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The RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) was founded during the Enlightenment by William Shipley in London in 1754. The organisation’s mission is to “enrich society through ideas and action”. Members can use facilities at the RSA’s beautiful grade1 listed HQ off the Strand, and there are numerous lectures, workshops and the like organised on a vast range of topics.

The RSA rarely impinges much on the world of public sector procurement, but it recently issued an interesting report titled “Move fast and fix things: How to be a public entrepreneur”.  The report is the culmination of a six-month inquiry which looked at how government can procure and scale innovation.

“Through qualitative workshops, deep dives into case studies around the UK and a global practice review, the RSA Lab investigated approaches to public procurement of innovation using the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) and unearthed examples where practitioners have acted entrepreneurially to enable the success of enterprise innovations”.

The work was carried out in conjunction with Innovate UK, the UK’s government funded innovation agency, but what seems disappointing is the small number of procurement practitioners (or academics, or consultants) who were involved – a couple from local government, but none from health and only one individual from UK central government (from GDS, the digital service, rather than a procurement professional).

However, there is some interesting thinking here, although some of the comments and recommendations come over as somewhat idealistic perhaps rather than practical. The report makes the case for what it terms the “public entrepreneur” – people on the inside of government who act like private sector entrepreneurs and work to bring innovative ideas and suppliers into the public sector space.

The study places quite a lot of focus on the approach to public procurement of innovation using the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI), because “it is one of the more innovative approaches to problem-solving available to public servants in the UK”. That may be true, but we don’t perceive that SBRI is actually used very much at the moment. Perhaps this work will change that anyway, as the report “builds out a framework for procuring enterprise innovation – looking at three key phases: understanding problems, creating solutions, and achieving impact at scale”.

There are six key recommendations, including;

  • Every local authority, government agency or department (should) identify and nurture Public Entrepreneurs to drive innovation, affording them with the safe/fail environment and leadership sponsorship needed to experiment with new tools and try out new practices.
  • Pilot a new approach to mission-led public procurement more broadly, which we call “Invest to solve” working with partners in national, regional and local government, the devolved administrations and other agencies to provide support and direction for public investments.

We may come back to the report in greater detail but in the meantime, it is well worth a look – and it is available here.

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