Sue Owen: what innovation means to me and why we need it for a brilliant civil service

Written by Sue Owen on 15 May 2018

With nominations open for the Civil Service Awards 2018, the Innovation category champion and DCMS perm sec explains why the best innovation comes from the heart

Credit: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

It is a real pleasure for me to kick off this series about the Civil Service Awards with a look at innovation. Not just because it is the category I champion but because I see it in every one of our fifteen Awards.

There is no one definition of innovation but in my mind it is about turning an idea into a solution in order to fix a specific challenge. It’s about finding a way to do things better than what has gone before to the benefit of the organisation and the people it serves. Creativity and ideas are often mistaken for innovation but while they play a key part in it, what is arguably more valuable, and difficult, is making these ideas happen. 

This challenge is what is at the heart of the Civil Service Award for Innovation. Each entry tells the story of a question, an idea and its implementation – valuable learning that can be applied to our own challenges.

Looking back over the winners, we can see what creates fertile ground for ideas and creativity to become innovation: freedom to challenge the status quo, the resources to dedicate to ideas, diverse teams so we get to draw on broader thinking plus support, encouragement and challenge at all levels of the organisation.

Last year’s winners, the Frontier Technology Livestreaming (FTL) team at the Department for International Development (DfID), demonstrated those principles in practice. FTL is a pipeline for ideas. It enables the rapid piloting, testing and refinement of new solutions in the programmes and countries DfID operates in. Their focus is to explore how emerging technology like 3D printing, the Internet of Things and drones can help development challenges like humanitarian response, connectivity, production and health. Their learnings shared widely are getting the benefits of tech innovation to areas of greatest need, more quickly.

This resonates with me and the work we are doing at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. With our policies and funding we are looking to fuel innovation in our very creative sectors. So it is right we look inward to do that as well, creating a culture that allows ideas to happen. For me that starts with asking the right questions to focus our creativity and ideas – the small and the big – on our priorities.

And what I love about the stories that emerge from Innovation Award entries is that time and again the fuel for innovation is personal motivation. People who spot a broken or less effective way of doing things that they just cannot overlook. That’s why innovation at its best tends to come from the heart of a department – the frontline of policy making, project delivery or customer service. It is a great way to celebrate our people.

I hope you enjoy learning about the Civil Service Awards over the coming months, each category a building block of a brilliant civil service. I hope the stories inspire your work and spur you to enter the 2018 Awards! 

Nominate now for the Civil Service Awards

The Civil Service Awards Community is a new section on Civil Service World that aims to celebrate past winners, inspire people to nominate in 2018, and help us all to learn from good practice. If you’ve ever won or been shortlisted for an award, register your interest to hear about future events and projects for awards alumni

About the author

Sue Owen is the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport permanent secretary and Innovation Award category champion