Martin Bowles: we're changing the culture at Health

By Stephen Easton

July 8, 2015

Public sector leaders need to create a “permission culture” that encourages brainstorming and information sharing, be open to new ideas from staff and stakeholders, and have the courage to pursue them, according to Department of Health secretary Martin Bowles.

Bowles opened yesterday’s Innovation Month Summit in Canberra, which focused on the theme of “cross-pollination” and featured a range of speakers who espoused similar views.

It began with a creative addition to the usual acknowledgement of the land’s original custodians. The summit’s host, Therapeutic Goods Administration branch head Bill Turner, noted that innovation and ingenuity are key traits of Australia’s indigenous people, which allowed them to thrive for tens of millennia in some fairly inhospitable environments.

Bowles noted that creating space for public servants to think outside the square and throw ideas around was the first step to mainstreaming innovative ideas.

There will plenty more of those opportunities during the rest of Innovation Month, which kicked off with GovHack over the weekend and runs till the end of July, but Bowles was also talking about leaders creating that space through the rest of the year.

The Health mandarin told the audience that cross-pollination between different departments and organisations outside the federal bureaucracy was vital. “If we start to share, who knows what we can actually achieve,” he said, moving to some of his own recent challenges.

“In Health, what I’ve been trying to do is to lift us from a very tactical thinking around programs to a department that actually thinks strategically about our health system across the country,” said Bowles. “We need to try different things. We need to think differently. We need to learn from our mistakes, because we’ve made a lot of them.”

Bowles firmly stated that he did not want “a department that crucifies people when they make mistakes” but one that listened to views from staff and stakeholders, whether positive or negative, and made use of new technologies, particularly in the area of big data analytics.

“We should not be constrained in our thinking — and I think we have been largely constrained on a lot of fronts,” said the secretary, who briefly referred to the very difficult challenge of supporting the government through its Medicare co-payment crisis. But, he said, the rapid policy change also allowed Health to “push the boundaries and get some real change-thinking around Medicare and primary healthcare.”

When new ideas come up in the public service — shared services is a good example — there are always long-serving bureaucrats ready to pipe up and complain it’s been tried before and point to lacklustre policies of decades past that share similarities with what is proposed. Bowles made the point that “timing is everything” and sometimes, elements of old programs and proposals from 20 years ago are just what’s needed now.

The excuse that there is no time for blue-sky thinking is really no excuse at all, he said. Leaders must make the time and create the space, which could mean bringing in outside experts.

“Listen and watch what is happening around you,” he advised. “Talk to people; you will learn a hell of a lot.”

To change the paradigm, one needs to be open to new conversations and think about why people hold different views, rather than dismiss them out of hand just because of their work role, their classification level, the portfolio they work in, or because they aren’t a public servant at all. The Health boss said he had even run into people with different, thought-provoking perspectives while out shopping.

In the same vein, he said patch protection could “destroy” the public service’s capacity for information sharing, arguing that there were plenty of similarities between the health system and the immigration system, which he oversaw under the previous government. He left the assembled public servants with a final piece of advice:

“Be stewards of the system you’re dealing with; don’t try to be the owner.”

Public sector human resources consultant Linley Cornish later gave some tips on how staff could be “unleashed” rather than simply managed through a new kid of leadership. “They need leaders who can enable their intellectual success, improve their thinking and actually build their individual capacity to contribute to the organisation,” she said.

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