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Managing to innovate

Do the UK's voluntary organisations deserve their reputation for innovation?

Being able to innovate (in other words, the ability to develop new ways of responding to existing needs or develop new services in response to emerging needs) is seen to play a key role in public service provision. Increasingly, public services are expected to be able to respond to the evolving and complex needs of local citizens in and efficient and effective manner. The capacity to innovate is therefore essential.

Voluntary and community organisations (ranging in size from large organisations such as Help the Aged to, for example, a small, local group for carers) have long held a reputation for being innovative. However this reputation is based on limited research. This project aims to provide more solid evidence on the nature and extent of this innovative capacity. Researchers will also investigate whether this capacity has been affected by the economic and political changes of the last decade, particularly the increasing role of voluntary and community organisations (VCOs) in providing mainstream public services.

What the research means for policy makers and the wider community

Research methods

The project will combine quantitative survey data with in-depth qualitative case studies. The survey will cover VCOs in three different areas (urban, suburban and rural) and replicate a previous survey carried out by the researcher a decade ago. It will explore questions such as how much and what type of innovation is being carried out. The case studies will explore the differing experience of innovation in different types of organisation.

Further Information: Project Poster

Below is a summary of this project’s provisional findings. It was originally presented as a dissemination poster, which is available here as a pdf document. All figures can be found at the bottom of this poster summary as thumbnails, which one should click to view full-size images. Alternatively, where figures are reffered to in the text, click the linked text for a full-size version.




Voluntary and community organisations (VCOs) have a long history as pioneers of local public services and play a major part in providing such services in the UK (see Figure 1) and elsewhere. One of the main things VCOs are said to bring to public services is the capacity to innovate, as well as to deliver responsive, user-friendly public services. But we do not know whether there is something inherently innovative about VCOs, as some claim, or whether the innovativeness of their activity depends on the policy and funding framework they operate in.


The aim of this study was to examine the effects on reported VCO innovativeness of changes within the past decade in the funding and policy framework for VCOs providing public services in England. Comparing 2006 with 1994 the aim was to discover:

» how the innovative capacity of VCOs was affected by policy and funding frameworks;

» what were the main factors shaping innovation over that period, how did they work and in what ways did they affect innovative capacity?

What We Did

To explore the effects of different policy and funding frameworks on VCO innovativeness, we used a replication study, repeating research originally conducted in the early 1990s (Figure 2). A survey of three English local authorities (one urban, one rural, one suburban) was conducted on the same lines as the 1994 study, dividing VCO work into traditional activity (providing specialist services), developmental activity (incremental change, ‘stretching’ services) and innovative change (quantum change in services provided or the skills base used to provide them). Qualitative analysis took the form of 3 longitudinal and 2 micro- case studies to explore causal relationships between innovation and the policy framework.

Provisional Findings

» Comparing 2006 and 1994, traditional VCO activity remained broadly constant, innovative activity almost halved and developmental activity more than doubled as a proportion of total work (see Figure 4). » This dramatic change suggests that the innovative capacity of VCOs is heavily conditioned by government funding rather than an intrinsic quality of VCOs, since government funding arrangements changed substantially between 1994 and 2006, and by 2006 VCOs could secure government funding without presenting their activities as innovative (see Figure 3).


Click on the figures to enlarge

osbornefig1.jpg osbornefig2.jpg osbornefig3.jpg osbornefig4.jpg

Other Project Outputs and Related Webpages

Project page on the ESRC Society Today website

Stephen’s book ‘The Third Sector in Europe: Prospects and challenges’ (2008, Routledge) contains a chapter ‘The innovative capacity of voluntary and community organizations : exploring the organizational and environmental contingencies’  that addresses four hypotheses of the innovative capacity of voluntary organizations in the UK.

January 2008: The once and future pioneers? The innovative capacity of voluntary organisations and the provision of public services: A longitudinal approach, Public Management Review, Volume 10, Issue 1, (pp.51-70) 

Programme Discussion Paper DP0701: The Innovative Capacity of Voluntary Organisations: Survey Evidence from a Replication Study.

Research Team

Stephen Osborne

Stephen Osborne

Stephen Osborne is Professor of Public Management at the University of Edinburgh. His current research interests include the management of voluntary and community organisations, Public-Private Partnerships, area regeneration and the provision of public services in rural areas. He is editor-in-chief of the journal Public Management Review and convenor of the annual International Research Symposium on Public Management. He is particularly interested in comparative research and has developed substantial research interests in both Hungary and Japan.

Tel: 0131 650 8358

Celine Chew

Celine Chew

Celine is Lecturer in Marketing and Strategy at Cardiff Business School

Tel: +44 (0)29 2087 6144
Fax: +44 (0)29 2087 4419