Open Innovation: public sector forums picks up the story

First published at Designing for Civil Society

As I wrote recently, those of us involved in the Open Innovation Exchange bid were naturally disappointed not to win, but then even more saddened to see that the Cabinet Office has chose a group close to Government to carry the initiative forward.

Public Sector Forum has now picked up the story, but unless you work in the sector you can't get full privileges on the site to read the feature (you can, however,  sign up here for Public Sector Forum newsletter).

I'm grateful  to have permission from editor Ian Cuddy for permission to reproduce it here in full.

Whitehall innovation: Proving the oxymoron

Published: 7 August 2007

Unpleasant mutterings have, we've afraid to say, been doing the rounds over the last week about the Cabinet Office's awarding of a prestigious contract - worth a cool £1.2m - to create what is billed as an 'online Innovation Exchange for the Third Sector'.

Our saga officially begins back in May when the Invitation for Tender first appeared, seeking a partner for a 'three year pilot' aimed at "fostering, exchanging and replicating third sector innovation" to bolster nonprofit involvement in public services.

This was, however, to be no ordinary procurement.

In a first for a government tender, a group of individuals came up with a truly ground-breaking approach to constructing the tender bid in an open forum online, inspired by collaborative 'open source' software development.

Putting to the test the premise of Web 2.0 bible Wikinomics -  ie 'Collaborate or die' -  the group, known as the Open Innovation Exchange, set up a multi-user blog using open source software. Anyone could contribute if they wished - and over 90 people did in the space of weeks. Acting as a largely virtual, distributed network, everything was done in a completely open and transparent way - even the various drafts of the bid were published openly on the web for all to see. Into the mix came podcasts, YouTube videos, wikis and 'folksonomies'. It even had a Facebook group. Simon Berry, Chief Exec of Ruralnet which led the bid, commented on his blog: " This is an innovation in its on right and is the first time this has been done. It is in stark contrast to the traditional 'cloak and dagger'  approach to bid preparation."

To top things off, the approach was nominated as finalist on New Statesman New Media Awards (though being one of the judges probably helped). And when their team made the final four shortlisted bids for the contract, the world of what some call Non-Profit 2.0 - think Web 2.0 meets voluntary and charity work and where phrases such as 'social mediaspheres', 'crowdsourcing'  'widgetised connective tools' are the watchwords of the day - was ablaze with excitement.

Unfortunately, the Cabinet Office announced last week it had decided to award the contract for the Innovation Exchange not to them but to the Innovation Unit, a government-funded body set up by the Department for Education and Skills. Its partners in the consortium were named as software consultancy Headshift and the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary organisations, aka Acevo.

The news was not particularly a surprise to Mr Berry, who had this to say following an apparently un-promising interview with the Cabinet Office:

"John Craig [Head of Innovation at the Cabinet Office] has indicated to me that they were looking for a partner that already knew what needed to be done and had specific actions to make it happen. It could be argued that this reflects more traditional thinking ie "we know how innovation works, this is what needs to be done and this is how we are going to do it."

I also think that they had problems with our approach to the web presence for the Innovation Exchange and would have preferred more complete designs to be presented. This was exactly what Ben Whitnall of Delib thought would happen. In the video after the interview he said: "We weren't about trying to build a proprietary, monolithic new system to bring everyone to us, we just wanted to leverage what was out there already. Unfortunately, I don't think that makes for a very sexy pitch . . ."

Obviously, I am really disappointed with this decision but have to say that I am not surprised. There was a "lack of chemistry" during our interview. Jane Berry said afterwards I don't think they want innovation [in the delivery of the Innovation Exchange], they just want somewhere to put it".

At the end of the day we didn't want to do what they wanted and the customer is always right!"

The Open Innovation Exchange's discussions bid, available on its website, had already flagged up several issues. Of some concern was that the Innovation Exchange envisaged by the Cabinet Office appeared to focus solely on public sector examples and on models based on the thoughts of Geoff Mulgan, Tony Blair's former head of policy and prior to that the Cabinet Office's ex-Director of Strategy and Innovation. The OIE noted in their final bid that a report by Geoff Mulgan, titled Ready or not? Taking innovation in the public sector seriously was published alongside the Invitation to Tender, and appeared to be "very similar" in their thinking. In perhaps not the most diplomatic move, they highlight the following quote from the aforementioned report:

"People who have seen the trials and tribulations of past innovations are much better placed to make judgments than generalist officials or Ministers."

Their bid goes on to note that Mulgan's tract refers a 'confidential draft' of the Audit Commission's recent report on Innovation in Local Government, which they again unfortunately were not allowed to see until the official publication date. The delicious ironies keep on coming, don't they?

Commenting on the contract award, David Wilcox, who helped to put together the 'open source' bid remarked:

"I don't want to sound a note of sour grapes here. This is clearly a very strong and competent consortium. However, I feel that innovation among nonprofit organisations (and elsewhere, as I wrote here) is most likely to come from open, collaborative processes, not just from inside. Of course, the innovation unit may well be planning something really innovative here. Maybe they could now post their winning bid."

All this brings to mind what PSF said recently about the Cabinet Office's recent Power of Information Review, the recent clarrion-call to Whitehall to 'get with' Web 2.0-type social media movements, tap into their innovations and harness the benefits of engaging of non-government networks.

We remarked of this admirable goal at the time: "The problem is of course, we're dealing here not with sane, web-savvy persons at all but with the topsy-turvey, Alice in Wonderland world of Her Majesty's Government and that's where all this falls down." We hate to say we've been proven right!

I think Ian puts it very well, apart from a couple of minor points: I stepped out of the New Awards judging for the section where the OIE was nominated; and the Facebook group is a more recently addition, where we are promoting the idea of a New Media Innovation Exchange.

There's now more on the Innovation Unit site about the exchange, but not - as far as I can see - what the plans are in any detail. Why not publish the winning bid - without figures if necessary?

<!-- technorati tags start -->

Technorati Tags:

<!-- technorati tags end -->

Syndicate content