What’s so good about sustainable public services anyway?

This week FutureGov launched Go London – a cool little project to give some money to people with good ideas for getting Londoners to do some physical activity. It’s all tied up with the Olympics and it borrows from the Social Innovation Camp model so it’s not about forcing (or even ‘nudging‘) people to exercise, more about making it easier to get moving. It’s particularly aimed at the over 50 age range.

While it’s a great project, Paul Clarke made the good point that a lot of these types of things don’t create long-term sustainable services that are actually used by people. It’s fair to say we haven’t yet seen much in the way of outcomes from the handful of socially innovative projects that have been borne out of these kinds of competition. As he says, it’s partly due to systemic issues in government (procurement, yada yada) but I agree with Paul that cool ‘useful’ apps are in fact completely useless if they’re not USED (I am universally loathed* for bringing discussions at conferences back to ‘real’ people before they get wildly self-referential).

Thinking this through a bit more, though, I have some ponderings:

  1. New ideas rarely reach a mass audience straight away – Twitter is a good (and obvious) example of something that started off as niche and eventually grew rapidly. If we wait for everything to be widely adopted as soon as it’s built then we won’t build anything.  The best services are ones that meet the needs of the people who’ve invented them – if they solve a problem for a handful of people then mass adoption may well follow.
  2. Why do we want ‘sustainable’ services anyway?  Part of the difficulty with changing the way government does things is that all the services we currently have were designed to be sustainable in the long term.  We’re regretting that now because as Paul points out they are ‘hardwired’ and almost impossible to change.  Maybe the goal shouldn’t be long term sustainability but instead squillions of short-term projects and initiatives that solve problems for small groups of people.  A good idea doesn’t have to last forever and keeping something going beyond its shelf-life will lead us to the same place in another 50 years.
  3. Change management theory is mostly hogwash but ‘parallel structures’ (Google it for sources) do seem to work.  You don’t destroy or change what’s there, you just resolutely go about building an alternative.  We’re starting to see the effects of this with the music and newspaper industries – the web has provided a platform for parallel structures and better alternatives have emerged.  I think the same could be achieved with public services.  Many of them no longer meet people’s needs, so rather than trying to change government from the inside there is a good chance that building new public services outside of its walls may be the answer.  Just as with music, those artists that recognised the potential of the web early on continue to thrive.  The difference is that public services aren’t subject to markets.  Like it or not, perhaps that will start to change as well.
  4. It’s as much about the process as the outcome.  To borrow some ideas from Johnnie Moore, we all get very obsessed with outcomes, which means we ignore the richness of the process itself.  I want people’s lives to be improved by social innovations, but maybe right now we are in the midst of a collectively figuring out some stuff and experimenting with methods.  What we come up with doesn’t have to have a pre-determined objective ‘outcome’ or ‘impact’ to have been a success.  We’re in the middle of creating and testing an eco-system of ideas and tools that will ultimately move everything forward (we hope).  Demanding outcomes at this stage might be missing something much more important.

I don’t think I’m disagreeing with Paul’s post – fundamentally we agree that social innovation has to be used to be useful, but maybe we should be aiming to sustain a more adaptable approach to providing public services, rather than inventing new public services that are sustainable in themselves.

*exaggeration – I’m probably mildly hated

6 Responses to “What’s so good about sustainable public services anyway?”

  1. Robin Wilton Says:

    I think you’re right that it’s a matter of emphasis rather than fundamental disagreement. The trap is to see “sustainability” as the driving requirement… whereas if you make something which meets the requirements of its users, that is what will sustain it.

    I suspect that if you broaden the remit much beyond that, especially in the public services context, you get into the more complex area of “co-creation”… which is probably best left to the specialists (which don’t include me, in any respect, I should add!)

  2. Ingrid Koehler Says:

    A lot of my most desk-to-head moments are driven by the idea of immediate widespread adoption – that idea of sustainability. I like this idea of parallel structures…I’ll use that today.

  3. Gordon Rae Says:

    Very interesting to read this a day after reading @rich_w’s post praising the use of targets in then NHS. There are quite a variety of voices articulating a positive vibe about process and a negative feeling about fixating on outcomes. Perhaps innovation is the point that the ‘other side’ are missing?

  4. Martin Stewart-Weeks Says:

    Very powerful insights in the sense that their implications are profoundly subversive of a set of powerful and entrenched assumptions about what “public services” are in the first place. Thew parallel process instinct is already at work, of course, illustrated well for example in the work of MySociety and Tom Steinberg.

  5. carriebish Says:

    Hmm… I don’t really see the work of MySociety as an example of parallel structures because most of their work is about making the existing system easier to navigate – FixMyStreet doesn’t actually help people fix their own streets, it just helps them poke the council to fix it on their behalf. I would even go so far as to say that this reinforces the established paternalistic structure by removing the incentive to change.

  6. Personal Democracy Forum 2010 – Day One « News from a Nerd Says:

    […] to hear that FixMyStreet is being quoted in the US as a good example of co-production.  I’ve said it before but FMS really just props up the existing rubbish system, which is not really very helpful in the […]

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