By Joshua.Chambers

18 Jul 2013

How do you get civil servants to try new things? Joshua Chambers meets Paul Maltby, a man who thinks he knows the answer.

“A cappuccino and a black Americano, please.” Retreating to the coffee stand at Civil Service Live in London earlier this month – with attendees bustling all around us – CSW took a quick break to catch up with Paul Maltby, who has just been made joint director of the government’s Innovation Group.

The Innovation Group sits in the Cabinet Office, and works to support new approaches to policymaking and government operations. It’s responsible for key agendas including open data, behavioural insights, contestable policymaking, social finance, and broader work with the voluntary sector.

Maltby was already the government’s director of open data and transparency, but he’s now taking on additional responsibility for open policymaking, and the analysis and insight work conducted by the Innovation Group. He shares the leadership of the group with Helen Stephenson, who was formerly director of programmes in the Office for Civil Society. Stephenson now leads the Office for Civil Society, and will also oversee the National Citizen Service and the Cabinet Office’s work on social impact bonds.

The unit was previously run by Gareth Davies, the Cabinet Office’s chief economist, but he “has gone on a secondment for a year or two to a financial services company, so myself and Helen Stephenson are now taking over,” Maltby explained.

Maltby sees his role as building support for new initiatives across government: “We’re marshalling people, resources and data to go and drive change in government. It’s not just talking about [innovation]; we’re going and doing it, showing people what can be possible.”

One common thread linking the disparate agendas that Maltby oversees is the need to pilot ideas before rolling programmes out across government. For example, citing the actions of the Behavioural Insights team, he said “they’re trying experiments: seeing what works, building confidence in it. And I think there’s a lot to be said for that as an approach.”

Departments should experiment to see whether something will work; and once an approach starts to be proven as effective, Maltby wants to see more departments applying it to tackle their own specific challenges. “If it does work, move it on to some other areas – as the nudge people have,” he said. “Some of these things may not work in the way that we intended, so try and use prototyping, but always try and move [a technique] towards the policy mainstream.”

In particular, Maltby thinks the professions can play a key role in encouraging departments to try new approaches. For example, the policy profession isn’t only training civil servants in traditional techniques, he said; it’s also encouraging them to try out the new methods being used by the Innovation Group.

Innovation isn’t the preserve of civil servants, however. Working in partnership with other organisations will help government to become more dynamic, Maltby said. For example, the prime minister wants the government to do more to tackle dementia, and “the solution to that is likely not to be a government solution, or at least not only a government solution. Working with the charitable sector, with friends and family of the people with dementia, is key.”

Indeed, civil servants should be thinking internationally, asking “who’s the leader in your field, globally?” Maltby said. The IPPR recently conducted a piece of research for the Cabinet Office on international models of civil service accountability, as part of the new agenda on ‘contestable policymaking’; and “there’s a number of other [research projects] being processed – eight or nine in the pipeline,” he added.

He’s just begun in the role, but is keen to evangelise new techniques to as wide a group as possible. “This stuff won’t be for everybody,” he admitted, but “it’s an opportunity for people to find their additional edge to make a policy area work.” And with that thought, the ever-enthusiastic Mr Maltby picked up his barely-touched cappuccino, and headed back into the event.

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