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When failure is not an option - innovating in complex, high risk public services

Many of the public services in which we need innovation the most are complex systems with high degrees of risk. They deal with people’s lives, and assume legal responsibilities to protect and safeguard people. There is an obvious dilemma: innovation is inherently risky, and in these systems failure can be catastrophic. So far the result has tended to be low levels of innovation. Children’s services is a prime example of this phenomena. It is a system in which the incentives to innovate are scarce, and which - for very understandable reasons - has tended to focus more on catastrophe avoidance than new models of working.

Now the tide seems to be turning. The landmark Munro Review called for innovation and whole systems change across children’s services, and for many Directors of Children’s Services the status quo is so unsustainable that there is fast becoming little option but to innovate. In England, a £130m Innovation Programme from the Department for Education has stirred the sector to life, and we are about to see a rapid increase in the amount of innovation happening across children’s services.

This process holds real hope for a system with many pressures, but also brings its fair share of challenges. The complexity of public services like Children’s Social Care can make it difficult to understand the root causes of a system’s problems. Likewise, with so many dynamic and interconnected variables there are high chances that a new approach will not work in practice as it does in theory. Some of the core principles of implementing innovation - trial and error, iteration, adaptation - do not easily translate into areas where failure is not an option. As an organisation devoted to understanding and supporting innovation, we wanted to produce some research that can help the sector on this journey.

We are working on a short report which summarises the lessons of previous successful innovations in children’s services. We are using these case studies to illuminate the whole process of innovation, from design through to scaling, paying particular attention to the techniques that can be used to manage complexity and risk. We’ll be publishing updates and sharing these case studies over the coming months, so watch this space.

 

Photo Credit: Alan, via Flickr (license: CC BY-NC 2.0)

Author

Tom Symons

Tom Symons

Tom Symons

Acting Head of Government Innovation

Tom is a Principal Researcher in the Policy and Research team at Nesta.

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Kathleen Stokes

Kathleen Stokes

Kathleen Stokes

Senior Researcher, Social Innovation

Kathleen was a Senior Researcher leading on Nesta’s policy and research work in digital education and the collaborative economy. At Nesta, Kathleen researched and written various pub...

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