Innovation Insider: Interreg Europe ‘BETTER – Stimulating Innovation through better ‘e’ Government Services’

A project working to stimulate innovation in the West Midlands through an exciting new ‘Digital Innovation in Public Services’ project

The Interreg Europe funded digital project ‘BETTER’ was tasked with boosting innovation in the West Midlands by 10% when it set out three years ago. The project was required to influence a call for proposals funded through the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). With the advent of Brexit and the consequent UK withdrawal from ERDF, the project needed to identify a different funding stream and policy to help achieve this 10% increase. The West Midlands Innovation Programme and funding provided a suitable alternative for the project to attempt to influence, being a locally available fund and policy instrument.

With the support of the West Midlands Innovation Alliance, the BETTER team were keen to explore ways of connecting digital SMEs more effectively with public sector procurement opportunities.  Often, SMEs find it difficult to access these procurement opportunities as they don’t meet the technical requirements to apply and lose out to bigger, more established businesses.  The team also wanted to inspire the SMEs by presenting them with public sector challenges to solve rather than handing them detailed specifications with a specific solution outlined. Open public sector challenges where council teams work together to develop a challenge brief for SMEs to respond to had previously not been implemented.   

A successful bid was submitted to the West Midlands Innovation Programme (WMIP) funding and a new project called Digital Innovation In Public Services (DIPS) got off the ground in late 2021. DIPS is an exciting multi-partner project which aims to test out a novel approach to procuring digital solutions to challenges faced by the public sector.  It brings together the expertise of Birmingham City University’s STEAMhouse and Bruntwood’s Serendip business support programme to inspire local digital SMEs to respond to the challenges set by Birmingham City Council.

The DIPS approach has been influenced by the award-winning Digital Renewal Programme delivered by the Swedish ‘BETTER’ partner in Gavle which works with Gavle city council departments to help them identify the key challenges they face through an open innovation ‘Design Led Thinking’ approach.  Birmingham City University STEAMhouse colleagues are champions of the Design Led Thinking approach and through the DIPS project have delivered two two-hour online workshops to BCC colleagues who were taken through a process to help identify the most important challenge (not solution) they face. Each workshop was grounded in five key principles: collaboration, conversation, exploration, openness and newness. The online workshops were relaxed, open and confidential spaces where all participants were able to contribute and have their voices heard.  The top challenges were then detailed in a Challenge Brief.

The city council teams which have engaged in DIPS include: Adult Social Care; Planning and Consultation; Public Health – Food and Transport for West Midlands.  So far, the project has received positive feedback from participants, including:

‘The online workshops were an excellent opportunity to zoom out from our day to day activity and reflect on the key issues, that if solved, would make an enormous difference to our service users. I am excited to see what ideas are proposed by digital businesses to solve our challenges.’  Maria B Gavin, Assistant Director, Adult Social Care, BCC

‘The BCU STEAMhouse team’s step by step process help us break down the challenges we face and this made the process extremely efficient.  It’s an approach that can be replicated in-house in the future.’ Andrew Lindop, Principal Development Planning Officer, BCC

The challenges are now being advertised to small and medium sized technology companies that will be supported by the Serendip programme at Bruntwood Sci Tech Innovation Campus to develop prototype technological solutions which Birmingham City Council, the challenge owner, will then procure the solution through an innovative procurement process. 

The challenges identified include:

Adult Social Care

‘How can technology enable citizens with learning disabilities to access, and be in control of, suitable transport services that increase confidence and independence?’

Adult Social Care

How can technology enable citizens to access engaging and inclusive Adult Social Care service information quickly and efficiently?

Transport for West Midlands

‘How can technology support the transformation of Mobility Hubs into places of community and business activity that drives active transport use in the city?’

Planning and Consultation

‘How can technology transform public consultation to increase citizen engagement, improve quality, and enable meaningful dialogue?’

Public Health (Food)

‘How can technology directly connect regional food producers with urban demand, and transport goods between them in a reliable, affordable, and sustainable way?’

The project has also attracted the attention of central government and been included in a film shared with the Department for Business Innovation and Skills. It has also been included in Birmingham City Council’s ‘Digital City Programme Roadmap’ as a proof of concept currently being trialled. Other councils in the West Midlands are interested in the approach and a DIPS 0.2 has been given the green light through the Education strand of the West Midlands Innovation Programme.  Results from the Bruntwood’s Serendip process will be available in September 2022.

To find out more about the BETTER project, click here.

Author, Heather Law

Senior Programme Co-ordinator; European and International Affairs at Birmingham City Council