Comment: Can charities afford to be innovative?

The relationship between innovation and improvement is strong: innovation is one of the fundamental mechanisms through which the quality of our lives has improved.

Nick Seddon
Nick Seddon

According to his interim report on plans for NHS services in England, Lord Darzi, the health minister, is to head a new £100m Health Innovation Council with the aim of accelerating the introduction of high-tech medical devices, diagnostics and drugs.

We are certainly lagging behind the rest of the developed world in medical innovation, but is this really the best way to encourage it? Few disruptive innovations - ones that change the way we live - have been sponsored by governments. That goes for George Eastman's camera, Bell's telephone, the PC and the iPod. The same applies to healthcare innovations, such as angioplasty, and to the innovations of civil society - the ones that make charities proud to be charities.

As academics from Edinburgh, Aston and Birmingham have recently shown in the pithily named study The Innovative Capacity of Voluntary Organisations and the Provision of Public Services, innovative activity in the third sector has declined by a half in the past decade. A significant cause of this has been government funding regimes. Other sources, such as trusts and foundations, have encouraged innovation, but public sector commissioners have no interest in funding innovative work and voluntary organisations have no interest in pursuing it because it is not funded.

Will this be remedied through better commissioning, or through the Innovation Exchange, a £1.4m pilot funded by the Office of the Third Sector to encourage innovative projects from the sector? My guess is probably not.

The history of innovation tells us that it comes about when independent thinkers are given space to take risks and freedom to fail as well as succeed. The alarm bells should start ringing if people look habitually to government to help them be innovative.

Unless the impetus comes from individuals and communities, independent action and innovative ways of saving and changing lives will amount to little more than what politicians are prepared to pay for.

- Nick Seddon is an author and journalist:


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