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Innovation is not just a buzzword, it is something that requires active implementation and a deep understanding of how it can be accomplished at all levels of an organisation to yield the best outcomes. In this blog, our Head of Central Government will discuss the role of innovation in driving significant change within Government and the necessary elements required for it to thrive. 

Key takeaways 

Last week, I was part of a panel session for DEFRA’s ‘Group Innovation 2024’ event in York, alongside DEFRA’s new CTO, Paul Mukherjee and new Chief Data Officer, Sue Bateman, discussing how we can best shape the organisation for innovation to thrive. And before you all stop reading, you will be delighted to hear that AI was not mentioned once (sighs of relief echoing from all corners of LinkedIn’s overhyped feed) – and with good reason. Whilst most innovation today is deemed to be intrinsically linked to data and automation, most of the research (thank you McKinsey) tells us that there is very little connection between them and the growth of an organisation. 

From the discussions that took place, it is evident that fostering a culture of innovation is essential and can be achieved through various methods at different organisational levels. For example, hiring the right people is crucial in establishing this culture from the beginning. What this means is that, one of the most important people in your organisation to enable innovation is your HR Director. 

Similarly, when prioritising innovation within an organisation, it’s important to consider other methods, such as incentivising innovative methods and approaches across all employee levels, as well as encouraging and enabling risk-taking. This ensures that innovation remains a central focus and given the space thrive. 


What are the catalysts for innovation? 

For those who are only going to read the first few paragraphs of this, there are plenty of things to consider that can be a catalyst for innovation. It’s important to ask yourself some of the following questions. Are you focused on employees’ psychological safety so they can take risks? Do you actively encourage diversity and inclusion? Are you actively rewarding and incentivising people to be creative and innovative? Are your decisions made on data and insight? How much of your budget have you allocated toward high-risk projects, and do you have tangible structures to enable innovation? I think most Civil Servants would find their organisations, albeit understandably, are institutionally risk-averse.   

Innovation is hard – the bigger you get, the harder it gets, and Government is one of the biggest organisations there is. However, if you don’t innovate you might ultimately fail in your endeavours. Innovation is about the ability to manage risk, not eliminate it and one of the hardest things to figure out is when to kill something. While researching this topic, I read genuine disagreement about approaching innovation-enabling structures. But there were common themes. 

How to enable innovation in your organisation? 

Invest in innovation

Firstly, most organisations manage risk by spreading innovation investment on too many small, risk-free projects with little chance of realising their potential. What they should do is focus efforts on a smaller number of projects, be incredibly transparent about them and resource them to succeed. Fundamentally, if you ask HR, ‘How many people are currently focused on innovative projects in your organisation?’ and they can’t tell you, then you probably are not geared for success. 

Ingrain innovation to the core 

The second is the importance of Operating Model Innovation – a core barrier in the Civil Service. If I were to say that you were operating a business that hadn’t fundamentally shifted its operating model (at the broadest level) for decades, you might question your chances of success. In this respect, the Civil Service is no different from the private sector, tampering with your fundamental structures is about the scariest thing you can do. This is why most innovations exist at a product, not organisational level – it’s far less risky. Fundamentally, it’s much easier to spin up a new company or to be innovative in the public sector’s ‘innovation lab’. The problem is that that doesn’t change culture; it just puts it in a box away from everyone else in the organisation.  You have to be innovative in your core structure. 

A particularly interesting paper that I forgot to record, but I believe was from the Institute for Government, framed ‘Cautious Governance’ as the enemy of innovation. It often takes a maverick to pioneer innovation, but if it occurs by circumventing governance, you must look at your structures. A legendary story from the early days of Amazon details a leaked memo from Jeff Bezos to his teams:  

  1. All teams will henceforth expose their data and functionality through service interfaces.
  2. Teams must communicate with each other through these interfaces.
  3. There will be no other form of interprocess communication allowed: no direct linking, no direct reads of another team’s data store, no shared-memory model, no back-doors whatsoever. The only communication allowed is via service interface calls over the network.
  4. It doesn’t matter what technology they use. HTTP, Corba, Pubsub, custom protocols — doesn’t matter.
  5. All service interfaces, without exception, must be designed from the ground up to be externalizable. That is to say, the team must plan and design to be able to expose the interface to developers in the outside world. No exceptions.
  6. Anyone who doesn’t do this will be fired.
  7. Thank you; have a nice day!

Whether you like or loath the style, it is pioneering and innovative and may well have played a significant role in Amazon’s incredible growth.  

Cross functionality is key 

Thirdly, be cross-functional, involve people, be people-centric and transparent. Putting it simply, humans aren’t great at telling you what they need or want, but they are brilliant at telling you what they don’t need or like. The more times you can ask them this question, the better things will be—it’s the greatest de-risker methodology out there. 

Prioritise scalability 

Fourthly, always think about scale – I cannot stress how important this is. What the government does is for everyone. When innovating, ask yourself, Is this scalable in every single way? If it’s not, ditch it and move on.  

Have an innovation strategy  

Finally, tighten up the relationship between innovation, strategy, and performance. I see departmental objectives that state their desire to be the ‘Most Innovative Department in Government.’ However, there is no actual relationship between its strategy, funding, and performance. Buzzwords mean very little in this space. 


There is so much more to this, but I will finish with a question I was asked after the session. 

Q. What is a great example of innovation in Government?

Many people refer to NASA’s moonshot, but this costs around a quarter of a trillion dollars in today’s money. For this, I am going to look back to post-war Britain. The country was, by any standard, struggling financially and undoubtedly emotionally. But in just a few years, the government launched ‘The Family Allowance Act ’, giving child benefits to families, The National Insurance Act, giving financial protection to the unemployed and sick and in 1948, The National Health Service Act established comprehensive care for people in England and Wales and the NHS was the first Western country to launch free point of use healthcare to everyone. It has also gone on to be at the forefront of innovation – the CT scanner in the 70s and the MRI in the 80s. 

These huge moves caused a fundamental shift in how our country feels, thinks and cares for its citizens. My point here is about culture – it comes from the top, it’s about making bold statements, enabling and challenging everyone to succeed, not just a small pocket of bright young things in a corner. It’s about setting impossible tasks and actively directing real funds towards them, not spread betting. If you are more focused on managing the risk of a project than enabling it to be innovative, then you are limiting your chances of success. 

Happy innovating! 

Edward Pikett

Author Spotlight

Edward Pikett

Ed has dedicated his entire career to designing and delivering public digital services. He is an advocate of simplicity, transparency, and creativity, having spent over a decade in the Prime Minister’s Office, Cabinet Office and more recently as Chief Digital Officer for the Department for International Trade. He now leads and supports our central government function.