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You may have noticed that there is often confusion in describing where one is working, be it engaging in reform, or in innovation or both. The current funding climate is in part to blame – third sector organisations, consultancies and even delivery agencies often tailor their descriptions of where and with whom they intend to work to the definitions and criteria of funding bodies.

In conversation with my colleague Sophia recently, I attempted to crystallise this important distinction. We were discussing the work of the Innovation Catalyst with which we have both been involved.  It is a complex programme of work with four local authorities in England, and essentially what it aims to do is analyse a specific aspect of youth offending and responses to it in a specific area, and through innovative ways of engaging with users (e.g. the kids themselves, practitioners, sentencers and so on) find the “hinges” where an innovative approach could improve outcomes.

The idea is that through intensive micro-analysis and innovative design, you can nail a specific area where you can have impressive results relatively fast. My instinct for these things is usually relatively good and we seem have moved towards our proposed innovation occupying the sort of ground that’s beginning to be talked about. An example is what we’re trying to do in Sheffield – we are trying to find new ways of getting kids, practitioners and magistrates to design elements of a supervision programme (ISSP) to ensure that kids attend and don’t breach their conditions, and as a result don’t go to custody. The wider context is that England & Wales locks up the most children in Western Europe (around 3,000 compared to just 3 in Finland) and 12% of all these kids in custody are in for breaches of their supervision conditions – not for committing an actual offence. If we can find a way of stopping the “easy” ones of these cases reaching custody (and I believe we can), we can make a serious dent in the custody figures.

The initial idea of the Innovation Catalyst project was to demonstrate how innovation can work in Local Government. It’s been an extensive and labour intensive piece of work, not without its challenges, and I believe it’ll produce strong results.  I think the distinction between setting and sector is an important one when engaging in this kind of activity, and one which must be understood properly by social innovators and reformers (and those of us who try to be a bit of both).  I shall attempt to illustrate.

Let’s take an example away from criminal justice – right now I am sitting in a cafe in Istanbul airport, sipping some overpriced but quite nice Turkish tea. My setting might be the airport, but I’m clearly not interacting with the aviation sector. My interaction right now is with the catering sector, and if I order that tempting-looking baklava, that interaction will intensify, and possibly move me even further away from having anything to do with the aviation sector. Another example – as I was writing this, a man collapsed in front of me and started having a fit. I ran over to help him, and kept him from swallowing his tongue until medical help arrived. The doctors are now looking after him and he’ll be OK. They’ve taken him to a treatment room somewhere in the airport for him to rest and recover. His interaction now is with the healthcare, and not the aviation sector (as the poor guy might have been hoping), although the setting is still this vast airport.

Similarly, the Innovation Catalyst started out with the assumption that Local Government was a sector. In fact, it is a setting, like Istanbul Airport, Sheffield or the year 2009. The setting can be anywhere and it’s the content of the work that dictates the sector. In our case, we were asked to look at innovations around youth offending – placing us firmly in the criminal justice field, and thus, in the security sector.

Local Government as a setting straddles many sectors – security, education, waste, housing, health, social care, commerce, elder and childcare and so on. It is definitely not a sector in itself, no more than Istanbul Airport is.

Understanding the distinction between the two is as important as understanding the content of the work. For example, innovation capacity is different in different sectors and arguably is higher in the healthcare sector than in the security sector. Structures and processes are different, so are funding streams, hierarchies and responsibilities. Drivers for innovation are different too – for example in the security sector the aim is to reduce negative outcomes, whilst in education it is to increase positive outcomes. Often there are overlaps, where both opportunities and problems can arise.  All of this takes place within the setting of local government. This notion of the setting is largely about boundaries, not only geographical but also political and up to a point financial. Models for innovation in different sectors within this setting will not be the same, but they will in part be defined and constrained by the boundaries this particular setting may dictate.

In short, it is important, especially when one is embarking on a serious undertaking, to recognise not only the boundaries of the setting, but the specifics of the sector, and its capacity for innovation or reform, which will be similar in that sector across various settings. Thus, in my interaction with the catering sector, I would be able to enjoy a cup of apple tea not just in Istanbul airport but also in a completely different setting – a Turkish cafe in my native Tottenham – without the boundary constraint of worrying about missing my plane because I have become too engrossed in writing this piece.