Building on similar collaboration initiatives to tap the creativity and expertise of staff and discover new approaches to public service work, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on Monday announced the winners of its inaugural Ideas Challenge.
More than 300 staff from across the department and the public service gathered to find out which ideas would win praise as part of the challenge, which called on DFAT staff to submit innovative ideas to transform the department’s capabilities and performance in all aspects of its work.
392 ideas were submitted through an online system and more than 16,000 votes or comments were received from staff around the globe.
There were two prize winners who will be given time and resources to develop a concept and trial their idea.
The first was “no win no fee for raising government revenues”, a proposal for improving taxation revenues in developing countries. This idea could help developing states address the challenge of increasing tax revenue to fund development outcomes.
If it proceeds to pilot, the initiative could see DFAT partnering with private companies to come up with a cost-effective approach to raising revenues for a country in the Indo-Pacific region, based on an arrangement whereby the majority of the private company’s fees would be contingent on the success of raising the country’s tax revenues, and would capped to an upper limit.
The private company would undertake a comprehensive diagnostic of a country’s tax system and administration, followed by a multi-year implementation program in collaboration with the partner country. Depending on the final design, DFAT could help broker the agreement with a partner country and provide the working capital needed to finance the first investigatory phase.
The second idea was a “cloud passport”, which would allow document-free movement between Australia and New Zealand.
Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop said both ideas were considered innovative, challenged the status quo and had the potential to transform the way we do business globally.
“The tax idea in particular went to the heart of the new aid paradigm in harnessing the skills and resources of the private sector and adapting to a changing aid landscape,” she said.
“We have a wealth of talent within DFAT and I am delighted to hear these innovative and creative ideas. I hope this concept takes off across the public sector allowing the best ideas to be trialed, adopted and scaled up.”
Four of the ideas aimed at improving DFAT’s external communications through technological change will proceed to implementation.
There were also a number of other suggestions DFAT will consider further, including in its work on gender equality in the Pacific — both through helping women and girls access affordable feminine hygiene products and increasing awareness and support for victims of domestic violence — as well as engaging with other departments on economic opportunity for indigenous populations and considering how we use behavioural insights to improve the impact of our development assistance.
A judging panel made up of Bishop, Parliamentary Secretary Steven Ciobo, DFAT Secretary Peter Varghese and innovationXchange International Reference Group member Chris Vein.
Varghese said the Ideas Challenge had “helped start a conversation across the department about innovation and about how we can better achieve our objectives.
“I want to see innovation embedded in our culture, and it will be important to ensure the momentum behind this process is not lost,” he said.
The challenge comes as part of Bishop’s push to encourage a more innovation-friendly culture within the department, which has included the creation of InnovationXchange, an initiative “to revolutionise the delivery and effectiveness of Australia’s aid program” launched in March.
“I aim to put innovation at the heart of all we do — my challenge for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is: come up with the biggest, best and brightest new ideas about how we do business across the board — how we operate in all our spheres of influence.”
‘You don’t need lots of money’
DFAT aren’t the first to use a digital collaborative tool to harness the potential of their own employees to come up with new ideas for doing their jobs.
One example, achieved with a small budget, was the ACT’s innovation hub and “hot topic” challenge.
Like many governments trying to obtain more for less, the ACT had to ask itself “how is it going to continue to deliver improved and better services to its community in this brand new digital world, with little resources, next to no extra money and under such changed circumstances?” explained Oakley Kwon, innovation manager in the ACT government’s Innovation and Planning Office, in a talk at the Connected Government Summit in April.
After trying some big structural reforms aimed at encouraging innovation, which “at best could only have a peripheral impact”, it tried a different tack: “empowering and connecting its major resource: its people, so they can work smarter, not harder,” she said.
“On a budget of less than $10,000, with nothing but in-house know-how”, a small but dedicated team put together a modest platform with Microsoft SharePoint that allowed any ACT public servant — from bus drivers and nurses up to department heads — to air their ideas and engage with others’ suggestions in an unmoderated forum.
First piloted in one division of one directorate, this led to a few ideas — including allowing dogs in workplaces, which was implemented in 2013.
In turn this led to the creation of the hot topic challenge to tackle some of the big questions facing the ACT public service, she explained, such as “how are we going to manage information and allow better access to information and standardise business processes so we can do that?”
“Power was handed over entirely to the community of practice — that’s the only way you can do it. They were given free rein to talk to whoever they wanted, whenever, however,” said Kwon.
Despite concerns people could abuse an unmoderated forum or the technology could crash, everything flowed smoothly, with around 16% of public servants engaging with the hot topic challenge and nearly 500 ideas being proposed, many to do with red tape and health and wellbeing programs.
Out of that came a few major proposals, mostly around improving cross-government IT and business systems, such as implementing a whole-of-government solution for electronic records management.
It also helped spark regular online meet-ups between agency heads and their employees that continue today.
Kwon’s advice that those considering how to encourage innovation in their agency should ask themselves: “does the next big thing have to be a technology solution, or should it actually be a people solution first?
“Start with a people solution first and then build your technology solution to cater for that — not the other way around.”
Other states also have long-standing innovation challenges, including Victoria and South Australia, where Change @ SA 90-day projects can get a quick injection of funds to help make agencies work together more efficiently with better outcomes for citizens.
Top photo: DFAT/Nathan Fulton. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and DFAT secretary Peter Varghese present the winners of the DFAT Ideas Challenge — Michael Lynch (left) and Nathan Dal Bon (right).
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