As I mentioned recently, the Cabinet Office wants to promote innovation among UK nonprofits, and is offering £1.2 million to anyone who can come up with a plan for a Third Sector Innovation Exchange - and also put it into practice over three years.
My initial reaction was slightly sceptical, because despite brilliant work being done by extraordinary people there are many barriers to innovation in the sector, and even more to sharing. Why give away your best ideas when competing for funding? Why try and do things differently if that would mean getting rid of most of your trustees first? As a fall back, there's the fatal "We have always done it that way."
Then I got a few calls from people who were thinking of putting in a bid, and we fell to wondering whether it might be done differently. If one of the things that stifles innovation is the way that procurement of services is handled, couldn't we demonstrate a different approach while still meeting all the tendering requirements?
The difficulty in tendering for complex and challenging projects is that you know your proposals may well turn out to be inadequate because there's no way of figuring out in advance what will work. Ideally the solutions have to be worked out with those who are "the problem". But if you do go in with a proposal full of co-creation workshops with stakeholders, there's a danger you will be seen as fuzzy. It's all too easy to end up either in tacit collusion between consultants and funders to do something rather inadequate, or acrimonious disputes about failure to "deliver".
One of the main aims of the Innovation Exchange is help improve the ability of third sector organisations to deliver public services. These days there's a lot of emphasis on the need to make this a collaborative process, as set out by Demos in its recent publication The Collaborative State. A few years ago they did an excellent publication Wideopen on open thinking, drawing on the inspiration of collaborative open source software development. The book Wikinomics argues the case for collaboration in what have been commercially competitive situations. So why not invite people to develop a collaborative bid - and also commit to collaborating afterwards? Ah, said my friend Drew Mackie, when I relayed my conversations with others, "what we need is an open source bid".
Nice soundbite, but would it work in practice? I checked in again with my friends Simon and Jane Berry, who manage to be innovative, creative and very effective in delivery through Ruralnet UK and their associated trading company RNUK Ltd. The team there have a great track record of running learning and mentoring programmes. Could we do it open source? Yes, said Simon. In Bristol, Ben Whitnall and Andy Parkhouse at Delib, together with Steve Bridger and Ed Mitchell, had come up with their own ideas about mixing innovation online and off. My son Dan put together a Drupal-based site, where we could invite contributions and comments. You can see the result at the Open Innovation Exchange. Do join in there, and if you blog anything about it elsewhere, please use the tag openinex. There's a feed to the site.
It may fall flat. It may get a lot of interest and ideas ... but at least we are trying something different. Isn't that what innovation is about?