“Move fast and fix things”: the RSA considers entrepreneurial commissioning
Earlier this year, the RSA published a report which describes the findings from a six-month inquiry in which they applied their model of change — “think like a system, act like an entrepreneur” — to the challenges of procuring and scaling innovation through government. Titled “Move fast and fix things” as a deliberate reference (and riposte) to the now-notorious Facebook motto, the report relies on qualitative research to make the case for “the public entrepreneur”:
The questions answered in this report are: What does it mean to be a public entrepreneur? How can public institutions set direction for public money? What cultures, mindsets and competencies are needed to act entrepreneurially? What is required to shift public sector cultures and overcome immunity to innovation? And how can we use public procurement tools to deliver public value?
The RSA’s Ian Burbidge frames the report in a pair of recent blog posts. In the first, he notes the lengthy litany of recent failures in public procurement, and concludes that current commissioning processes are unfit for purpose, for the following reasons:
- They are linear, path dependent and slow.
- They assume that it is possible to define all the needs of the service in a specification.
- They are not ‘solution-agnostic’.
- They build in a combative relationship between commissioner and supplier.
- They prioritise management of risk and reputation over experimentation and innovation.
- They don’t reflect the characteristics of complex systems.
In his follow-up post, he introduces the “invest to solve” approach, wherein risk is mitigated by a variety of processes, including the engagement of service users and beneficiaries in understanding the problem, having break points at each stage of the process, and investing in early-stage concept development.
… it starts with the need to deeply understand the problem at hand, informed by those who stand to benefit (or who are affected) as well as potential solution providers. Following the problem definition, a ‘make or buy’ decision is reached. If the preferred route is to build (or work on) a solution collaboratively with a provider or providers, an iterative design, build and test approach is followed. Break points in the process allow financial and reputational risk to be managed as well as allowing for emergent learning and insight to be accommodated. Finally, a solution can be commissioned and, particularly for new market entrants or new solutions that have been developed and prove effective, scaled.Ian Burbidge
Burbidge notes the uneasy connotations attached to the notion of the entrepreneur in the context of public services, but argues that the nimbleness and flexibility of start-up culture has much to recommend it; it’s about “judicious and not ubiquitous risk-taking”.