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How to innovate like a start-up – lessons for the public sector

A new model of public-sector problem solving, called “open innovation” is helping find quick solutions to difficult community issues.

Open innovation seeks to bring together public sector agencies and start-ups to work together to co-create solutions to problems that previously might’ve been consigned to the ‘too hard’ basket.

Using Open Innovation, agencies typically refine the problem and these host a two-day event where the problem is workshopped and innovators pitch their proposed solutions. This is followed by a 12 week incubation process where prototypes are developed and a proof of concept is tested. The sponsoring agency then acquires the solution if it wants to proceed.

In Queensland, PwC and the Department of Science, Information Technology and Innovation (DSITI) have been running an innovation hub using open innovation to look at issues ranging from productivity in the beef industry to indigenous health.

An early success has been an app called ‘Gruntify’ which was initially aimed at helping local government identify and prioritise graffiti removal. That app has now been developed to the point where government staff and members of the public can submit data (including a photo and location coordinates) about issues with any government-owned asset.

So whether it’s grass that needs mowing on a median strip to a broken footy post at a local park, information is shared with crews in the field to get to the problem sooner, and at less cost than conventional asset-management processes. The second round of open innovation in Queensland is now in its incubation phase having brought together the developer community, start-ups, entrepreneurs and government together to examine problems ranging from road safety to emergency management.

In Sydney, Transport for New South Wales used open innovation to get five real-time public transport apps to market in less than half the time it takes to run a traditional tender process, and at one-tenth of the cost. The next iteration of this project is now underway developing solutions to help people with disabilities use public transport more independently.

In Sydney’s West, open innovation was used to solve some of the problems facing people who live, work and study in the region. In conjunction with the University of Western Sydney, participants came up with solutions ranging from teleworking hubs to eliminate long commutes, to an online talent platform to address the skills shortage in the health sector.

A key learning from the both the Sydney and Queensland projects is to make public sector opportunities relevant for the start-up and developer community, and expertise in helping small businesses rapidly achieve scale – to the point where they can service of client of the magnitude of State, Federal and even local governments.

The project has also revealed where the current system can stymie innovation and problem solving.

In Queensland, DSITI adjusted its procurement practices to enable the open innovation process to meet probity requirements.

On the start-up side, entrepreneurs need to learn to work within the restrictions and requirements of large government departments.

The open innovation model is consistent with the start up approach the new Digital Transformation Office is taking, where by the best of public and private sector thinking can be brought together to relieve traditional pain points for citizens seeking to access government services.

The early evidence from the pilots is open Innovation approach enables the public sector to get world-class solutions to market on a previously impossible timeline. These solutions are able to be delivered at a fraction of the cost that it would take to run even the leanest of government tender processes.

And businesses, particularly smaller businesses, win because they get access to a market that in the past would have been impossible for them to crack

Author Bio

Tom Burton

Tom Burton is publisher of The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He has served in various public administration roles, specialising in the media and communications sector. He was a Walkley Award-winning journalist and executive editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He worked as Canberra bureau chief for the Australian Financial Review and as managing editor of smh.com.au. He most recently worked at the Australian Communications and Media Authority.