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Advancing Public Sector Innovation

2009 September 7
by Patricia Kelly

Patricia Kelly is a Deputy Secretary at the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research and  Chair of the Steering Committee overseeing the Public Sector Innovation Management Advisory Committee Project.

One of the issues that the Gov 2.0 Taskforce is looking at is how to “build a culture of online innovation within Government”. However, online innovation is only one component (albeit at important one) of the “innovation system” within the public sector. There is innovation in policy making, in program management, and in service delivery. There can be innovation in how the public sector interacts with citizens, stakeholders and clients outside of the digital realm. There can be innovation in how public problems are thought about and in how the public sector works with others to solve them. It may involve innovation at the organisational level. Many of these innovations overlay the Gov 2.0 sphere but the innovation system is broader than that.

The Review of the National Innovation System Venturous Australia: building strength in innovation identified public sector innovation as an area to be explored with significant potential for gains. Out of this, the Management Advisory Committee of the Australian Public Service is looking at the questions of how innovation in the public sector can be fostered and embedded in the culture. The Management Advisory Committee is a forum of Secretaries and Agency Heads that advises the Government on matters relating to the management of the APS. This project is liaising closely with the Gov 2.0 Taskforce, and will be reporting in a similar timeframe.

We have released a discussion paper setting out some of the main outstanding questions about how innovation in the public sector can be carried out more broadly. The discussion paper, and the associated call for submissions, can be found here. We would be grateful for any submissions entered by close of business on Friday 11 September – this is a complex issue and we are keen to get a number of different perspectives to inform the report.

The project team is also looking to form a loose network of people interested in these issues of the practice of innovation in the public sector. If you are keen to be involved, please email noting your interest.

Let me finish this post with a question – if you had just one suggestion for the Management Advisory Committee on how innovation could be embedded in the culture of the APS, what would it be?

16 Responses
  1. 2009 September 7

    Patricia, thank you for the post. An innovative public sector in this country is critical and I’m encouraged by your participation.

    I’ve written several times on this issue at my blog in recent times:

    I have another talk that touches on this subject to deliver this coming Wednesday at the IBM Smarter Workforce – Government Leadership Forum in Canberra.

    One issue continues to emerge, both in the conversations I have today and from the time I was in the public sector in three agencies, including a former incarnation of the one you now help manage. That issue is, to put it bluntly, fear.

    In many (but demonstrably not all, there is much good and innovative work in the APS) agencies, public servants fear to try innovative things for a number of reasons:

    - ingrained culture that resists trying new things and persists with the status quo – I’ve heard it called “Not the way we do things around here syndrome”
    - lack of understanding – often it’s not well understood what can be tried and under what circumstances
    - concern that management, particularly SES and Ministers and especially Senate Estimates will take a dim view of agencies trying things

    What these cause is a state of inertia, and of all things, that is something that will kill innovation. Stone, cold, dead.

    All this is interesting in light of the drive coming from the APSC and the Ministry, including the Prime Minister (I assume his speech last week was one of the catalysing influences on this post), who are strongly encouraging an innovative, forward thinking and outward looking public sector. Perhaps these influences from our leadership are both somewhat at odds with the culture in the APS that sees innovation as, well, risky and not being well communicated to the public sector as a whole.

    As an example, I have more than one and as an outsider, been the communicator of new leadership and forward thinking initiatives from the APSC to agencies I have worked with. Staff there have, for one reason or another (often because they are simply too busy getting on with things) been oblivious to messages from senior leadership (even staff who are already in the SES). I think it’s high time these pro-innovation messages and the encouragement and leadership that needs to come with them, were more actively communicated to staff across the APS and the changes in culture that need to accompany them were more actively encouraged.

    There’s no question that this will be a complex and challenging task, but here’s an idea I’d like to leave you with; appoint senior people (around the EL2 level) in every agency to be catalysts for innovation – give them some budget and explicit senior management support to just try things such as short projects that might offer promise, and to act as agents for change around innovation. Give them direct access to Secretaries and Deputy Secretaries and support their work. This has been especially successful, for example, at AMP which is now a leading innovator in Australian business. AMP’s Catalyst for Magic (her official title), Annelie Killian, has been responsible for much change in their business and a strong cultural shift towards innovative thinking and doing. I’m not certain you could get away with appointing a Catalyst for Magic in some agencies, but in this type of work, titles can be important.

