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When Councils Get Clever
Green Futures, 21 May 09

By Hannah Bullock

Innovative approach helps local authorities connect with their citizens – and save money too.

“The public sector is not conventionally thought of as a hotbed for innovation,” admits Peter Madden, Chief Executive of Forum for the Future. But a new collaboration between Forum and global design consultancy IDEO could change all that. They have launched a radically different method of finding out what people actually need in the way of local services – and how best to deliver them.

At its heart is something called the ‘i-team’, a joint Forum/IDEO taskforce who spend days observing, interviewing and getting to know people in the community. By doing so, they can make sure they understand the real-life experiences which councils influence through their choice of service provision – or lack of it.

Kirklees Council, for example, wanted to encourage community centre users to change their behaviour in order to reduce energy use. Rather than simply embark on formulaic exhortations to save carbon or money, council officials instead spent time with two people who had themselves succeeded in making dramatic lifestyle changes: a recovering alcoholic and a successful slimmer.

In St Helens, council workers keen to engage teenagers in an ‘underground’ green movement, interviewed “everyone from Brownies to Goths” in order to make sure they really understood where teenagers in their own backyard were coming from, rather than simply devise strategies on the basis of generalised assumptions and data from elsewhere.

“It’s about co-creating services in which citizens are part of the process as opposed to just the market,” says sustainable innovation guru John Thackara. The technique is often used among businesses to develop marketable products and services, but has rarely been tried in the public sector.

Lateral thinking is key, explains Sue Siddall, Head of IDEO London. Brainstorming sessions helped council employees ask the right questions in the first place. The knack, she says, is not to ask yourself ‘How can we solve climate change?’ but to narrow it down to a more manageable question like ‘How can we get teenagers involved in tackling climate change?

That was the concrete challenge that St Helens Council set itself. The result was an edgy project in which secret messages hidden in barcodes were stuck in opportune places like school corridors, and the message ‘decoded’ by teenagers using their mobile phones.

At Suffolk Council, meanwhile, the i-team training helped employees focus on one simple way to reduce emissions in the area: curbing social workers’ business mileage.

Madden says it’s not surprising that few councils have ever attempted such a unique design process – they are shy of taking on new ideas for fear of public failure. “People don’t like government getting it wrong, because it’s taxpayers’ money. We’re much less forgiving than we might be with businesses or entrepreneurs.” But he stresses that innovation will be essential as councils face a “triple crunch” of budget cuts, rising public expectations and ever-tighter climate change targets. “The only way to deal with this is to be cleverer.”

Being cleverer can be fun too. Workers who took part said they relished the space and time to rethink what they do. Kirklees’s Heidi Smith came away realising that they should not “preach” solutions, but “pitch” them. But perhaps her biggest ‘takeaway’ was: “We are a lot more creative than we thought!”

This piece originally appeared in Green Futures. Green Futures is published by Forum for the Future, one of the leading magazines on environmental solutions and sustainable futures. Its aim is to demonstrate that a sustainable future is both practical and desirable – and can be profitable, too.

Photo credit: Shutterstock/Tom Curtis

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Comments

If I were ever to be a kept man, I can't think of a finer keeper than Ideo - but for the record, we're just good friends.


Posted by: john thackara on 22 May 09

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