All public authorities including central government departments and devolved administrations should appoint a “public entrepreneur” to lead transformation through procurement, according to the Royal Society of Arts.
The charity said poor procurement is leading the public sector to waste money and miss out on creative solutions to social problems – and that appointing someone who emulates the private sector “hustler” archetype to a commissioning role is the answer.
In a new report produced in partnership with Innovate UK, the RSA said pockets of innovation exist throughout government, but the new role would allow these to be rolled out more widely.
It outlined a proposal for a toolkit to help public entrepreneurs develop their ideas, an open source learning network to allow innovation to be shared across the public sector, and a “skills passport” to enable public entrepreneurs to move easily between jobs.
According to the RSA, public entrepreneurs would take ownership of procuring innovative solutions to social ‘missions’, including obesity, the ageing population or other challenges facing specific local areas.
This approach would enable government to “experiment with different types of innovation: as well as familiar policy levers like regulation, innovative commissioning and procurement can be more effective though under-utilised tools”, said the charity.
It said in the report, Move fast and fix things: how to be a public entrepreneur, that the new role would emulate “the private sector archetype of the start-up founder who knows how to hustle, fail fast and win over audiences”.
While the report says the public sector has struggled to keep pace with the disruptive technology sector, it also makes clear that public sector can be enterprising and a force for good.
“This report counters the long-held caricature of the state as a slow, lumbering, bureaucratic machine and sets out to find the people, processes and practices in government that are ‘moving fast, and fixing things’ and demonstrating a new kind of public entrepreneurship,” it said.
It highlights good practice from Sutton Council’s head of strategic business, who is driving moves to be a more outcomes-focussed commissioning council; the chief digital officer at Invest Northern Ireland, the region’s economic development agency, who is using public funding to develop hubs of start-ups in Belfast’s AI sector; and the Northern Ireland Adult Safeguarding Partnership’s lead, who is modernising social care services for the needs of an ageing society.
Rowan Conway, director of innovation at the RSA, explained in a blog on the charity’s website that the report aimed to be a guide for those who want to be entrepreneurial in the public sector but sometimes feel they are “pushing up against an immovable bureaucratic system”.
She also said: “But getting procurement professionals to understand how to be entrepreneurial with public funds is no mean feat. Risk aversion runs deep, and the incentives to innovate as a procurement professional are weak.
“In the UK, the majority of public spend flows through traditional procurement which outsources projects through competitive tenders and issues contracts for services to major contractors. This has always been seen as a “fail-safe” process — big providers are selected on their capacity to deliver and government controls are in place to prevent the system malfunctioning. But fail-safe procurement is less secure than it once seemed.”
Conway highlighted the collapse of Carillion, which was the sixth largest supplier to the government until it entered liquidation on 15 January, following months of speculation that it was unable to service its debts. Concerns have since been raised and recommendations put forward for reforming government’s approach to contracting by two parliamentary select committees.
“Clearly, to direct public spend toward solving public problems, a new approach is needed,” said Conway, adding that government needs a culture that priorities experimentation to find the solution to a public problem, rather than making immediate savings.