A crisis of creativity in the public sector

Let’s start with optimism. The pandemic has catalysed transformation. For example, you can now visit a prisoner by video and virtually attend a job centre. We must commend the heroic teams who responded, often within the space of days.

But we must not get complacent. Examples of how we respond to social distancing are fast becoming tired innovation cliches. We have found a new way to pat ourselves on the back and classify the thing that we had to do as ‘being innovative’.

The late Sir Jeremy Heywood saw his role to “challenge lazy thinking and find solutions”. In March 2020 the public sector entered a necessary crisis response. Citizens needed simplified structures, clear accountability and fast decisions. I fear the extended crisis has created conditions for lazy thinking and reduced our ability to find creative solutions.

We naturally take shortcuts in the ways we ‘notice, deliberate and execute’ (BIT, ‘Behavioural Government’, 2019). If we were guilty of choosing the simplest option in times of stability; the risk grows in times of crisis. Add cognitive overload (Teams, email, Slack), sleep deprivation and worries and you have the perfect recipe for lazy thinking.

Creative solutions come from connecting information, ideas and people in new ways to solve a problem. This means to effectively serve ministers and the public, we need to:

– Be exposed to a wide range of stimulus and input.

– Hear different perspectives.

– Adapt in response to what we learn (Cynefin Framework: probe, sense, respond).

Unfortunately we are sitting in our homes, time stretched and interacting in digital echo-chambers.

It will be long before we properly evaluate the impact of the pandemic on our capacity to develop solutions. I fear we’ll never know: the evidence will be skewed by incredible examples of remote working.




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