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GovCamp 2013 – Where and how does government innovation happen?


GovCamp 2013 – Where and how does government innovation happen?

At GovCamp Australia 2013 this week, there were two identifiable two groups of people who presented and talked about the topics of inspiring government innovation, empowering people and liberating capability. There were the service designers who spoke about the specifics of design and presented case studies, and the managers, public servants and academics who talked about innovation (in the abstract).

How important is design to innovation? As a designer myself I strongly believe in the utility of design thinking and I wish the methods and techniques I use on a daily basis were part of the standard toolkit for those in government responsible for policy design and service delivery. But I fear that too much emphasis is being put on design when we talk about innovation in government and that there are other disciplines that should be represented.

The other issue is that no one can actually pin down what innovation is. We talk about radical change. We talk about disrupting the status quo. We talk about getting down to root problems. We also downplay what innovation is, citing examples of incremental change that in the grand scheme of things really don’t stand out. Incremental change is the very antithesis of innovation, particularly when you look at the definition, behaviors and skills offered up by people such as Clayton Christiansen and his collaborators in research work such as The Innovator’s DNA.

We have thought leaders having a stab at defining innovation but I don’t think anyone left GovCamp yesterday feeling any more confident about how to innovate back in the workplace.

Applying design thinking principles such as user research (or citizen research), iterative design with lo-fi methods, prototyping with users, and evaluating results in the field is not innovation, though it’s certainly very valuable. I would consider the Australian Public Service adopting design thinking as innovative in itself but design thinking does not equal innovation.

Is there a threshold beyond which if you push you move from mere incremental change to being innovative? Is that a tangible line? If managers adopted the principles outlined by participants as GovCamp, including not micromanaging and giving their staff the freedom and resources to find their own path to a solution, yes, it would allow for innovation but it does not mean that innovation will be forthcoming.

There was talk of tough times, of austerity, of public service cuts, of budget cuts, but I don’t think we have made it apparent what the impetus for change is. Certainly, applying innovative thinking can result in better quality services and programs, and better targeted policy quicker and for less money, but unless the problem is defined and unless we can illustrate the risks and consequences of continuing with traditional policy and program design processes, then there is little reason for managers to let go or for staff to change their ways. And there is certainly not going to be a cry from the public for the APS to be “more innovative”.

Steve Baty of Meld Studios asked us to imagine a future where people live to be 1,000 years old and posed the question, “How do you design for a society of people who are going to live 1,000 years?” It’s an interesting question to ponder, but I seriously doubt anyone went to work the day after GovCamp and thought “What am I going to do differently today, considering the prospect of people living that much longer?”

I, like many people, don’t believe that innovation requires one big drastic change. However, it does need to be game changing. Innovation can happen in a number of small places over time that together improve the efficiency of one part of one department or agency that in turn goes some way towards improving the lives of some or all Australians. Does innovation have to be sexy? Does the public need to acknowledge it as such? Does it have to win awards? No.

While I don’t have the answers, there is at least one area where the need for innovation is clear and obvious, and that is in addressing wicked problems, those complex, shifiting, social problems that traditional tools and approaches are overwhelmed by or fail to make any significant headway with. Problems where you have no choice but to throw out the playbook. They are those challenges that require taking on a bit (or a great deal) of risk, experimenting, and being comfortable with not getting it right the first time or being able to predict the outcome. They’re the ones often put in the too-hard basket. This is where innovative thinking and action excels and can have a significant positive impact on the community and economy of our nation.

[quote width=”80%”]there is at least one area where the need for innovation is clear and obvious, and that is in addressing wicked problems[/quote]

In these instances it is a tangible line; in fact it’s a wall. Don’t shy away when you hit these boundaries. Acknowledge it for what it is and think about whether it’s worthwhile solving even if you have absolutely no idea where to begin.

One of the comments from the leadership panel at GovCamp Australia 2013 was that public sector innovation is constrained by our obsession with fixed budgets and finite resources. Apart from the fact that many ICT projects in government have gone far overbudget and still failed to deliver, the truth is that a small box is the perfect place innovation to occur. If I had all the time and money in the world I would never get anything done. Forget the idea of sandpits and skunkworks; when you’re given not enough time and not enough money think of it as an opportunity to innovate. Would you insist on trying to bake a cake if you didn’t have any flour?

