Academic journal article The Innovation Journal

The Whitehall Innovation Hub: Innovation, Capabilities and Connectivity

Academic journal article The Innovation Journal

The Whitehall Innovation Hub: Innovation, Capabilities and Connectivity

Article excerpt


Government interventions are often expected to deliver innovation policies within unrealistic timeframes and their short shelf life is determined as much by elections as evidence. This is the story of one such intervention in the UK. Encouragingly, New Labour recognized public service innovation for the first time in 2008 and invested in a number of initiatives to support it, one of which was the Whitehall Innovation Hub (WIH).

The WIH's task was to persuade policy-makers of their role in public service innovation. Its strategy was to work with innovation champions andto stimulate innovation demand by persuading Whitehall leaders that innovation was a matter of responsiveness and collaboration rather than diktat. This approach was closely aligned to the Cabinet Secretary's desire for civil service transformation and was endorsed by the Department of Innovation and Skill's Permanent Secretary and Minister in 2008.

The account that follows demonstrates the significance of narratives about innovation and beliefs about how change can be implemented by administrations, which remain elitist and dominated by departmental fiefdoms. It also highlights the problems encountered by small(marginal) units within highly politicized environments. The Hub was neither inside nor outside of government, and its strategy was contested, although later accepted as pertinent once adopted by the Treasury and Cabinet Office.

In May 2010, the Coalition Government was elected and public innovation policy changed dramatically. Austerity and ideology led to policies that focused on public sector savings and business growth with marketization as the driver of service innovation. The government has lost interest in the role capabilities and human connectivity in service innovation and the 'science to business' model of knowledge innovation reinstated.

Key Words: Leadership, Public Innovation Policy, Practice and System Alignment


In 2007 the British government created the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) to stimulate innovation and a more integrated policy approach to skills, higher education and innovation. Innovation Nation, the DIUS White Paper on innovation, was published in 2008 and for the first time the British government innovation policy made reference to public sector innovation.

Innovation in public services will be essential to the UK's ability to meet the economic and social challenges in the 21st century. Education, health and transport provide the underpinning for all innovative activity. Demand is growing amongst public service users for more efficient service that are personalized to their needs (DIUS, 2008).

Innovation Nation recognized the challenges of climate change, public health, ageing, etc. and demanded that those in policy-making become much more explorative and innovative in their problem-solving and initiate dialogue across government, the public sector and business sectors. The government accepted that it needed to stimulate innovation in all sectors and a demand for public service innovation within government. Innovation Nation recommended investment in intermediaries such as the Design Council and NESTA1and the Whitehall Innovation Hub. The WIH's role was to develop Whitehall's internal innovation capabilities and the demand for innovation side, while the role of the Design Council and NESTA would be to stimulate social innovation supply. Although the supply side of social innovation was strong, it lacked funding, government recognition and an infrastructure to sustain it. There was growing recognition that government policy-makers needed to be more concerned with innovation demand (Edler & Georghiou, 2007; Georghiou, 2007).

The WIH was situated within the Sunningdale Institute led by Professor Sue Richards as part of the National School of Government [NSG], formerly known as the Civil Service College. Su Maddock was seconded from Manchester Business School to be the WIH Director on the basis of her experience in public leadership, public service innovation and knowledge exchange. …

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