Building a Social Innovation Lab to develop services
Kent County Council

Building a Social Innovation Lab to develop services


Challenges and opportunities

Kent County Council (KCC) are a recognised leader in innovative practice in the public sector. With high expectations and reduced budgets, many local governments are having to become more innovative to meet more complex challenges, expanded responsibilities and more discerning residents.

KCC wanted to address these challenges through the creation of a Social Innovation Lab for Kent (SILK), a space and community of practice brought together around shared challenges, including developing more innovative services and building capacity across the organisation to connect people’s everyday lives with policymaking and services.

Engine worked with the SILK team to develop a tailored project management framework and an accompanying toolkit to enable SILK to stimulate and support innovative practice amongst council staff. The approach was developed and tested through a selection of live pilot projects, from engaging fathers in the Kent community, to creating Kent Gateways, one-stop-shops for accessing council services. 

KCC’s Social Innovation Lab has gone on to be widely recognised as a leading example of innovative approaches to public service development, winning awards and featuring in publications and parliamentary commissions.

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What we did

Engine explored the existing operations of KCC, interviewing teams and collaborating on projects with a cross-section of council staff. We worked on two pilot projects in the county, to engage and build services for fathers caring for their children, and developing one-stop spaces where residents could access their council services, supported by knowledgeable staff.

From these projects, we learned that no fixed process would support the work being done by KCC’s 45,000 staff members across the whole county. Instead, we found that the characteristics of each project needed to define that process, informed by the needs and insights of citizens.

To facilitate this, Engine developed and tested a structured co-creative approach to project work, supported by a powerful set of creative techniques. This was expanded to provide a platform for solving complex problems by inviting people from different departments, and different levels, to focus on people’s needs and to collaborate and demonstrate the value of engaging citizens at all stages of project work.

This informed the development of a tailored project management framework and accompanying toolkit to enable the SILK team to continue inspiring and supporting innovative practice amongst council staff. This included a compendium of modules, from introductions to the methodology, supporting tools, guides and templates, to advice on the management of complex, multi-stakeholder projects. Engine also produced a suite of communications to help SILK define and promote their offer, both internally and externally.

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After the creation of the Social Innovation Lab, Engine continued to support the growing team of SILK staff on project work, helping them to build their capacity, to be responsive and to engage communities.

The co-developed tools and methodologies helped to ensure that SILK would lead in public service delivery through two central tasks. Firstly, by providing a creative, challenging environment for a wide range of staff to work together on some of the toughest challenges the county faces, and secondly, by drawing upon cutting edge practices from business, design and social sciences, to embed a way of working across the council that puts citizens at the centre of the process.

By starting with people rather than existing services, and by bringing diverse teams together, SILK’s approach ensures that new solutions improve outcomes for the citizens of Kent. SILK has continued to flourish. The tools and methods have been sustained to great effect, shown both in the project updates below and in the recognition that SILK has been receiving from public sector leaders and organisations involved in social innovation.

Key Achievements:

  • A research project commissioned by SILK resulted in the agenda setting report, ‘Just Coping’, & won the MRS Public Policy/Social Research Awards 2010.
  • SILK presented a case study of their ‘R Shop’ bulk-buying project to inform a report by the Cabinet Office. R Shop is in operation and run by members of the community who were involved in the co-design work. The Maidstone R Shop was validated as national best practice in Autumn 2010 by the Centre for Excellence in Outcomes in Children and Young People’s Services.
  • Two SILK projects were featured in and presented at the launch of the Housing Strategy for Kent and Medway.
  • The SILK team was invited to contribute to The Parliamentary Commission on Design, an enquiry sponsored by the Design Council, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Capita, to explore design capacity in local government.
  • SILK presented at the UK Dementia Congress 2012, with their co-production project to explore the experiences and needs of citizens around dementia and dementia care.
  • SILK was featured in the publication ‘Leading Public Sector Innovation: Co-creating for Better Society’, by Christian Bason.

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