Comment Blog 15 May, 2024

Harnessing innovation for continuous improvement?

Sapana Agrawal
Director, Modernisation and Reform, Cabinet Office

The Civil Service often gets a lot of flak for not being innovative. I disagree. When I first entered the Civil Service during the pandemic I was struck by the sheer amount of innovation, of all kinds, happening right across government. We produced world-leading products and schemes such as the vaccines taskforce, ventilator challenge and furlough at incredible pace. 

Innovation means doing something new and different that creates value for the public and I see teams coming up with brilliant new ideas every single day, driven by a relentless desire for public service. But, whilst we are great at ideation, systemic barriers – such as lack of time, space and money –  block our ability to deliver and scale up good ideas. This is often driven by lack of visibility of strong use cases across government and tackling challenges in a siloed way. 

We need to support civil servants with the appropriate pathways to not only take an idea from inception to implementation, but also to spot the scalable potential and minimise duplication.  

We are building capability through our flagship ‘Innovation Masterclass’ and are committed to incentivising innovative behaviour by celebrating and rewarding experimental approaches – there is no shortage of inspiring stories to share! 

And of course, we are committed to building a culture of permission and support from senior leadership where civil service leaders encourage curiosity and empower teams to take calculated risks and be accepting of failure. 

This work underpins the Innovation Mission, which seeks to drive a culture of innovation at all levels within the Civil Service. This is a key part of our programme to build a modern civil service, and ensure we are delivering the best possible service to meet the needs of the public. 

This year, we have a unique opportunity to foster that culture through ‘One Big Thing: It Starts with One Small Change’, a Cabinet Secretary-backed initiative to get every civil servant equipped and empowered to innovate in 2024. This will be a unique moment to build the confidence of over 500,000 civil servants, demonstrating that innovation is something everyone can achieve. 

Why is this all so important? If innovation can be ingrained in our structures, culture and capability it will empower continuous improvement – a self-perpetuating legacy of reform that would improve services for the public, build trust in government and reduce pressure on the centre to be continually driving change. As civil servants, we should all have a part to play in driving innovation, through leading activity and working in partnership with others.