Not everyone is interested in rising to the challenge of innovation. If the APS was cut in half today then out of necessity you would see a lot of innovation happening overnight but also a lot of people throwing the hands in the air. As John Sheridan, Australian Government CTO at AGIMO, said “If you have people who don’t work well within this open framework then help move them on.” This doesn’t mean that every government department now needs an innovation unit that centralises all innovation (there’s an almost certain way to kill innovation – put it somewhere and make someone responsible for it). For example, DesignGov is great as a pilot project, but it is surely not sustainable as the central agency for all Australian Government innovation.

But what about the rules? What about the fact we work with taxpayer money? What about the fact we’re in the public eye? And again, the rules? Again, John encouraged us to revisit what the rules actually are and pointed out that the status quo – the way things have always been done – does not equate to rules. The box the public sector innovators have to play in is bigger than you think. While managers are being trained and encouraged to step back, to clear obstacles, to communicate intent rather than solutions … public servants also need to push back up to show that they’re ready and willing to take on the challenge.

While consciously trying to avoid mentioning design in association with innovation, I would like to close by illustrating how persuasive insight into human attitude and behaviours can be when looking at novel approaches to problems. It’s a good start to changing how you work if you can demonstrate deficiencies in current outcomes and new ideas that will have a positive impact for real people, not just “the public.” Getting out and talking to people and doing some lo-fi co-design is fast, cheap and low risk, and could open the way for being permitted to do something a little unconventional that could result in ideas and solutions you can’t even imagine within the confines of the current processes, hierarchy and expectations.

  • GovCamp Australia 2013 - Inspiring innovation —
    Posted at 08:44h, 08 June Reply

    […] For more thoughts on GovCamp Australia 2013 and innovation in government and the Australian Public Service, see my blog post over on acidlabs GovCamp 2013 — Where and how does government innovation happen? […]

  • Alex Roberts
    Posted at 15:28h, 10 June Reply

    Nathanael – some good questions from the day. I thought I’d throw in a couple of thoughts.

    Regarding the why of the innovation – I think the why is spelled out in the APS Innovation Action Plan and the Empowering Change report. E.g. policy challenges, changing expectations, the need for the government to provide a competitive framework for industry, fiscal pressures, changes in public sector management, and because if the public service wants to attract high performing people then it will need to allow them room for innovation. (The best discussion of the why, for me personally, is the article by Jason Potts “The innovation deficit in public services” which talks about the red queen syndrome.) The specifics of that why though will always be determined by the business needs/strategy needs of the agency.

    For a day like GovCamp, I think it is an interesting question of whether you need to state these things up front each time. I think the reasons to innovate are much stronger than the reasons not to, so not sure it adds much – but appreciate that others might not share that view. On the matter of the public issuing a cry for more innovation – I would suggest that the changing expectations of the public about how the public service should interact with them is that cry, even if they don’t (and shouldn’t be expected to) articulate it like that.

    On the question of the ‘what’ is innovation – I have found from multiple lengthy discussions that that is a question that is never answered satisfactorily. One person’s innovation is another person’s incremental change is another person’s ‘is that all?’ It depends a lot on the context and the people involved. If you try and take a wider system-level approach, then far fewer things will be truly innovative, but because you are working in a dynamic system, it is very hard to discretely identify the boundaries of any one innovation. Personally I’d go with a rule of thumb – if it is hard to introduce, it’s uncomfortable at first and its new, then it’s probably an innovation.

    In terms of supporting innovation – while I agree you can’t give it as a responsibility to someone and leave it at that, I do think that organisations need to provide support for it, and often that might look like a team that can provide advice, guidance, links and connections, and insight, just as organisations do for other activities like procurement, HR, project management, marketing, etc. No organisation is likely to become good at something unless it helps build up competence. (On a professional front, I would hope that DesignGov is not seen as being intended as or undertaking the role of central agency for innovation – more as a focal point for facilitating innovation at a cross-agency level around specific projects).

    On the issue of how design and innovation fit together – one of the things I liked about the day was hearing from design practitioners and how they used it to drive innovation. I agree it is not the sole component of successful innovation, but as someone who has been working on public sector innovation for some time, I have found innovation is a difficult thing for people to get a handle on. I suspect that design is a good way to introduce it and to provide a framework from which to hang other approaches, concepts and tools (such as behavioural economics, horizon scanning, open innovation, etc). What are your thoughts on that – that design is good ‘opener’ to innovation, upon which you can build a more sophisticated approach?

    Anyway, sorry for the long comment, and thanks again for the interesting post.

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