    I’d love the opportunity to speak with you more on this subject and perhaps do some catalysing myself!

  2. 2009 September 7
    Neil Henderson permalink

    Stephen, I agree
    Two items of feedback
    1) Innovation is stifled I agree, far too often. We need to let innovators create capability separately from the business of operating agencies or developing policy/legislation. Though they do need to remain connected so that reuse is encapsulated in innovative designs. Have a look at the car world – how did the creator of the Mini get the feedom to design without fear?
    2) Yes, let’s create cells of innovation in each agency – would recommend that these cells have the ability to fund and initiate ‘wild hare’ programs and projects.
    3) We have the ability to innovate in the APS – let’s harness what we have and be the best we can be.

    • 2009 September 7

      So, I think we agree violently!

      There’s lots of amazing thinking (and some activity) in the APS. Let’s make it easy and not as scary for the innovators now. Let’s make fostering innovation “the way we do things around here”.

    • 2009 September 7
      Mike Nelson permalink

      This is a great idea but we need to make sure cells do not become silos. It is essential that any cells of innovation do not operate in isolation. This avoids duplication of effort, avoids reinventing the wheel and prevents one agency developing “stuff” that is totally incompatible with another agency’s “stuff”. Scientific agencies like CSIRO, GeoScience and AIMS should be quite good at open collaboration already because that is how science works, but the policy/legislation agencies are probably not! Cross fertilisation should be seen a good thing instead of being seen as somebody else stepping on your turf.

      • 2009 September 7

        If you look at the AMP model, Annelie Killian is responsible across AMP for fostering innovation. She doesn’t so much run an innovation cell as go about (excuse the light-heartedness) sprinkling innovation dust throughout AMP wherever and whenever she can.

        She also has carriage of running AMPlify, a TED-like conference launched by AMP this year to introduce big thinking around solving wicked problems.

        It’s this model I’d like to see tried and tested in a few APS agencies.

      • 2009 September 7

        Mike, it’s very likely in the initial stages of innovation in government that there are going to be isolated groups of activity and development resulting in the sorts of incompatibilities you mention.

        I don’t think we can prevent that and I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. Some might regard it as inefficient and requiring rework to achieve some consolidated solution but I don’t believe you can create a controlled environment for innovation.

        Multiple approaches to a seemingly common problem will mean that the chosen solution has been proven and other approaches shown to be sub-optimal. It may also show that a common problem may not actually be that common.

        We should allow innovation to occur wherever and however innovators choose and facilitate the natural selection process that brings the outputs of such innovation together and where appropriate select one idea to become the new process, new framework, new application … and let the other ones die. Evolution.

        • 2009 September 7

          Hear, hear Nat,

          Let the innovators innovate and change and innovation will happen.

          Couldn’t agree more :)



      • 2009 September 11

        I would agree with the sentiments above. Redundancy is not the problem here; a lack of innovation is. It would be great to provide mechanisms for exchange of ideas and solutions, but I would strongly advise against even participation.

        There is a lot to be said for the “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach to solving complex problems. Given the obstacles innovators have to overcome anyway, adding more in the name of “innovation efficiency” is counter-productive.

  3. 2009 September 7

    Hi Patricia,

    I’ve already suggested a couple of different ideas for encouraging innovation within the PS over at the gov2au ideascale, however it really does come down to cultural change.

    Find the people who are itching for change, who have the ideas, give them enough rope, and if they fail (and this is the important part) Don’t Hang Them.

    Put the infrastructure in place the encourages the development of new lines of thinking. Free form communication via a Govt Social Network, an open forge for Government Software and documentation, hell encourage face to face gatherings, run internal Barcamps and get not only the twitterati involved but the decision makers, the Department Heads and Ministers involved.

