Creation of an innovation fund for the Irish Public Service
The Public Service Innovation Fund provides public service bodies in Ireland with a means to fund innovative projects that may not otherwise get financed by their organisations. It was developed to help promote a greater culture of innovation and experimentation in the Irish Public Service, and to showcase the benefits of innovation to other public servants considering embarking on their own innovative project. This is Ireland's first public service-only innovation funding mechanism.
We are living in a period of fast-paced global change and with an ever increasing succession of complex challenges facing Ireland and the Public Service. It is therefore crucial that our Public Service continues to prioritise innovation and that we enable our public servants across all sectors to effectively respond to these challenges.
In 2018, the European Commission’s Structural Reform Support Service examined Ireland’s Public Service innovation maturity level. This assessment indicated that innovation in Ireland’s Public Service was patchy and, while there are excellent ‘pockets’ of innovation in areas of the public service, a more systemic and strategic approach to innovation was required if Ireland is to become a world-leader in public service innovation.
In consultation with a wide public service stakeholder group, a variety of initiatives were developed and delivered to deepen an innovation culture in the Irish Public Service including the creation of the Public Service Innovation Fund.
The Public Service Innovation Fund, which launched as a pilot in May 2019, is a competitive fund that aims to support innovative ideas from across public service organisations In Ireland and turn them into a reality with funding available of up to €50,000. For exceptionally strong projects funding of up to €100,000 may be granted.
Innovative projects were sought that could be realised over a relatively short period of time. It was important that projects had a strong focus on outcomes and impact and also have an emphasis on scalability, transferability and learning within the Public Service. Collaboration between public service organisations and other actors in the ecosystem was also highly encouraged.
The fund sought to help finance projects that:
• could help add value to an organisation and make what they do better for the user/public;
• demonstrated new ways of working and helped deliver an organisation’s strategic outcomes;
• implemented approaches and ideas that could be spread elsewhere or help to create learnings for other public servants from experimentation;
• encouraged cross-organisational or cross-silo working and showed commitment from an organisation to innovation;
• used evidence, insights and data to drive innovation or sought to create evidence and data for future innovations.
The pilot fund was 14 times oversubscribed with nearly 140 applications from all sectors of the public service. The high level of interest in the fund demonstrates the willingness of Irish public bodies to reshape our work practices and how we deliver services.
Some applicants proposed new collaborations, others examined how new technologies could be applied to existing problems in their organisations. The common factor was a desire to add value to their organisations and create better services and outcomes for the public.
18 diverse projects were funded and include:
• A youth personal development programme in a secondary school;
• Innovative redesign of an occupational therapy rehabilitation facility;
• Development of an App to simplify capturing the impacts of climate events and trends;
• The development of a programme on mobility solutions across the four Dublin local authorities;
• Hackathons in An Garda Síochána (Irish Police Force) to look at organisational challenges and technology for policing;
• Sensors on ringbuoys to address the issues caused by lost or stolen buoys;
• A project to create child distraction spaces in the courts service;
• Online profiling tool for SMEs;
• Voice search project for citizens' information;
• Virtual Reality training for the Irish Defence Forces;
• Collaboration between an Irish university and a prison to address better reintegration in society through education; and
• Drone photogrammetry for emergency response mapping.
The pilot fund has been a fantastic success and with the result of a doubling of the budget for the 2020 call for projects to €1 million.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
This is Ireland's first Public Service Innovation Fund. It is geared exclusively towards public service bodies to help engender innovation within public services and to create a competitive approach to innovation in the development of public services in Ireland.
Crucially, the fund was designed to encourage cross-organisational collaboration and to fund projects that would be unlikely to be financed in the normal course of their organisation's business.
What is the current status of your innovation?
The pilot fund has completed its first round of funding and evaluation. A mixed set of evaluation techniques were utilised including quantitative surveys and qualitative conversations. Organisers have now launched the 2020 iteration of the fund.
The fund requires applicants to describe and frame problems and to outline the types of solutions that have been considered before settling on a proposal. Applicants are also required to outline how they intend to implement the innovation and draw down the funding in a quick but structured fashion, balancing the need for rapidity in testing with the obligations of public servants to be prudent with taxpayers' money. Successful applicants are also required to provide (to the Department responsible for the fund) progress reports and engage in evaluations post-implementation for the purpose of determining success; but also to help generate case studies to allow for scaling elsewhere in the public service, transferring and diffusing lessons.
Collaborations & Partnerships
This innovation fund was proposed and approved in principle in 2018, in consultation with a number of cross-sectoral expert groups on innovation in the public service in Ireland. This included members of the Civil Service, the medical community, academia, the Defence Forces, the teaching community and others. The fund is just one of many recommendations from the groups that were brought together and inspired by the goal of creating a lasting culture of innovation in the Irish Public Service.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
Users of the fund are Public Servants. Stakeholders can include all parties that engage with the Irish Public Service and so these can be diverse and many in number. The primary beneficiaries from this fund should almost invariably be the user of the service; the citizen or member of the public. The entire objective of the fund is to make public services easier and better for our citizens and to deliver improved outcomes for citizens.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
During 2019, 18 projects were funded (out of nearly 140 applications) and almost all of these projects reported significant impacts so far for their users. As a consequence of the (measured) impacts, the fund was increased after its pilot year.
Impacts are measured using ex ante and ex post evaluations using metrics that are established by the applicants as appropriate (these can include efficiencies, user satisfaction, speed of service, better quality data etc.).
Future impacts include the effects of scaling some projects across other parts of the public service but crucially engendering a culture of experimentation and innovation amongst staff in the Irish Public Service.
Challenges and Failures
Initial challenges were around the volume of applications and providing an equitable and reasonable method for first instance evaluation, especially in view of the wide range of project types across the gamut of services provided by the Irish Public Service.
Other structural setbacks include Government accounting rules and the effect this has on project selection. Certain Government accounting rules can militate against the flexibility required for an agile and responsive innovation fund.
These challenges are being dealt with through an engagement process with the sponsoring Department.
Conditions for Success
•Strong leadership support from exchequer management for innovation and a clear understanding at leadership level that small levels of funding can create enormous impact for the citizen.
•A willingness from policy-makers to allow a certain degree of flexibility with financing and the delays that can accrue if procurement processes are required.
•Strong resourcing of projects from applicant organisations and a clear commitment from applicant organisation's leadership to see the project through to finality.
•Motivation and commitment of the staff who manage the fund and give meaningful feedback to unsuccessful candidates.
This has not yet been replicated domestically, however this is likely to form part of Ireland's forthcoming Public Service Innovation Strategy (in terms of resourcing innovation, especially in larger public service bodies).
Innovation clearly needs funding and resourcing (not always, but in many instances). Organisations are very rarely in a position to fund higher risk projects, projects with no track record or projects that may incur experimentation and, potentially, failure.
Funds are a great way of getting people involved in innovation at a central level. People who apply for funding are then brought into the larger ecosystem of public service innovation at the centre of Government. For example, fund applicants were invited to join the Public Service Innovation Network, to encourage their organisation to endorse the Public Service Innovation Declaration, to access learning and development opportunities available from Central Government and to sign up for newsletters and become a point of contact for others in their organisation who may be interested in innovation.