Three things the public service needs for API-driven innovation

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Culture, not technology, is the roadblock to innovation in the public service, according to one “digital disrupter”. She shares her experience with the NSW government on data-driven projects.

The main roadblocks to the Australian government’s new innovation agenda are not technology focused but aspects of the public service culture, says “chief disrupter” Anne-Marie Elias.

Optimistic for real outcomes from the Innovation Statement announced last year by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Elias has enough public service and ministerial advisory experience under her belt to be pragmatic, pointing to three key enablers that will be the “devil in the detail” of whether the innovation strategy can succeed.

She believes a seachange in procurement practices, a willingness to publish flawed data in the open and a widening of the conversation to avoid the “usual stakeholders syndrome” will be what really makes or breaks the success of the federal, or any state, government innovation strategy.

“We prototyped the model in North Sydney through The Collective NSW and scaled it across two-thirds of the state within 12 months.”

In 2014, Elias led an experimental change management program within the New South Wales Department of Family and Community Services. It aimed to take a fresh look at the intractable problems of supporting the state’s most vulnerable families who had often been through generational cycles of support services and low incomes.

“I was trying to bring in innovation and create an environment where public servants would have permission to speak with new stakeholders like chambers of commerce, through a place-based model of relationships,” said Elias, who is due to speak at the upcoming APIdays conference in Melbourne next month. “We prototyped the model in North Sydney through The Collective NSW and scaled it across two-thirds of the state within 12 months.”

The model was deemed a success in creating new relationships with stakeholders, including business and private sector interest that had not previously participated in solving local problems.

When Elias left the project in February 2015, all that remained to do was open a tender process for a body to manage a $150,000 annual grant and continue the consortium model.

“They did an initial information session for possible applicants in July 2015, then a formal expressions of interest round, and then three or four of those applicants were invited to proceed,” she said. “In November, a consultant did some work with the department to document how that would all work, and now they are about to advise the applicants to tender.

“This is how the public service can complicate the most simple of things. It is a $150,000 a year project. I guarantee they have spent more than that preparing the tender process.”

Enabler for innovation #1: procurement policies

Elias points to this as a key example of how bureaucracies can use procurement processes as a way to slow down activity and create inaction.

“This is what public servants do when they don’t want to do anything,” she said. “They just wear you down with process.” She believes new procurement models will be essential to make innovation more than just rhetoric for government departments.

Procurement policy challenges are not just an Australian phenomenon. In the United States, an innovation lab was set up by the White House and the General Services Administration to encourage the use of web APIs by government departments as a driver for new service innovation. (Web APIs are a way for computer systems and devices such as mobile phones to share data using the infrastructure of the web.) One of the first projects started by that unit — known as 18F — was to overhaul the government’s procurement notification and administrative systems so that start-ups and smaller businesses had better opportunities to contribute solutions.

Elias says this barrier can be overcome. “I think that is happening here too: governments being able to procure from start-ups. That is a really important thing. The problem with any big bureaucracy is they go to the same consultants. So they get the same results over and over again,” she said.

Enabler for innovation #2: overcoming fear of open data

Elias says she was “like a lunatic getting data” while with The Collective. Knowing that government data was not enough, she collated NGO, business and social media data, ”anything that gives you a full picture of what is going on”.

While Australia has one of the most advanced open data policy and implementation strategies in the world, any attempt to actually dive in and look for useful datasets brings back few results. Elias credits the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research as a good example, but says more can be done.

“We are so far behind and we are trying to play catch up …”

“We are so far behind and we are trying to play catch up, but we are dealing with a culture in the public sector that is frightened about releasing the data. One agency needs to have the courage to say ‘this is going to be shit, but here it is’,” she said.

Elias hopes the new Digital+ 2016 program being led in NSW by Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation Victor Dominello will be a model in how open data should be released and shared by government departments. She also points to the hiring of Paul Shetler at the federal Office of Digital Transformation as a sign government departments may start “dipping their toe in the water” by releasing more data.

Shetler has previously worked with the UK government’s Ministry of Justice on implementing an API-driven approach which, in part, digitised claim forms to reduced costs and time burdens for citizens in the justice system. He was also part of a movement within the UK public service that saw APIs drive new models of government business. His then-colleagues at the UK’s Revenue and Customs Office, for example, built an API that integrates with accounting software and reduces the burden on businesses to correctly complete onerous tax declarations. It is held up as one of the best examples of government digital service delivery designed in the open.

Enabler for innovation #3: widening the conversation

Elias says one of the key moments of clarity for her was “when I went to my first govhack two years ago and it blew my mind”.

Elias is adamant the public service can learn from the API community where developers and business leads work together to build new projects by integrating data and software services from a broad spectrum of businesses and community groups.

“It is not about the money,” she said. “The public service has gone to the same consultants, asked the same people in the service system, and it hasn’t worked. Innovation comes when completely different people are thrown into a room like a skunkworks thing and you give them 48 hours to solve a problem. Innovation is when you get non-vested interests in the room. More authentic innovation is when you get cross-sector and cross-discipline participation. That’s what you get in a hackathon.”

Elias will be speaking on her experiences disrupting government and the potential for APIs to help drive a new innovation agenda for social change and government effective service delivery at APIdays in Melbourne on March 1-2.

“Government agency staff need to attend events like APIdays and be a part of the community,” organiser Saul Caganoff said. “This is where the innovators are. This is where we talk about how we do agile, how we build user-centric products and services, how we fail in the open and iterate quickly and come back stronger and more focused.”

Globally, the event has often attracted government speakers and attendees keen to pursue best practices in API strategy and implementation. Caganoff hopes Australia’s event will see a similar level of interest from government agencies.