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Overlooking frontline workers’ contribution to innovation

7 March 2022



Image of frontline nurse walking with elderly woman outdoors

The role of frontline workers in collaborative innovation in public services is underexplored. A paper in Public Administration discusses a case study of collaboration in social services. It found the strength of the innovative solution was diluted by the omission of frontline workers in key phases of the innovation process.

Understanding collaborative innovation

Interest in public service innovation has risen in response to a series of mounting pressures:

  • increasing demand for high-quality personalised public services
  • budgetary constraints due to financial instability and/or crisis
  • the call to respond to wicked problems
  • the exacerbation of service gaps by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Collaborative innovation involves diverse and interdependent actors working together to:

  • collectively solve a shared wicked problem
  • take joint ownership over its implementation and outcomes.

The promise of collaborative innovation is premised upon creativity and new ways of thinking about and framing problems and solutions.

A collaborative innovation framework

The paper proposes a framework as a lens to explore the inter-related elements and outcomes of collaborative innovation. The framework includes:

  • the triggers for the innovation process in the form of inputs and starting conditions
  • the role of institutional facilitators
  • barriers to innovation
  • outcomes and evaluation.

Figure 1: Conceptual framework of collaborative innovation in public services

To begin designing an innovative solution, the majority of actors must define and agree on the problem. This is described as discursive problematisation. Following discussions on the problem, stakeholders must reach agreement on how to address the problem.

Power is inherent in collaborative innovation with power being the available resources and relative influence of individual stakeholders. Whether they are aware of it or not, stakeholders exist in a hierarchy of power. One way to soften this imbalance of power in collaborative decision making is by empowering the participation of the least powerful.

The implementation phase is strengthened when the relevant actors share the ownership of the idea. When the participants feel that they were part of the design and selection process they are more likely to embrace it and ensure it implemented. This is especially the case for frontline workers.

The outcome of collaborative innovation should be genuine innovation in the design or delivery of public services and not simply incremental changes to ways of working. There are three types of collaborative innovation outcomes: policy, organisational, and product/service innovation.

Front-line workers and collaborative innovation

One of the most compelling elements of collaborative innovation is that it argues that answers to complex societal problems might be best solved by combining perspectives of all the relevant and affected actors. It therefore follows that the perspectives of frontline workers can be seen as an invaluable resource for innovation.

When it comes to service delivery innovations, frontline workers often are the service. These innovations will only succeed if frontline workers embrace and implement them.

About the case study research

The paper researched a case study of an integrated intermediate care facility in central Scotland. The primary outcomes sought through collaborative innovation were to:

  • help people live independently at home as long as possible
  • prevent unnecessary hospital admissions
  • provide proper assessment to get people the right care at the right time for them.

Key stakeholders included the Scottish Government, the National Health Service, local council and a number of non-government organisations.

The research sought to answer the following questions:

  1. How effectively do collaborative innovation processes support innovative changes in organisations and services?
  2. How does the role of front-line workers in the different stages of a collaborative innovation process affect the outcome and impact of collaborative innovation processes?

What the research found

The research found that stakeholders came together to address a wicked policy problem by doing something different. They were able to achieve better outcomes for people and streamline services more effectively than they would have done in isolation. Without the processes of collaborative innovation this project might have just been a patchwork building of health and care services rather than a first-of-its-kind integrated, intermediate care facility.

However, the perspectives and experiences of front-line worker were not seen as relevant until the implementation stage. The exclusion of frontline workers from the ideation and planning stages meant there were several knowledge gaps that had to be remedied during the implementation stage. This lessened the optimal quality of the innovation.

What this means

The research has demonstrated that when frontline workers are overlooked, it undermines the strength of overall implementation by:

  • neglecting frontline insights
  • imposing innovation upon workers that they were not a part of creating.

The research furthers the argument that including frontline workers in collaboration can no longer be framed as an ideal but must be an imperative.

Want to read more?

Overlooking the front line: Impacts of front-line worker inclusion on implementation and outcomes of collaborative innovation – Riley V. Livingstone, Public Administration, February 2022

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Published Date: 7 March 2022