THE PIA REVIEW: PIA ANDREWS This is a Public Sector Pia Review — a series on better public sectors.
Over the past decade, I have been involved in several efforts trying to make public sectors better. I’ve observed a lot of effort is put into tweaking traditional models of working which usually creates the same old results. If we want to change outcomes, we need to consider new ways of working, not just what needs to be done. Public sectors will continue to operate under increasing budgetary and resource constraints whilst the needs of the communities we serve continues to grow, creating an exponentially growing needs gap. The only way to meet this gap is to learn how to scale impact, and innovation and transformation can help do just that.
Unfortunately, innovation and transformation have become buzzwords without meaning for many people, but if we can genuinely differentiate them, they are powerful enablers.
Innovation is how you work, particularly in embedding a culture of empowered experimentation and creativity as part of your business as usual workload. The more you support innovation in your teams, the better the productivity and impact of those teams, the more they can self-direct ways to improve things, and the better the impact. So those who say they can’t afford to innovate are missing the opportunity to get the benefits of innovation within existing budgets.
Transformation is systemic change or evolution towards a fundamentally different pattern, outcome or operating model, rather than just iterating away from the most highly prioritised pain points. Public sector transformation could be about reimagining the public sector to be fit for purpose in the 21st century. Many of our structures, processes, and operations are rooted in decades or centuries old assumptions and practices, and change efforts to date have largely been about better, faster, cheaper. But there are significant systemic barriers to our ability to evolve and rapidly respond to change which makes it very hard to stay ahead of rapidly changing community and economy needs. I believe we need to transform our public sectors to be resilient and responsive to change in real time, including greater engagement and partnership with communities, but that article another day.
With life getting faster and exponentially more complicated, we need to take a whole of system view if we are to improve ‘the system’ for people. People sometimes balk when I say this, thinking it too hard, too big or too embedded. But we made this, we can remake it, and if it isn’t working for us all, then we need to adapt, like we always have.
So, changing how we do things (innovation) becomes the capability and capacity needed to scale impact through daily efforts such as more agile, experimental, evidence based, creative and collaborative approach to the design, delivery and continuous improvement of stuff, be it policy, legislation or services.
And changing the system around us (transformation) becomes the focus and vision for scaling impact through creating the right policy levers, futures & program planning and systemic structural change to drive better and naturally motivated societal outcomes. Innovation and transformation are both complementary and mutually dependent.
How to scale innovation and transformation
I’ll focus the rest of this article on the question of scaling. I wrote this in the context of scaling innovation and transformation in government, but it applies to any large system and it is worth noting that empowering your people is the greatest way to scale anything.
I’ll firstly say that openness is key to scaling anything. It is how we can influence the system and inspire and enable people to individually engage with and take responsibility for better outcomes and innovate at a grassroots level. It is how we ensure our work is evidence based, better informed and better tested, through public peer review. Being open not only influences the entire public service, but the rest of the economy and society. It is how we build trust, improve collaboration, send indicators to vendors and engage with research and academia. Working openly, including opening our research and code, being public about projects that would benefit from collaboration, and sharing most of what we do (because most of the work of the public service is not secretive by any stretch). Working openly is one of the greatest tools to scale the impact of our work. Openness is also the best way to ensure both a better supply of as well as a better demand for what is demonstrably ‘good’.
A quick side note to those who argue that transparency isn’t an answer because all people don’t have to tools to understand data/information/etc to hold others accountable: it doesn’t mean you don’t do transparency at all. There will always be groups or people naturally motivated to hold you to account, whether it is your competitors, clients, the media, citizens or even your own staff. Transparency is partly about accountability and partly about reinforcing a natural motivation to do the right thing.
Scaling innovation — some ideas
- Create some play time — I often hear quite senior public servants bemoan the lack of new funding to innovate. Everyone in government feels under pressure to use 100% of their resources all the time. But the backlog of work is exponentially growing, and whether you use 100% or 90%, your impact is still continually dropping proportionate to the problem space you are trying to address. I have always taken the apparently novel approach of trying to balance fast delivery with long term delivery, creating some time and support for staff to explore what is possible. This is critical if you want a hope of addressing your growing problem space, as it is impossible with a 100% workload. You can get your whole team innovating by ensuring at least a little time is protected to innovate, by instilling a team culture that supports and recognises innovation, and by creating a carefully balanced program of work that protects the team from unnecessary busy work. I am always delighted and impressed by the ideas and constructive creativity of highly empowered teams, but it takes support and effort by senior leadership for any team to become and sustain such a culture.
- The necessity of neutral, safe, well resourced and collaborative sandpits is critical for agencies to quickly test and experiment outside the limitations of their agencies (technical, structural, political, functional and procurement). Such places should be engaged with the sectors around them and work openly to rapidly share insights and toolkits. Neutral spaces that take a systems view also start to normalise a systems view across agencies in their other work, which has huge ramifications for transformation as well as innovation.
- Seeking and sharing — sharing knowledge, reusable systems/code, research, infrastructure and basically making it easier for people to build on the shoulders of each other rather than every single team starting from scratch every single time. We already have some communities of practice but we need to prioritise sharing things people can actually use and apply in their work. We also need to extend this approach across sectors to raise all boats. Imagine if there was a broad commons across all society to share and benefit from each others efforts. We’ve seen the success and benefits of Open Source Software, of Wikipedia, and yet we keep building sector or organisational silos for things that could be public assets for public good.
- Require user research in budget bids — this would require agencies to do user research before bidding for money, which would create an incentive to build things people actually need which would drive both a user centred approach to programs and would also drive innovation as necessary to shift from current practices Treasury would require user research experts and a user research hub to contrast and compare over time.
