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Civil Service

Seven ways to make the Civil Service more innovative…

Simon Baugh, Chief Executive, Government Communication Service
Simon Baugh, Chief Executive, Government Communication Service

The fast pace of technological change is creating new opportunities for how we can deliver exceptional public service.

But I’ve always thought that telling people: “Be more innovative!” is a fairly unhelpful instruction.

Over the last six months, I’ve been speaking to academics, researchers and private sector companies, and asking them one question: “What is it that innovative organisations do that other organisations don’t?”.

The answer? They have the culture, funding, insight, networks and skills for innovation.

Here are seven ideas for how to make the civil service more innovative:

1. Make it safe to try new things

When people don’t innovate it is because they feel that they won’t be supported. It doesn’t feel safe to try new things.

Ministers tell me they want to see more creativity and innovation. They don’t want people to take crazy reputational risks, but they do want people to try something new. Civil servants need to know they will be supported to try something different and we will have their backs if it doesn’t work.

In the Government Communications Service (GCS) we are being clear that no one will be penalised for trying something new. We are supporting this with Project Spark - our Dragon’s Den style competition to encourage people to submit ideas that we will help them to develop.

2. Refocus budgets towards innovation

Budgets are tight. And that could mean finding the money for innovation is a problem.

But that’s thinking about it the wrong way. We already spend £350 million on marketing and communications across government. The biggest private sector advertisers spend around 10% of their budgets on innovation. So that’s what we have done in GCS.

We have changed spending controls to encourage departments to spend up to 10% of their campaign budget on new techniques from which we can test and learn. If the full 10% was used that would give us a £35m annual innovation budget.

More than 30 innovation projects are being piloted as part of this year’s campaigns. Some are new to a department, some are new to government and some have never been tried anywhere before.

3. Identify the best external ideas

As well as finding ideas from within the civil service, we need to identify the best external ideas. Our Horizon Review, written with the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, identified emerging technologies likely to shape communications over the next ten years.

And our new Innovation Hub brings together leaders from GCS with technology companies like Google and Snapchat to scan the horizon and develop a pipeline of the most promising new technology. We meet every six weeks and invite tech start-ups to pitch a 15-minute idea for how to improve Government comms.

4. Rigorously test new ideas

It’s easy to get carried away by a persuasive pitch, so we need the right testing and evaluation to assess which pilots are working. We’ve published new test and learn guidelines on how to use A/B and multivariate testing.  And our new Evaluation Council will expose our pilots to scrutiny and give an independent view on the performance of projects.

5. Scale the great things already happening

When innovation does happen in Government we don’t always scale it quickly enough. If the Royal Navy’s new AI-driven virtual recruitment assistant works then we should scale it to other campaigns and do a better job of hiring teachers, nurses, and prison officers. And if it doesn’t work, then other departments need to know why.

GCS Connect is our new online portal and will be our network for innovation - allowing people to share ideas and to ask for help. More than 5,000 GCS members have signed up since November.

6. Train people on new tools and techniques

Great people will remain at the heart of our work and I want all GCS members to be confident in using the latest practices and techniques.

That’s why we’ve launched GCS Advance - a step change in the quality of learning and development for Government communicators. It focuses on digital and data skills, with modules on AI at every level.

The pilot starts this month, with 700 people already signed up, and the full programme launches in April. Our ambition is for 2,500 GCS members to be part of a GCS Advance programme by March 2025.

7. Have strong ethical principles for responsible innovation

New technology doesn’t come without its challenges. There are issues around accuracy, bias, transparency, privacy and security. Having clear ethical principles and being transparent about the use of new technology will maintain public trust.

That’s why we’re developing an ethical decision-making framework - an easy-to-use tool that can help GCS members decide whether or not to adopt new technology. It will give people the confidence to innovate and understand the checks and balances needed to avoid unintended consequences.

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  1. Comment by OMAR AZEEZ posted on

    The article highlights the importance of fostering innovation within the public service sector, particularly in the face of rapid technological advancements. The author rightly acknowledges that simply instructing people to "be more innovative" is an insufficient approach. Instead, the focus is on identifying the key factors that innovative organizations possess and how these elements can be applied to the civil service.

    The seven proposed ideas for making the civil service more innovative provide a practical roadmap. These ideas range from creating a safe environment for experimentation to reallocating budgets towards innovation. Ensuring that individuals are supported in trying new approaches, without fearing negative consequences, is vital to fostering creativity. The shift in spending controls to encourage departments to allocate a portion of their budgets to innovative techniques is a promising step.

    Moreover, the emphasis on sourcing ideas from both within and outside the civil service, the rigorous testing and evaluation of new initiatives, and the need to scale successful innovations are all essential components of a comprehensive innovation strategy.

    Additionally, the commitment to training government employees in new tools and techniques, with a focus on digital and data skills, is commendable. The GCS Advance program aims to equip government communicators with the skills needed to adapt to the evolving digital landscape.

    Lastly, the focus on ethical principles and transparency in adopting new technologies is crucial. Acknowledging the potential challenges related to accuracy, bias, transparency, privacy, and security is essential to maintaining public trust.
    In summary, the article provides a comprehensive framework for enhancing innovation in the civil service, recognizing that a combination of cultural, financial, and procedural changes is necessary to meet the demands of the ever-changing technological landscape.

  2. Comment by Mike J Copinger posted on

    Even easier; each directorate should have a "Suggestions & Feedback" Teams channel as standard where colleagues are encouraged to provide real -time feedback.

    Not just a great way to spot issues and source feedback and solutions in real time, but also a fundamental shift in culture to one where we trust all our colleagues, encourage their engagement and value their insights publicly.

  3. Comment by Exact Print posted on

    A thoughtful and practical approach to fostering innovation in public service! Creating a safe environment for experimentation and supporting new ideas, coupled with transparent budget allocation, shows a genuine commitment. Identifying external ideas, rigorous testing, and scaling successful initiatives demonstrate a holistic strategy. Training initiatives and ethical considerations further enhance this innovative roadmap. Great insights!

  4. Comment by vibe posted on

    <a href="">Nice Article, feel comfortable :D</a>

  5. Comment by Sam posted on

    Gov't colleagues - my team - in conjunction with the internal Policy Profession Unit & Policy Lab - are surveying civil servants working on policy matters about their experiences with innovation. If you have a email address and contribute directly/indirectly to policymaking we'd like to hear from you. Thanks