Michele Bruniges and David Fredericks on fostering innovation in the APS


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The coronavirus pandemic has required many public servants to adapt to new roles and tackle challenges outside of their field, according to Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources secretary David Fredericks.

Speaking on the latest episode of Work with Purpose alongside Dr Michele Bruniges, secretary of the Department of Education, Skills and Employment, Fredericks noted that newfound ability to pivot must be maintained.

“There’s that old saying that pressure makes diamonds. I think necessity made for innovation. And I genuinely believe that,” he said.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the fact that within the space of a couple of weeks, there was a group of public servants in my department whose career was essentially around public policy, policy experts. And within two weeks they had pivoted so that they were driving the relationships with the private sector and dealing with the private sector.

“So that sort of personal innovation has been a real key to the success of the public sector over the last three months. So do I need to accelerate that? No, what I need to do is hang on to it and hang on to the capacity for public servants to be able to pivot when needed because that is now a precious commodity that we have.”

Maintaining the momentum after COVID

Preserving the drive to think in new ways across the Australian Public Service could be achieved through a cycle of collaboration and innovation, Fredericks noted, which would involve learning from what other people have been doing and utilising it.

“I have a greater capacity to innovate because I collaborate. But then when I innovate that gives me a greater capacity to then collaborate, because I have more to offer. And so there is a virtuous circle,” he said.

Bruniges argued that encouraging staff to be creative sustainably and without overworking themselves could also keep the momentum going into the future.

“I think it’s important that we don’t lose what we’ve created in authorising environments … The personal sense of fear of failure for some staff can be really high,” she said.

“They shouldn’t ever feel professionally isolated or personally isolated, [they should] feel as though they’ve got the licence to innovate and come up with creative solutions in a way that is not in any form of a threat or risk aversion way.”

On giving the current and future workforce the skills to adapt to a post-pandemic environment, Bruniges said the APS has been increasingly valuing innovative skills such as scenario-building, which required staff to think about the impacts of a particular policy setting while considering a range of perspectives.

Diversity was also named as a key strength when attempting to thinking outside of the box.

“So I actually strongly believe in many different views coming together,” Bruniges said.

“If I look at some of the models that David’s using over in Industry, and I think about vocational education training, we will gain a greater strength through our collaboration in terms of our two areas of responsibilities than if I stay and pedal in my own patch and David pedals in his.”

The importance of maintaining relationships

In dealing with future challenges, public servants must have the capacity to engage empathetically, proactively, and open-mindedly with their colleagues in the public sector and their counterparts in the private sector, Fredericks noted. He said that departments should be looking to equip their staff with those skills.

“Certainly one of the learnings I’ve found since I came to my department is how difficult that exercise can be and how we have responsibility to equip our staff to do it. And if we get it right, the outcomes for the country are outstanding because you do then get those productive outcomes of high quality, public, private engagement,” he said.

Innovation has been “the hallmark of the relationship between government and industry” during the coronavirus pandemic, Fredericks said, noting that he was extremely proud of how the individuals within his department formed relationships with industry across a range of issues.

“My department went out of its way to set up a weekly forum with all of the representatives of the major sectors, very transparent, very open, very honest sharing of understanding, sharing of intelligence about the real world impacts of the crisis on their businesses. And it became a crucial import into government decision making,” he said.

“So you can only get that crucial import if you have a relationship of trust and if you have a relationship of openness between institutions, but again, more importantly between people.”

He said those relationships have been “precious” and should be maintained long after the pandemic.

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