- Staff mobility — people should be supported to move around departments and business units to get different experiences and to share and learn. Not everyone will want to, but when people stay in the same job for 20 years, it can be harder to engage in new thinking. Exchange programs are good but again, if the outcomes and lessons are not broadly shared, then they are linear in impact (individuals) rather than scalable (beyond the individuals).
- Support operational leadership — not everyone wants to be a leader, disruptor, maker, innovator or intrapreneur. We need to have a program to support such people in the context of operational leadership that isn’t reliant upon their managers putting them forward or approving. Even just recognising leadership as something that doesn’t happen exclusively in senior management would be a huge cultural shift. Many managers will naturally want to keep great people to themselves which can become stifling and eventually we lose them. When people can work on meaningful great stuff, they stay in the public service. When public servants can share their expertise publicly it also scales impact by growing public trust and collaboration..
- A public ‘Innovation Hub’ — if there was a simple public platform for people to register projects that they want to collaborate on, from any sector, we could stimulate and support innovation across the public sector (things for which collaboration could help would be surfaced, publicly visible, and inviting of others to engage in) so it would support and encourage innovation across government, but also provides a good pipeline for investment as well as a way to stimulate and support real collaboration across sectors, which is substantially lacking at the moment.
- Emerging tech and big vision guidance — we need a team, I suggest cross agency and cross sector, of operational people who keep their fingers on the pulse of technology to create ongoing guidance for Australia on emerging technologies, trends and ideas that anyone can draw from. For government, this would help agencies engage constructively with new opportunities rather than no one ever having time or motivation until emerging technologies come crashing down as urgent change programs. This could be captured on a constantly updating toolkit with distributed authorship to keep it real.
Scaling transformation — some ideas
- Exploring futures — what sort of society, or quality of life do we want? If we don’t explore this, then how do we know what we need to change towards? Too often we are reacting to changes that have already happened, but the best way to predict the future is to create it (paraphrased with apologies to Alan Kay). Exploring what “good” could look like, indeed what “bad” could look like gives us some future states to work towards and mitigate against. It is the unique and special role of public sectors to understand and respond to the changing needs of the people we serve, so why not explore and co-design better futures?
- Shared vision — right now in many countries every organisation and to a lesser degree, many sectors, are diverging on their purpose and efforts because there is no shared vision to converge on. We have myriad strategies, papers, guidance, but no overarching vision. If there were an overarching vision for Australia that was co-developed with all sectors and the community, one that looks at what sort of society we want into the future and what role different entities have in achieving that ends, then we would have the possibility of natural convergence on effort and strategy. Obviously when you have a cohesive vision, then you can align all your organisational and other strategies to that vision, so our (government) guidance and practices would need to align over time.
- Human measures of success — If we changed how we measured success to be not just economic but aligned to human outcomes (like quality of life) we would see a natural but significant transformation in culture, prioritisation, behaviours, incentives and approaches across government, which would dramatically scale the positive impact of public programs and policy for people.
- Funding “Digital Public Infrastructure” — technology is currently funded as projects with start and end dates, and almost all tech projects across government are bespoke to particular agency requirements or motivations, so we build loads of tech but very little infrastructure that others can rely upon. If we took all the models we have for funding other forms of public infrastructure (roads, health, education) and saw some types of digital infrastructure as public infrastructure (like digital legislation, service registers, high integrity identity), perhaps they could be built and funded in ways that are more beneficial to the entire economy and society.
- Agile budgeting — we need to fund small experiments that inform business cases, rather than starting with big business cases. Ideally we need to not have multi 100 million dollar projects at all because technology projects simply don’t cost that anymore, and anyone saying otherwise is trying to sell you something If we collectively took an agile budgeting process, it would create a systemic impact on motivations, on design and development, or implementation, on procurement, on myriad things. It would also put more responsibility on agencies for the outcomes of their work in short, sharp cycles, and would create the possibility of pivoting early to avoid throwing bad money after good (as it were). This is key, as no transformative project truly survives the current budgeting model.
- Gov as a platform/API/enabler (closely related to DPI above) — obviously making all government data, content, business rules (inc but not just legislation) and transactional systems available as APIs for building upon across the economy is key. This is how we scale transformation across the public sector because agencies are naturally motivated to deliver what they need to cheaper, faster and better, so when there are genuinely useful reusable components, agencies will reuse them. Agencies are now more naturally motivated to take an API driven modular architecture which creates the bedrock for government as an API. Digital legislation (which is necessary for service delivery to be integrated across agency boundaries) would also create huge transformation in regulatory and compliance transformation, as well as for government automation and AI.
- Exchange programs across sectors — to share knowledge but all done openly so as to not create perverse incentives or commercial capture. We need to also consider the fact that large companies can often afford to jump through hoops and provide spare capacity, but small to medium sized companies or non-profits cannot, so we’d need a pool for funding exchange programs with experts in the large proportion of industry.
- All of system service delivery evidence base — what you measure drives how you behave. Agencies are motivated to do only what they need to within their mandates and have very few all of system motivations. If we have an all of government anonymised evidence base of user research, service analytics and other service delivery indicators, it would create an accountability to all of system which would drive all of system behaviours. In New Zealand we already have the IDI (an awesome statistical evidence base) but what other evidence do we need? Shared user research, deidentified service analytics, reporting from major projects, etc. And how do we make that evidence more publicly transparent (where possible) and available beyond the walls of government to be used by other sectors? More broadly, having an all of government evidence base beyond services would help ensure a greater evidence based approach to investment, strategic planning and behaviours.
So there are some ideas to consider, and I hope you have found this useful. I encourage all public servants to consider how they innovate and transform every day.