About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Embracing insurgency: why local authorities need to be ready to fail

The challenges facing Wales’ public services are complex – from the need to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, to supporting communities in the aftermath of the pandemic.

There is no standard approach or ‘recipe’ to follow in approaching these challenges and just because something worked in one setting, doesn’t mean it will work in another.

The ability of local authorities to make progress against these challenges depends on them building teams of innovators with the right skills and attitudes to enable an explorative, experimental approach to problem solving.

No one organisation – and possibly no one type of organisation – can hope to tackle these issues alone. Carbon emissions aren’t hemmed in by an invisible net at borough boundaries, and the effects of the emissions generated in one place may be felt by communities hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Citizens’ lives and the communities they are part of are similarly unconstrained. A resident of one council area could work in another, be part of a sports team in another and have connections with family or friends in lots of other places.

Local authorities need to be willing to collaborate – with one another across borough or county boundaries; with other public services who are seeking to address the same challenges; and with communities and the third sector – to ensure that citizens are at the heart of change. But collaboration – even between teams in the same local authority – is not embedded as a standard way of working at present.

In 2017, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) commissioned Nesta to provide evidence on which skills and competencies public officials leading innovation teams deemed critical to their role as public sector innovators.

This research was then used to develop a framework of core skills for public sector innovation. Among the skills identified, one in particular stands out as rare: insurgency.

In this context, insurgency is characterised by individuals who challenge the status quo, are willing to try things that might not work, build alliances for change and work with unusual partners. When was the last time you saw that in a job description?

The OECD puts it best: “Insurgents challenge the status quo and don't accept ‘it's always been done this way; or ‘if it’s not broke don’t fix it’ as a defence against change.”

Insurgents need to be given the freedom to test new ways of doing things, trying out new ideas and providing new insight into what does and doesn’t work. Public sector leaders must both embrace the insurgents in their organisations and be comfortable with the risk that testing new things entails.

If something doesn’t work, it shouldn’t be viewed as a failure, but as a learning opportunity. This is a challenge when public sector organisations are under scrutiny to spend money on effective results, but local authority leaders must create a culture of experimentation which allows insurgents to ‘explore the room of the non-obvious’.

Nesta is working in partnership with Cardiff University’s Y Lab, Monmouthshire County Council and the 10 local authorities that form part of the Cardiff Capital Region to deliver Infuse – an innovation and research programme designed to build skills and capacity for innovative future public services.

Supported by the European Social Fund through Welsh Government, teams of associates from the public and third sectors work together to consider how to tackle a ‘wicked issue’ for them, their region and their communities, within the broad themes of ‘accelerating decarbonisation’ and ’supportive communities’.

Infuse has recently added a new ‘inspire’ phase of the programme – an intensive 5-week introduction, designed around the skills that public sector insurgents need to possess. At the end of this phase, those on the programme will join small, collaborative, innovation teams, formed around specific challenges.

For the remainder of the programme, these teams will learn new skills, while simultaneously undertaking experiments that help them to learn something about their chosen challenge.

Infuse is a free programme available to those working in the public and third sectors in Wales. If you are a leader of a local authority, other public service or third sector organisation in the Cardiff Capital Region, consider which of your staff should be part of this work and encourage them to apply.

If you are an individual working for a local authority, other public service or third sector organisation in the region, and what you’ve read excites you, you can find out more and apply to join Infuse here.

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