The Beating Heart of Innovation—Australia’s Public Sector
by Tess Julian, CEO of Catalyst Exchange
“The Prime Minister’s conversation is largely focused on business and product innovation and venture capital mobilisation, rather than social and policy innovation: how government can be an enabler of innovation, understanding that by itself it can never be an innovator.” (Noel Pearson, The Australian, Opinion, 28 January 2016.)
In his recent National Press Club address and subsequent media appearances, Noel Pearson pointed out the lack of attention on innovation in indigenous affairs and policy, and politics in general. He argues for political innovation through exploring the tensions between left and right, and connecting their insights to create something at the “radical centre”. His words gave me pause to reflect.
Government innovation policy has always concerned itself with product, technology, entrepreneurship and start-ups. It’s all worthwhile, but echoing Pearson’s words, it’s not enough.
Products and technology are easier to innovate—they are tangible and measurable, the need is more easily defined and solutions can be prototyped and tested. On the other hand, policy and social practice are not so easy—the problems are often complex and multifaceted, assumptions are difficult to challenge because they often relate to long held convictions and values, and innovative solutions are difficult to test because they face constant scrutiny which doesn’t allow for failure “or wasting public money”.
Policies that aim to increase research and commercialisation, STEM skills and start-ups, to produce cutting edge products and technologies, seem doable. Creating the human relations and behaviours that question the status quo, seek brave new policies and practices, connect people and insights of opposing values and beliefs, seems a lot harder.
It is therefore understandable that the conversation and the policy that is suggested focuses on those areas where success can be captured and reported in short timeframes to fit electoral cycles.
However, the need for public sector, policy and service innovation cannot be ignored if we are to become the prosperous country our Prime Minister envisions.
American innovation consultancy, IDEO, with the Partnership for Public Service, investigated the barriers to public service innovation in the USA, which seem relevant to the Australian situation. (Innovation in Government ).
They make the point that the constituency expects now more than ever that the government will solve problems, especially those wicked problems that arise from financial collapse, terrorist attacks and environmental accidents. They also expect innovative responses to education reform, migration, indigenous policies, health and the way in which government services are delivered.
“Expectations of our government are on the rise at a time when budgets and timelines are shrinking, leaving many of our public servants struggling to deliver results.”
The report maintains that while some departments are utilising innovation tools and methods they are far from building 24/7 innovation:
“Innovation is not simply a one-time project or a new online tool. It is a learned process that requires a shift in thinking, a disciplined approach and strong leadership.”
The report identifies the unique barriers in the public sector, which they list as:
- Many of the problems require interagency collaboration and communication but because of politics, the complexity of government departments and miscommunication, efforts to work collaboratively are disrupted.
- Employees are unlikely to take the risks associated with innovation without permission and most departments don’t have processes and systems which encourage employees to try. There are also few initiatives or resources to help with the implementation of new ideas.
- It’s difficult to capture the immediate value of innovations when they apply to large goals such as community or environmental benefit.
- Government rewards the status quo, those employees who meet expectations, rather than those who create new expectations. Experimentation is considered too risky and isn’t rewarded. Many employees prefer to stay within the safe area, rather than to stick their necks out.
What are the consequences of not overcoming these barriers? How will our community move forward without a public service that can shape, adopt and adapt to change in the wider society?
It is arguably more important for the public sector to embrace innovation to lead the charge in the society than anything else.
While recognising that it is not an easy task, or that one size does not fit all, there is a place where agencies can start.
Here are our eight tips, which we’ve learned from working with Australia’s leading companies who are members of the Hargraves Institute (some of whom are government agencies):
|1||Speak a shared language—make sure you understand the language associated with innovation, improvement and your organisation’s ambitions.|
|2||Make it everyone’s job—allow everyone to contribute ideas in all parts of the organisation. Build it into job profiles and performance reviews. Ensure your management and leadership understand their role in supporting innovators and see the benefits for themselves.|
|3||Make people want it to be their job—give people confidence to contribute through processes and systems that make it easy and attractive to contribute. Provide them with training and tools that help them develop good ideas and manage the risk of implementation.|
|4||Make it easy to connect—connecting people, insights and knowledge is critical to finding great ideas. Make it something that people enjoy doing and organise work so that it can happen quite naturally. Create cross division and agency communities that build the relationships that make collaboration easier. Reward collaboration.|
|5||Challenge your mindset—use a process and tools to help embed a different way of looking at problems, ways to challenge your assumptions, a different way of coming up with solutions and ways to test things out to see if they work. Use the process to manage the risk of trying new ideas. Start with small challenges to hone the skills then apply the tools to more complex issues with more confidence.|
|6||Say thank you and mean it—reward and recognise innovation, innovators and leaders so that employees and managers want to do it again. Capture the value of even the smallest of innovations and reward that. Focus on all types of innovations not just those that are high-tech or unusual.|
|7||Make it easy to contribute—use an ideas management/capture system, include a brainstorm in staff meetings, have innovation days, use innovation champions or catalysts to facilitate ideas and their implementation. Give fast and positive feedback so people want to contribute again.|
|8||Maintain your community—allow people to be externally oriented to get ideas and insights from other industries, other departments, other countries, other perspectives.|
The public service attracts some of our brightest and most committed citizens who have the potential for truly ground breaking innovation in all sorts of ways that will enhance the community experience. It’s vital that agencies overcome the internal barriers so that employees have the confidence, motivation and tools to make it happen.