a very clear expectation and direction from the top down, it does feel a bit arbitrary. You could imagine a situation where departments who are short of their target end up frantically looking to classify activity as experimentation as the year end approaches!

It would be much better if we could adjust the culture in government (central and local) to encourage well-intentioned and insulated experimentation. This will be a challenge. A lot of excellent frontline professionals, working in areas such as children's social care, are noticeably uncomfortable when words like "experiment" are used alongside words they are more used to, such as "safety". This is why a big focus of the Canadian model is an expectation that departmental heads "foster work environments that are conducive to experimentation, innovation and intelligent risk taking".

The government is starting to edge towards this and is getting serious about gathering data on what works with the establishment of a series of "What works centres" across central government. But these on their own will not solve the problem.

We need the new metro mayors to set the required culture of innovation and experimentation from the top. With central government focused overwhelmingly on Brexit, it would be fantastic if the relatively powerful mayors in the West Midlands (Andy Street) and Greater Manchester (Andy Burnham) see it as part of their role to push the boundaries of what can be achieved through public services, rather than simply managing an ever decreasing budgets.