  4. 2009 September 7
    Dan permalink

    Completely agree with all the above, but want to stress one point in particular that Stephen made.. (emphasis mine)

    appoint senior people (around the EL2 level) in every agency to be catalysts for innovation – give them some budget and explicit senior management support to just try things

    I have been closely involved with trying to build an innovation program in my organisation (a large utility) and the single biggest failing is when it comes to implementation.

    Getting people to *think* about innovation is one thing, but it is heartbreaking to see an individual finally build up the the courage to make a suggestion or try something new, only to have all their avenues for support be closed off..

    Both ends of the candle need to be lit.. get people fired up to innovate, but at the same time, get the leadership and the funds sorted out to allow all those ideas the chance to become reality..

    The other big barrier is often an overly retrictive ICT policy (ie technical restrictions on software/protocols etc), but getting the leadership issue solved can often help to overcome that if it is necessary..

    Exciting times!

  5. 2009 September 8

    In my experience the best way to promote innovation is to remove barriers and implement flexible support structures, rather than advocate particular frameworks or approaches.

    Innovation grows in areas of opportunity and is stifled by too much structure.

    A risk in government, as in the corporate world, is to attempt to create an ‘innovation framework’ – which begins by encouraging innovation within a particular model or approach and eventually because a hidebound bureaucracy which inhibits innovation it doesn’t recognise as within ‘acceptable parameters’.

    Provide support, authority, resourcing and some general goals or problems, then let people evolve the frameworks that best deliver the outcomes.

    Don’t tie peoples’ arms behind their backs with processes and procedures – and give them a honeymoon period to get a solution right before they sort out the governance details government requires.

  6. 2009 September 11

    Great post Patricia.

    I think that Stephen and Craig are the best people to talk on the subject. I am just a rebel innovator and they have better understanding of the PAS dynamic.

    As has been suggested, I think that its important that discussions start to move across to the ideascale forum which already contains a wealth of practical suggestions for fostering web innovation in the APS

    While I am understanding of the need for discussion, policy creation, and all the good work that you folks are doing, there is a strong mood to get some real projects underway

    I think that these, and a dedication to their documentation, will go a long way to starting to understand the opportunities, impediments, etc.

  7. 2009 September 15
    simonfj permalink

    Hi Patricia, (you’re really going to have to register on this blog and do an entry youself before you’ll convince us that you’re serious)

    I had a good read through your paper. Girl, there’s some work to get through.

    I suppose the easiest way would be to take your 8 questions, put it up on a blog (or somesuch) on the innovation (very corporate) site and do like Nic and co have done here, and tell the people at govdex that it’s OK to talk at your domain. I don’t suppose any of your management committee would like to talk online?

    I’ve never seen a decent definition of Innovation, and argue with the guys looking after the Wikipedia page. So if you’ll accept mine; that its “a measure of the way societies respond to a new discovery or technology” and so divisions, like sectors and industries, have to be lumped together, then maybe we could talk a bit constructively. Innovation always seems to come about between traditional divisions, with the ones of education and government being the place where all the action happens (or not).

    I think combining the NBN development approach with Socialinclusion is probably the best way to go. It offers so much promise for creatives in media who have to go (have gone) overseas at present. Australia may not grow many philosophers but it’s a sea of great technical talent; most of which has been frustrated by a foreigner putting shareholders before the National good. This really starts by having a conversations rather than trading reports. And nothing happens before a common ID for all citizens is in place.

    Most of the other stuff is primarily cultural, which will take leadership (in the management committee, in your case) to change. The only way i can put this suggestion (diplomatically) is; there are very few creative industries in Canberra and they need encouragement.

    I did suggest to Pia, who’ll be coming in, with Kate Lundy, to see the Minister and present a report soon that it would be great to run a half day workshop with the ICT committee, and link together the communities in Brisbane, Mel, Woollongong and Canberra, like Pia did during the last publicsphere. A lot of this has to do about using media in different ways, so the social dynamics can change. I think running distributed conferences – streaming and recording – will help the old folks change their spots.

    But bring Terry Cutler in to be MC. Some old folks shouldn’t change their spots.

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