Glenys Beauchamp: 'truly new ideas cut across silos'

By Glenys Beauchamp

July 7, 2015

The Australian Public Service and public administration in general has got a lot to be proud of, we don’t get the opportunity as public servants to talk about some of the achievements. We’ve had lots of commentary from all sectors about the things that go bad, and the things we should be doing. So I’m really proud to be launching Innovation Month.

I would like talk about a few things on public sector innovation. First, why the digital revolution offers us so many opportunities as well as challenges, and how public sector innovation is an integral part of how we can respond. Secondly, I would be pleased to talk to you about steps that have been agreed with my fellow secretaries to strengthen our innovation capability across the public service. And thirdly, I would like to share my excitement about some of the things that are going on across Innovation Month.

And we have a short video for you highlighting some examples of innovation in practice from across the Australian Public Service.

Digital Revolution

Digital disruption is a phrase used a lot now. Just last week at the Crawford School we decided to not use digital disruption anymore, and talk about digital creativity.

We are absolutely living in a time of significant change, and the digital revolution is not the only thing that we’re coping with at the moment. This revolution is gradually but surely affecting everything and all sectors, changing things that were developed for an earlier, industrial, era.

One of the characteristics of this change is how we are moving away from thinking about discrete products, towards focusing on ongoing relationships and platforms.

Where many products were things that you bought, now they may be just the start of an ongoing connection with the supplier.

A good current example is Uber and what that means for public policy and regulators in the transport space. Another live example is country of origin labelling and looking at what technology that might bring further down the track when indeed all of us will know what’s in the ingredients we buy just by putting our phones over the products.

“We can no longer think that we can develop and launch a policy, and then move on.”

What does this shift mean in how we think and act as public servants, as public service organisations, in keeping up with expectations? It suggests that we can no longer think that we can develop and launch a policy, and then move on. Gone are the days of a linear process to both policy development and regulation. We’ve got to try more things and be open to tribally and incubating and iteration.

This raises some big questions for us and how we think about policy development and service delivery. Some of the examples we will see in the video [above] show us how the public service is already engaging with this digital shift, and why innovation is so important.

Innovation is also important to address the APS transformation agenda, including downsizing, contestability and meeting citizens’ expectations. Some of the examples point to the new services and tools that we might be able to offer:

  • myTax is a demonstration of a digital offering. It is not just a paper form made into an electronic version, but something that takes advantage of the opportunities offered by an interactive online format.
  • Single Business Service is a big shift in how we work with businesses and provide them with the information and services that they require.

Other examples point to new ways to go about our work:

  • The Australian Animal Disease model provides a better way of modelling the spread of livestock diseases, assisting with preparedness and planning. Digital simulations like this can provide us with big insights.
  • On a larger scale, as artificial intelligence tools are developed and become more affordable, we need to look at how they can be employed by the APS.
  • From within my portfolio, IP Australia recently partnered with IBM to trial ‘Ask Watson’, which brings cutting edge cognitive computing technology to analyse a broad range of disparate data and provide computer generated responses with intelligent reasoning.
  • The Watson trial looks at how this tool (or similar cognitive computing systems) can improve agency efficiencies (e.g. aid the search and examination process) and enhance online service offerings for IP Australia’s customers (e.g. provide a virtual assistant for customers online).

Other examples show us how we can look to new ways of organising and partnering to achieve outcomes. innovationXchange at DFAT is an illustration of this, showing new ways of how we might operate. It has a strong emphasis on openness, collaboration, agility, and engaging with risk. It is also investigating how we can partner with others in new ways to achieve big things, recognising that government does not have all the answers.

And of course there is the Digital Transformation Office, which is also a big development that will help the public service engage with the disruptive impacts of the digital revolution. We are already seeing some interesting work from that process.

Next Steps for the Innovation Agenda

There is a lot happening and Innovation Month will showcase more of the clever new things being done across, and with, the public service. But none of this is to say that there isn’t more to do. We must remember that innovation is not easy.

There is no better illustration of this than what we see happening in industry. We are seeing the rise of global companies with exciting new and disruptive business models. Companies such as Google, Facebook and Airbnb are having real impact and incumbent firms cannot rely on their previous dominance to ensure their survival. To quote John Hagel:

“In 1937, at the height of the Great Depression and certainly a time of great turmoil, a company on the S&P 500 had an average lifespan of 75 years. By 2011, that lifespan had dropped to 18 years — a decline in lifespan of almost 75%.”

Even last month it was reported that four out of 10 top ranked companies will not survive the next five years. These changes are shaking things up.

In the public sector, we need to find our own ways of letting the disruptive ideas come through and succeed. But if we are to do so, we need to acknowledge that new ideas need work to make them real.

Truly new ideas cut across our silos. Truly new ideas are unlikely to have an immediate champion or support base, even though there is obvious potential.

Last year we said the biggest barriers to innovation was hierarchy. I think the Secretaries group and particularly Michael Thawley want to see new ideas not being put through bureaucratic processes and absolutely streamlined across the public service. That does absolutely require leadership, not just through secretaries and SES, but all of us, to help loosen the shackles of business-as-usual, regular deadlines, and investment in the status quo. If we don’t keep up we become less relevant as agencies and a public sector.

