Wales – A Public Services Laboratory?

Matthew Gatehouse, co-author of ‘State of Innovation: Wales Public Services and the Challenge of Change’ asks whether the high proportion of Wales’ economic output attributable to public services, often seen as a weakness, could offer the nation a real advantage as the potential home to a cluster of innovative public services?

It’s widely accepted that industry clusters – loose geographical concentrations of firms from the same sector – can serve as catalysts for economic growth. Proximity leads to exchange of information, talent and supply chains among competing firms, Celebrated examples – life sciences in Cambridge and software in Silicon Valley – are well known throughout the world as hot-beds of innovation in their respective industries.

Would something similar be possible for public services? A close knit community of social scientists working with front-line practitioners from councils, health authorities and blue light services, capitalising on the proximity principle, could share ideas, skills and data to prototype and evaluate new public service models that focus on improved outcomes. Once these have been rigorously tested and proved to work they can be grown, scaled and replicated across whole systems.

The report that I’ve written with Adam Price for Nesta and the Wales Public Services 2025 Programme argues that a greater drive is needed to embed innovation in public services, and this small nation of 3 million people could be the ideal test bed for a radically different approach. Public services in Wales – like the rest of the UK – are facing a combination of financial cuts and rising demand. Left unchecked our current approach could lead to an increasing proportion of national income being consumed by health and social care alone – leaving little for other local services.

When researching the report we were looking for disruptive solutions that could radically change the sector – just think about Wikipedia’s impact on the printed encyclopaedia or Napster’s impact on CDs. There is a widely held view that public services are not that good at delivering the radically different solutions that that we have come to expect from other sectors yet Wales, a nation with a strong tradition of mutualism, has a distinguished history as a power-house of public innovation. The models for the NHS and for locally accountable education authority were first minted here.

The potential remains for Wales to play a significant role developing different ways of meeting needs -and not just inside its own borders. It has, in relative terms, an economy dominated by public services, effectively forming an industry cluster; it has a strong social science research base and crucially as a small nation it is the ideal size to scale new ideas beyond the local, without losing focus or agility.

In short Wales has the potential to become a global test-bed for the public services of the future.

‘State of Innovation: Wales Public Services and the Challenge of Change’, from Nesta and Wales Public Services 2025, will be launched on Friday 10th May.

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