This article was previously published in the Danish weekly Mandag Morgen.
Public organisations are notoriously bad at copying one another. For this reason, we should drop the notion of best practice and initiate processes of local innovation instead. Only when we ourselves start to think in new ways do we start to show an interest in what our neighbour is up to.
In 2006, while the former Danish government was working on its quality reforms, a task force with two special envoys, Erik Juhl and Erik Bonnerup, set out to gauge the quality of Danish welfare institutions.
They visited dozens of day-care institutions, schools, nursing homes and hospitals. Then they returned to the Prime Minister, inspired, but also with a silent sense of bewilderment. They had in discovered that although Denmark had numerous outstanding public institutions, there were also many that were very average. Some were even of decidedly poor quality.
It was not, however, the variations in quality of public services that bewildered the two envoys. They wondered why the average and poor quality institutions had displayed no particular interest in learning from the best ones.
Recently, I found myself wondering too. I attended a presentation of an extremely sympathetic project, in which a municipality had rethought the design and packaging of its catering service for senior citizens. And what an improvement! While the old wrapper made the food look like an industrial product, the new packaging was smartly different, incorporating pictures and brief stories from the staff who prepare the food.
The ingredients were printed on the old packaging in such small text that it was impossible for those with visual impairments to read. By contrast, the new packaging presented the contents in a way that was both readable and appetising. Last of all, the old packaging was very difficult to open, whereas the new concept offered a smarter wrapper, which even arthritic fingers could open.
”Best practice” is a dead end
But I was bewildered anyway. In 2007, the municipality of Holstebro had won Local Government Denmark’s prize for innovation for a similar solution. And now, five years on, exactly the same idea was being viewed as a new solution in a different part of the country.
The person in charge of Holstebro municipality’s catering service also took part in the conference and said that they had held numerous presentations about their new catering service after the municipality had won the innovation award, and that people had found it inspiring, but that nobody had chosen to take up the solution. So she was bewildered too.
So here is the heart of the matter: Public managers and their employees are unwilling to take up ideas that others have already used. They prefer to have their own.
With few exceptions, this means that the notion that you “just” need to identify the smartest practice and that all other institutions “just” need to do the same is simply untenable. Neither is it a uniquely Danish phenomenon. Internationally, most of those who are seriously involved in public sector innovation concur: Best practice as a tool for reform is a dead end.
But can it really be true that you can’t learn from the best? No. As far as I can see, there are three exceptions to the rule.
Share the best processes
First of all, public organisations are willing to learn from others if they find themselves in a situation so desperate that there are no other alternatives. This applies, for example, to the government of Greece, which currently has the pleasure of learning from the world’s best institutions in areas such as tax collection and health. I recently spoke with a top government official from Greece, who said that it was one of the most inspirational things she had ever experienced. Better late than never, one is tempted to say.
Secondly, massive political pressure may force through best practice. In Denmark, this is partly the case with the famous “Fredericia model” for everyday rehabilitation of ageing citizens. Here, a large majority of Danish municipalities have now taken up the model in one form or another, partly as a result of demands from the local council. Officials may well be resistant to change, but they are usually pretty good at listening to what the politicians want.
Thirdly and finally, public-sector managers and employees tend to look for best practice when they are fully engaged in a process of change. They themselves are in the driver’s seat in these instances, and can thus turn up their demand for best practice gradually, as they recognise the need.
As they encounter challenges and barriers, they begin to look more consciously and systematically, to find out if others have been in the same situation and found some useful solutions.
And believe it or not, this is often the case.
If you wish to stimulate the rapid diffusion of smarter public solutions from a central position, such as a ministry, three things therefore need to be done: 1) take away the funding; 2) create a powerful political demand and 3) support local innovation processes, for example by making available high-quality facilitation expertise.
It is all about helping municipalities and institutions to develop their own solutions. It strengthens motivation, self-confidence and curiosity about what others have learned. Instead of sharing best practice, the task is to share the best process.