Monday, October 1, 2012


Since the current UK Government assumed power in 2011, much of the effort of Whitehall departments has been on reducing public expenditure to deal with the financial deficit.

Yet, focusing simply on saving money in public services is alone not sufficient as it simply fails to take into account the overriding problem with much of the public sector in the UK, namely that it is not only inefficient but is generally unwilling to participate in any meaningful innovation. As a result, the public sector is caricatured as being risk-averse, unentrepreneurial and focused more on managing processes than outcomes.

And yet according to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, there are plenty of examples of the public sector adopting a more enterprising approach to delivering services. Last week, its Ash Centre for Democratic Governance and Innovation recognised 111 innovative government initiatives under the Bright Ideas initiative.

Taking examples from all levels of government - from school districts to the US Government itself - it recognised public innovation in a wide range of areas including rural regeneration, environmental problems and, topically, the academic achievement of students.

In crime, a bright idea from Baltimore collects and analyses data to determine hot spots in high crime and traffic incidents to deploy high visibility officers in those areas and curb future crime. Similarly, Pennsylvania uses new technology to analyse data and identify non-custodial parents not likely to pay child support and offer them increased support. In dealing with the legacy of the economic downturn, several public bodies have developed new approaches that are making a real difference to the regeneration of their local areas.

In New Orleans, the Mayor’s office has developed a tool that measures and tracks the city’s performance towards reducing the number of decaying and abandoned properties whilst a Michigan initiative known as Project Green House recycles upwards of 95 percent of abandoned home building materials. The City of Newtown in North Carolina has developed a free, outdoor Wi-Fi network to attract more customers to the downtown business district, city facilities, and parks whilst the e2 Business Programme in Salt Lake City provides local businesses with the knowledge and support necessary to implement sustainable business models.

There are also several projects that focus on reinvigorating school curricula and encouraging interest in science and mathematics. For example, NASA’s Explorer Schools provides teachers with interactive lesson plans and classroom activities around mathematics, science, technology, and engineering. Ohio’s Science and Math Moving On program provides its seventeen school districts with the latest in 21st century, high-technology learning tools to invigorate traditional lesson plans and enhance learning among students.

With regard to environmental protection and conservation, the MassGrown and Fresher initiative in Massachusetts connects consumers to local agriculture, whilst Hawaii’s Maui Nui Seabird Colony Champions engages the local community in the protection of endangered seabird colonies.

And there are many more examples of how the public sector in America, through its ingenuity and inventiveness, is making a real difference to local communities. In fact, what really hits home when you read through the list of projects is the clear evidence that direct intervention from all levels of government does not require endless resources and large budgets.

Most important of all, the innovations recognised by the 2012 Bright Idea list demonstrates that there can be a reduction in the size of the public sector whilst serving citizens more efficiently and effectively. Surely, it is this philosophy that should be at the heart of government in Wales where nearly two thirds of the economic output of this nation is dependent on the public sector.

Rather than complaining that higher quality in health, education and economic development can no longer be afforded, those working in the public sector should take heart from the experiences of other bodies globally to ensure that there is greater innovation within their organisations to deliver services more efficiently and effectively.

This will, inevitable, require a more entrepreneurial approach that, even with the best will in the world, is anathema to many civil servants. That has to change and if we are going to deliver the best level of public services with a reduced budget, then the Welsh Government and other public bodies need to encourage and support their own employees to come up with their own bright ideas to ensure that we have can not only have the best public sector in the World, but also the most innovative and cost-efficient.