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Trying something new

Rob Ashelford, senior innovation programmes manager at Nesta, describes how councils across the UK can learn from the early successes of collaborative schemes between public and third sector bodies in Wales.

From fiscal constraints to growing demand, the public sector faces acute pressures to adapt. Public servants must reimagine the way they deliver the services that citizens need. But innovative thinking involves risk-taking – and risk-taking requires support.

New ideas funded by Innovate to Save have the potential to generate savings for Welsh public services – cash which can be re-invested elsewhere – while also improving the quality of delivery.

Since 2009, Welsh Government has operated an Invest to Save fund, offering interest-free, unsecured loans to public and third sector organisations. It serves its purpose well: over that period, around £160m has been invested in projects designed to save money in the long run – things like LED lighting or RFID tags for hospital laundry, for example. It doesn’t, however, support innovation or risk-taking.  

Following a review of Invest to Save in 2015, and working closely with the Welsh Treasury, Innovate to Save was launched to take a more nuanced approach to accelerate much-needed innovation. It provides significant non-financial support, like business mentoring, and small-scale grant funding to trial ideas and get them off the ground. R&D ‘de-risks’ innovation by generating evidence on whether an idea is viable or not, giving people the confidence to invest and scale projects in the longer term. That’s the real value of public R&D.

These pilots could set a precedent for other public and third sector organisations to copy, changing the way systems work around the country. While it’s still early days, here are some projects worth watching:

Innovate Trust provides residential services for people with learning difficulties. Collaborating with local authorities in Cardiff, Rhondda Cynon Taff and Vale of Glamorgan, the charity wants to look at how Intelligent Personal Assistants (IPAs) – think Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home – could work in their homes. Since being introduced some 40 years ago, the assisted living model has barely changed; while it has resulted in many living more fulfilled lives, it can restrict an individual's independence and prevent people from obtaining a home without staff support. If this IPA pilot generates positive, sustainable results, this could well reduce the number of staff hours dedicated to certain tasks and give people a greater amount of independence.

In an enterprising step, Gwynedd Council is setting up a Community Interest Company (CIC) for the village of Fairbourne. This small coastal community in North Wales cannot be saved by flooding caused by climate change in the long term, and so is subject to a shoreline management plan. The CIC is the first of its kind in Europe for a town under this measure. It aims to buy homes from villagers who want to move away but are unable to do so because of plummeting house prices. This will not only alleviate the stress experienced by villagers feeling trapped in their homes, but local authorities will then also be able to rent out vacant homes – reducing the burden on social housing whilst maintaining a community for as long as is feasible. The project is being produced and refined with local community involvement.

Meanwhile, the Welsh Ambulance Service NHS Trust has partnered with Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board and Gwynedd and Wrexham councils to co-ordinate non-emergency patient transport services in the region. The NHS and local authority transport services have typically worked independently of one another, resulting in duplication of resource and associated costs. For the first time, this collective will pool and map their data and, with the input of ODI Cardiff, redesign the way people with community access or social care needs can get the transport they need. Breaking this siloed way of working, it is hoped, will drive user experience up and costs down – depending on results, this could set a model for others around the country.

All these projects have the potential to be rolled out across the UK. Moreover, they illustrate how many other opportunities are out there for these types of collaborations between public and third sector bodies – we just have to be prepared to try something new.


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