The Australian Public Service is trialling a new whole-of-government “innovation hub” to gather bright ideas centrally, but there are still plenty of challenges for leaders itching to usher in a new era of creativity and collaboration.
The “platform for the whole of government to share ideas” came up during a wide-ranging panel discussion that concluded last week’s Innovation Month Summit, along with human resources perspectives on innovation and views on how to attract ministerial support for inventive new ways of working.
Department of Finance project officer Julie Di Carlo, a co-ordinating member of the Public Sector Innovation Network which runs the summit, encouraged public servants in the audience to get involved with the trial and said a promotional video was being sent around the APS.
Agencies participating in the trial are the Department of Industry and Science, Department of Employment, IP Australia, Department of Finance, Department of Communications, Australian Taxation Office, Department of Education, Department of Social Services, Department of Immigration and Border Protection, and Department of Health.
Di Carlo explained the innovation hub was more than just an online suggestion box but would also involve “pulling the right capability together regardless of where you are [in the APS] to find the right solutions” as well as the potential for “mentoring” to progress the ideas it attracts. It would also link in with other current innovation projects such as a “design jam” being run by Communications and Human Services.
In a keynote to open the summit, Department of Health secretary Martin Bowles spoke of the department’s current efforts to make it easier for bureaucrats to come forward with new ideas, define new challenges and work on the solutions.
On the final panel, Health’s deputy secretary for strategic policy and innovation Mark Cormack said efforts to “create the space for innovation” which Bowles had referred to were a big challenge for leadership teams, as they involved shifting the risk-averse paradigm. This meant the creation of an innovation culture was a “work in progress” for the department, he conceded.
“We need to have the tools available and the opportunities available for [staff] to properly engage,” said Cormack, referring to the innovation hub as a good recent example.
“… It was just a really good example of using smart ways of communicating smart technology, to have people float their ideas very, very quickly, right across government, get some feedback [and] get a process in place where some of those ideas can be further incubated and developed, potentially into changes in government programs [or] just good practical innovations about doing our business better.”
Cormack said the concept was first explained to him the previous Friday in a 20-minute pitch by Di Carlo and her fellow PSIN co-ordinator, Abby Robinson of the Therapeutic Goods Administration, who was also chairing the Innovation Month Summit panel discussion.
“Abby then wrote a one-page paper by Friday afternoon, we took it to our executive meeting on Monday morning with the secretary, and it was agreed after three minutes’ discussion,” he added. “So it’s not hard to get good ideas up, and this is simply, I think it’s a wonderful tool to engage a large number of people to generate ideas, but more importantly, to do something with them.”
Part of the challenge for senior executives in “creating the space for innovation” would be to inculcate the modern understanding of risk management that would allow risk to be “embraced” rather than avoided at all costs, he said.
“But to accompany that is an understanding that you fully appreciate the risk; you don’t just become reckless,” added Cormack.
“And again, that’s where you can come a cropper with the government and political interface — if you have people who are yes, highly encouraged to take risk, but are less inclined to quantify the probabilities, the possibilities and the consequences of those risks before embarking on [a course of action].”
Musing that ministers tend not to like surprises, he suggested there was a “need to ensure that any surprises that governments get through innovation are good ones” and said the innovation hub would support that aim, by establishing a process to sort, evaluate and prioritise ideas quickly.
“So it’s a big system change, but we’re very determined to ensure that our journey towards being an innovative agency is one that pleasantly surprises government, pleasantly surprises our political masters, and enables us all to continue on in gainful employment, off the back of well backed, well thought through, and well considered risk taking,” Cormack continued.
Innovation in human resources
One human resources question came from Rob Miller, who manages the Australian Information Industry Association’s CollabIT program. He wanted to know if any “philosophical change” was underway in public service HR systems to reward and recognise staff who bravely ventured off the safest path in pursuit of genuine efficiency, not the simple kind based on staff cuts and referred to in the term “efficiency dividend”.
Bill Turner, the head of TGA’s scientific evaluation branch and host of the all-day summit, suggested that ever greater efficiency and effectiveness would always be demanded from the public service, no matter efficient and effective it became.
“I think the pressure will remain on us forever,” said Turner. “So what I try to do with my branch is implement a continuous business improvement program from within, to encourage grass-roots people who work within processes to identify the problems and solve the problems for themselves. It’s early days.
“And we are recognising them; in recent times I was able to give an award to an APS 4 person who was able to contribute to reducing one of our processes from an average of 16 days down to nine.”
Human resources consultant Linley Cornish, who gave a presentation earlier in the day, asked Cormack how the Health Department planned to manage negative reactions people might have to the changes that could flow more rapidly from an emphasis on supporting innovation.
He replied that public servants are very used to disappointment, explaining that good, innovative ideas that had been well thought out and evaluated were often shelved by the government, including some that were “the product of many years work and the deep engagement between proponents”.
“So I think the challenge more for the department is not how you deal with the disappointments associated with changing the way you do business; I think the challenge for the department, and indeed for the APS, is to change the way we do business,” Cormack said.
“And I think that … if we’re able to better encourage and support and embed innovation, then whatever disappointments may arise through some good ideas not getting up, or some risks taken and not avoided, would be more than compensated by the real gains you get through enabling that broader engagement, and that flourishing of good ideas that turn into great success stories.”
The hardest question
The deputy secretary also fielded a question that would be difficult for any bureaucrat to answer: “How do we bring the government of the day with us on our innovation journey?”
The best public servants can do, according to Cormack, is marshal the best available scientific evidence and bring it to life for their political masters, at the same time as using a keen understanding of the political system’s high-level processes.
“Many great government policies proceed without evidence, and many government policies don’t proceed, in spite of evidence,” he said, adding that while ministers make the big decisions, public servants are responsible for “how ideas are marketed to government”.
He suggested that role would be aided by “a cultural shift in universities, business and government to encourage more interactions with scientific experts” which chief scientist Ian Chubb had argued for earlier in the day.
“We’ve got to certainly continue to build the evidence, we’ve got to make that evidence translatable, we’ve got to make it understandable, but we also need to understand it within our political system,” said Cormack. “And we have a very good system of government in this country. We do need to be able to understand the way governments need to make choices, and they’re not always solely on the basis of incontrovertible evidence, one way or the other.”