Talk to the “Innovation in Public Services” Forum

This morning I was a keynote for this forum,  held in Dublin and organised by Deloitte and eolas magazine. Charlie Leadbeater was the other keynote:  I had previously had the honour of meeting him when I was chair of the IMI during which he gave another keynote at our annual conference.

I was asked to discuss applying technology for innovation in the public service in the current fiscal environment.  Difficult to generalise,  so I talked about some of the thinking on this topic from my work in the Innovation Taskforce.


The Taoiseach takes a personal initiative to advance research in Ireland. There is criticism, since some believe that the scarce public finances for education should be devoted to improving primary education nationwide, and perhaps also secondary. The Taoiseach indicates that world class research would encourage the Irish universities to more proactively collaborate, particularly TCD and UCD. He also believes that world class research conducted in Ireland would greatly enhance Ireland’s international reputation, and possibly further encourage world class companies to engage with Ireland. He believes that the best way to catalyse a world class standard in Ireland is to invite world class researchers to come here: he personally makes an approach to a renowned Austrian physicist and theoretical biologist.

Two years later, a very well known journalist ridicules the work of the Taoiseach’s “notorious institute” – “Lord, what I would give for a chair in it with me thousand good-lookin’ pounds a year for doing ‘work’ that most people regard as an interesting recreation….The propagation of heresy and unbelief has nothing to do with polite learning, and unless we are careful, this Institute of ours will make us the laughing stock of the world”.

And so de Valera founded the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies in 1940, seeding it with Erwin Schroedinger (of cat fame :-)), and Myles na Gopaleen took a slightly jaundiced view.

Research and innovation generally seemed to languish in the Irish economy throughout the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s and it was not until end of the 90s that the Tanaiste of the time, personally led an initiative to advance research in Ireland. There is much criticism, since some believe that scarce public finances for education should be devoted to improving primary education nationwide, and also secondary. The Tanaiste indicates that one reason to do so is to encourage the Irish universities to more proactively collaborate, particularly TCD and UCD. She also believes that world class research conducted in Ireland would greatly enhance Ireland’s international reputation, and possibly further encourage world class companies to engage with Ireland. She believes that the best way to catalyse a world class standard in Ireland is to invite world class researchers to come here: she personally makes an approach to several, and invites a former director of the US National Science Foundation to lead the new initiative.

And so Mary Harney founded Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) in 2000, seeding it with Bill Harris. So far,  to my knowledge, Joe Duffy’s Liveline hasn’t commented: but one wonders at what point public funding of research relative to social needs and support will become a public discussion topic..

Eolas magazine is the media partner for this forum today. On 31st March last it published an interesting commentary on “The crisis in Irish innovation policy”, written by Aidan Kane. The article summarises Irish innovation policy, including how SFI came to be: “coalitions of academic scientists, public servants and industrialists understood that the only language to which policy makers would respond was that of economics.” Today, policy makers are now seeking explicit economic returns, which were promised 11 years ago when SFI was founded. “Thus the boosterish and literally incredible ‘jobs creation’ targets for innovation initiatives at all scales, and the enormous recent emphasis on the production of commercialisable intellectual property as a measurable outcome from publicly funded research.” “Visible spin-offs and the attraction of foreign direct investment are the tangible returns which policy makers will seek; they are not the same as the broader “public goods” rationale for innovation policy as originally understood.” Economic accountability “is now, by definition and by design, privileging the production of private, not public goods.”

If we are to create public good from publicly funded research; if we are to avoid only private goods and private benefit; if we are to innovate public services through technology in the current economic environment – one theme of this forum and the title of my talk – should we then adopt and exploit research results from Irish research organisations into the public service ? Would this not then provide test cases to validate the Irish research work, and provide feedback ? Is there not a substantial public procurement budget taken as a whole across the entire public service, and should therefore not some be used to apply Irish research results ?

I have heard others articulate this line of thinking, and I am afraid I disagree. Stimulation of our economy should require innovation:   creating new services and new products which have never previously existed. If we are going to drive foreign earnings, we need to create new products and services in Ireland targetted at the global market. On the other hand, if we are going to use taxpayers money to acquire and build technology solutions in the public service, then almost the very last thing we want to do is to procure new products and services which have never previously existed. On the contrary, to prudently and efficiently use taxpayers money, we want to adopt “off-the-shelf” pre-existing solutions already well-tried from elsewhere. Our build-out policies for technology procurement and systems should rightly re-invigorate and re-energise the Irish public service, but almost certainly are unlikely to result in a new innovation for export from Ireland to the global market.

The innovation economy is about risk taking, to create new products and services for the global market. Risk-taking in public systems procurement by contrast is unwise. Almost everyone in our public service is only all too well aware of the Dail Public Accounts Committee.  Brave is the public servant who risks procuring a novel but un-proven solution over a less ambitious but well tested and well tried solution from elsewhere.   Finally of course,  we have had very visible failures of public procurement,  including in IT systems,  which have in many cases severely dampened political and public enthusiasm for some projects.

The dichotomy of stimulating innovation for the export-driven economy, and simultaneously safely and efficiently enhancing the public sector by wisely deploying technology, pre-occupied several of us on last year’s Innovation Taskforce. We strongly believed that altering the mandate and goals of public procurement would be unwise: public procurement should in general reduce risk, whereas innovation is inherently riskful.

So, the Innovation Taskforce took a different approach. We asked whether there are specific challenges which would have an obvious direct benefit to the Irish economy,  and indeed to Irish society at large ?   These may be riskful challenges, but have enormous potential benefit if they can be delivered. If they are to stimulate innovation,   then such challenges should not already have a solution.   That is,  they would be different from normal Irish procurement projects: there would be no pre-existing solution anywhere on the planet, and R&D would be needed to build a solution.

But further,  one of the main goals of an Irish innovation economy is that it should be foreign earnings driven.  Thus any of these new category of challenges should have an export potential.  Thus,  they should be such that not only is R&D needed to derive a solution in the Irish context,   but that that solution should have a foreign earnings potential and ideally represent a global opportunity.

Finally,  a key strategy for the Irish innovation economy is collaboration:  between academia and industry,  within industry itself including in particular the interplay between indigenous and multinational companies,   and across industry sectors by converging technologies.    Thus any of these new categories of challenges should also create an opportunity for clusters of companies to collaborate together,  with academic involvement as appropriate.

The Innovation Taskforce called these new category of challenges “Flagships“.   The Taskforce recommended that each Flagship should have a clearly identifiable direct societal impact in Ireland;   should not have an existing solution anywhere on the planet;   should have global export potential since many other jurisdictions as well as Ireland may have very similar challenges;  should enable an open collaborative cluster to form,  in which different companies can all add value to a common technology platform so as to build a solution;  and would be funded in part by the Irish State to provide a demonstrable use-case and verifiable proof of concept.

Let me summarise. World class research conducted in Ireland attracts overseas companies, raises our level of education attainment, and provides opportunities for private commercial exploitation. After 11 years, those who were told in 2000 that world class research undertaken in Ireland would significantly improve our economy, are naturally expecting identifiable results. There is opportunity to prudently deploy even more technology in the public service, but public systems sourced via public procurement will, and should, avoid the risk inherent in unproven solutions. Nevertheless publicly funded research should not just lead to the production of private goods and private wealth. There are initiatives which can allow risk-averse public projects to complement the riskful innovation economy through risk-sharing projects. The Innovation Taskforce “flagship” challenges are one possibility.

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About chrisjhorn

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