Innovation is about creating something new, but it can also be about adapting and developing someone else’s new idea. We must get better at knowing when something new has been tried successfully elsewhere, and adopt and extend the benefit across the public service.

My colleagues and I on the Secretaries Board have discussed what might be done to further a culture and environment that supports innovation. We agreed to take action in two main areas:

  • we agreed to strengthen the Public Sector Innovation Network, and
  • we agreed to break down the bureaucracy and strengthen the innovation supply chain for the public sector.

Strengthening the Public Sector Innovation Network

The Network was started in 2010 as a means of connecting public servants with others interested in how the public service might do things differently.

To help strengthen the Network, we have made three commitments.

First, each department will identify and support SES level Innovation Champions. My own department’s Champion is at the deputy secretary level. I will be meeting with all of the Champions, straight after Innovation Month, to discuss how we can learn from each other in helping to embed innovation in our organisations. The senior level Champions will be a visible form of our commitment and support for innovation.

Secondly, we are emphasising our support for Innovation Month, and the value of holding other events to explore and learn about how to do things differently. I want everyone to see Innovation Month as an annual opportunity to take stock and consider whether a new approach might be needed. Leaders in organisations need to create an environment where new technologies are harnessed and that it is OK to sometimes fail and learn from our mistakes.

We can each ask ourselves. What can I do to make a difference? How creative can I be in my approach to my work? How can I contribute to coming up with and testing new ideas? And we can each use the Innovation Month to share our experiences with doing something new, to share the things that we have found make a difference. We can draw inspiration from each other.

Thirdly, we are strengthening our support for staff to be involved in the Innovation Network and to meet and share their experiences and insights. We will look to how we can use the network to better connect those in the Australian Public Service outside of Canberra, many of whom are on the front line of service delivery and have rich insights to share about the opportunities for innovation.

We believe that these measures will help connect people with ideas and approaches for how to innovate.

Strengthening the innovation supply chain

We need to come up with new ideas, and have processes for developing them. We should be better at recognising new ideas and those who work to implement them. To address these issues we have agreed to introduce a further three measures.

“The citizen’s view and experience of government is not siloed, and nor will the solutions to their needs be.”

First, we have committed to ideas sharing and we are supporting a trial of a cross-agency platform. Increasingly we are experiencing convergence of issues. The citizen’s view and experience of government is not siloed, and nor will the solutions to their needs be. Silos are becoming less important, while integration and collaboration are becoming more so. We will learn from the platform trial, and from the experience of agencies such as DFAT that have run their own internal ideas management systems.

I have committed to go back to the Secretaries Board with options for how we can entrench the ability for staff to easily share and collaborate on ideas with those in other agencies.

It will be possible to act on some of the ideas that arise on such a platform without any real effort. They will be obviously good ideas, and implementation may be straightforward. As my department knows from its work with industry, some will need to be developed, tested and refined — incubated and matured — before anyone will be willing to commit resources to them.

How can we work across agencies to mature promising but nascent ideas, so that they can become fleshed out and credible business propositions?

Our second commitment, then, is to identify and propose a fast track process for proving novel, untested but promising ideas.

Finally, if we want to encourage innovation, we need to recognise ideas and the people who have worked on them. We need to look at the innovations that are already implemented in one part of the APS or in other public services and see whether they can be applied in other agencies, and across the service; whether they can be copied or adapted to other contexts.

So our third commitment is to look at establishing innovation awards in conjunction with IPAA. These awards will be separate to the existing Australian Awards for Excellence in Public Sector Management. These new awards will recognise individuals and teams from across the APS and help all of us to know more about some of the good things happening in other agencies.

Each and every agency will play their part, doing what they can at an organisation level. If you’re interested to learn more about what’s being done by individual agencies, you might like to come along to a breakfast IPAA event I’m speaking at on July 14, along with Lisa Rauter from innovationXchange and John Dardo from the ATO.

Innovation Month 2015

And of course there is much to be done by each of us as individuals. Innovation Month is a great opportunity for each of us to learn more about innovation and how we can use it to get results. The theme of the Month this year is “Dream, Dare, Do”. This theme sums up a lot about the innovation process.

We can dream up new ideas. We can dare to innovate — it takes courage. And we can act. For we aren’t truly innovative until we act.

I recognise it can be hard to find the time in our busy schedules, but I encourage everyone to get involved. Only by learning do we lift ourselves to overcome the pressures of the everyday and truly meet our potential as individuals and organisations.

And if you can’t make any of the events, then your involvement might be to ‘dream, dare, do’ for yourself and with your team — starting a conversation about trying something different, and making some small changes and tracking whether they make an improvement.

Public sector innovation is not an academic or abstract exercise. What we do matters. Whether we can do it better matters. And whether we can do it differently to get better outcomes matters.

In a world where so much is shifting and where citizen expectations are rapidly evolving, we cannot stand still. In a time like this, do we expect things to stay the same? Do we want things to stay the same, knowing that we can do better?

The key innovation for us will be to shift from innovating on the side to innovating in everything we do. To adopt innovation as a core process in how we go about our jobs. To switch from seeing innovation as an added thing we should do, to seeing it as a part of how we do things.

This article is adapted from an address by Glenys Beauchamp for the public sector Innovation Month 2015 launch in Canberra on July 6.

Read more at The Mandarin: Digital transformation as an engine for innovation

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