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Social Innovations in the Frontline

Author: Zainab Reza
Published Date: 26 July 2012

By Stuart Conger

A few national governments, notably those of South Africa (Radebe 2009), Australia (Australian Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research 2009), Singapore (Prime minister’s office 2009) and the United Kingdom (HM Government 2009) have introduced programs to encourage innovation by frontline workers on the assumption that the workers want change and have ideas how their work procedures or organization could be more effective but are not making their recommendations known because of peer or supervisory contentment with the status quo. Furthermore, the workers may be aware of others who did propose innovations and as a result were badly treated by the organization. Other countries, such as Canada, contract with independent local agencies to deliver services and allow, perhaps even encourage, some innovation in the process although the frontline innovations seldom become a part of the nation-wide service.

The disconnect between the frontline and policy makers is often based upon the ignorance on the part of the latter about the clients. The author witnessed a stunning example of this when the strategic planning division of the Canadian employment service anticipated an increasing level of unemployment and recommended that all government offices should be prepared to protect themselves from rioting unemployed workers. The economists had no idea that unemployed workers are depressed; blame themselves for not having got more education, for not having worked more diligently for their employers, and question whether they should have supported their unions in making certain demands over the years. Unemployed workers retreat into their homes and avoid the streets let alone engaging in activities that might be prejudicial to their later employment. To its credit the senior executive dismissed the economists’ predictions and expanded the employment counselling service when it was informed of the actual attitudes of the unemployed.

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