210 – Is innovation over-rated in local government?

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                         1100 words

patched road

I was recently reading an article in Aeon magazine entitled ‘Hail the maintainers’. The central idea is that ‘capitalism excels at innovation but is failing at maintenance, and for most lives it is maintenance that matters more’. I think you could replace ‘capitalism’ with ‘local government’, although I am not sure that we are excelling. We are certainly preoccupied with trying to be innovative (or at least being seen to be innovative).

The authors, Lee Vinsell and Andrew Russell, believe that innovation is the dominant ideology of our era. Pursuing innovation has inspired both technologists and capitalists. It has also attracted critics.

“What happens after innovation, they argue, is more important. Maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the mundane labour that goes into sustaining functioning and efficient infrastructures, simply has more impact on people’s daily lives that the vast majority of technological innovations. “

The idea that local government must be more innovative reflects the willing (and often mindless) adoption of populist ideas from the private sector by local government.   After all, being innovative is sexier than doing what we have always done but making sure we do it well.

At an organisational level, we frequently decide to go from having a failed or failing manual system of work to the ‘top of the range’ automated system in one go. I have had some experience of this with procuring and implementing IT systems. Councils often have disorganised and inefficient work systems that are not delivering the expected value. So they buy highly technical and configurable software to solve the problem and then spend years trying to understand their own work processes well enough to make the software work.

At the same time the ‘innovators’ at the council keep trying to improve work processes by changing them, and the ‘innovators’ at the software supplier keep improving software functionality by changing it in ways that then cease to match the work processes. Talk about a moveable feast.

Stabilising work processes, understanding them and delivering services that are timely, reliable and consistent before embarking on a quest for ‘innovation’ to improve work processes just isn’t that compelling. There are cultural explanations.

The first is the short-term focus of our leaders. Many don’t know the difference between a ‘quick fix’ and a ‘short term success’. They also don’t have the time to invest in anything that is likely to exceed the life of their contract or delay them taking the next step up the career ladder. Plus it doesn’t look that great on their Resume to have just made everything work really well in a way that goes unnoticed. The sector is looking for leaders who are innovative agents of change, not practical optimisers and improvers of what you already have.

I recently had a discussion with a colleague who commented that many people involved in local government are ‘borderline sociopaths’ because they prefer to let problems occur and then get the kudos from fixing them, rather than to prevent them occurring at all. Being a great problem solver is better for your career than being a great problem preventer.

Vinsell and Russell explain why society prefers to celebrate diversity, novelty and progress rather than uniformity and order. They see innovation, in this context, as a ‘smaller and morally neutral concept’ in comparison to genuine social progress. It allows people to ‘celebrate the accomplishments of a high-tech age without expecting too much of them’. It is an all care and no responsibility approach.

Although they are talking about society and preferences derived from living through the Cold War and the tumultuous social change of the 1960s, the preference in local government is often simply to be ‘special and different’ (even if different is not better). ‘Sameness’ is equated with boring. It is the local government equivalent of the uniformity and order resisted in society at large.

Vinsell and Russell go on to describe new technologies and innovations as being ‘proxies’ for societal progress in a consumer-driven society. Politically it became popular in the 1970s to develop ‘innovation policy’ to try and drive economic growth by encouraging technological change. They make a convincing argument that when limits to economic growth and societal progress are reached, governments resort to innovation.

As a result, for the last 20 years innovation and entrepreneurship have become the mantra of politicians across the world as they have encouraged things like ‘innovation clusters’ and ‘disruptive technologies’ to undermine existing industries to create new fortunes. ‘Innovation’ has become a cloak for almost any political policy objective.

“The trajectory of ‘innovation’ from core, valued practice to slogan of dystopian societies, is not entirely surprising at a certain level. There is a formulaic feel” a term gains popularity because it resonates with the zeitgeist, reaches buzzword status, then suffers from overexposure and cooption.”

This, unfortunately, seems to be where many councils now find themselves. They have given up on other ways to ensure they deliver services that meet value expectations. The answer to all problems must lie in innovation!

Vinsell and Russell pose the question – is there a better way to characterise relationships between society and technology? – and provide three ways to respond:

  1. Technology is not innovation. They say that ‘innovation is only a small piece of what happens with technology’.
  2. Drop innovation and recognise the essential role of ‘basic infrastructures’ of social importance.

“Infrastructure failures – train crashes, bridge failures, urban flooding, and so on – are manifestations of and allegories for America’s dysfunctional political system, its frayed social safety net, and its enduring fascination with flashy, shiny, trivial things.”

Whilst the authors focus on American society, I think the same can be said for local government in Australia – we have let our social and physical infrastructure deteriorate while we pusue the innovative or different.

  1. Focus on ‘old, existing things rather than the novel ones’. Stay in contact with reality that most people outside the ‘realm of innovation’. People need to make, sell and maintain the innovative products or services.

They advocate an emphasis on the work required to slow the effects of ‘entropy and un-doing’. The efforts of people ‘whose work keeps ordinary existence going rather than introducing novel things’. In a rather prophetic close to the article they discuss the term innovation as being ‘completely agnostic’ about whether or not innovations are good.

“Crack cocaine, for example, was a highly innovative product of the 1980s, which involved a great deal of entrepreneurship (called ‘dealing’) and generated lots of revenue.”

Local government could do with a reality check on its preoccupation with innovation. What do we really think will be gained? Why is it that simply looking after, and optimising, what we already have is so unpopular? What drives the craving for innovation?

I think these are questions that should be answered by our leaders.

Vinsell, Lee and Russell, Andrew, 2015. ‘Hail the maintainers’ in Aeon magazine 8 April 2016