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SA finding success with its safe place to fail: 90-day projects

[email protected] has helped facilitate a range of innovations including allowing nurse-led hospital discharges and reducing fishing licence application times, and South Australia’s Commissioner for Public Sector Employment Erma Ranieri hopes others will take up the state’s innovative approach to push change themselves.

Key to this has been the 90-day project concept, which aims to achieve concrete changes to services, engagement, productivity or organisational performance within a 3-month timespan. For a sector often maligned as being slow to react and poor at innovation, the condensed timeline is designed to counteract the inertia that often swallows up other initiatives.

Importantly, it “gave us a chance to fail, and if we did, we got out really quick,” Ranieri told the Australia and New Zealand School of Government conference last month. “So for trialing it’s just perfect.”

It’s helping to build a culture “that celebrates innovation”, she argues.

One 90-day project between the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Primary Industries and Regions reduced the waiting time for fishing licences from five weeks to five days. Another led to an app that tells customers when their next tram, train or bus will arrive and how late it will be.

Another improved hospital productivity by allowing nurses to discharge healthy patients based on a set of criteria agreed with doctors, rather than only doctors being authorised to do so. This practice is now being rolled out across hospitals in Adelaide.

“A criteria-led discharge is something in terms of productivity and time we would save a significant amount of money. The only reason people said they didn’t do it is because they thought there’d be industrial issues either with the doctors,” said Ranieri. But thanks to the the 90-day push, “everyone was quite comfortable with it.”

These changes have been achieved with existing budget and no extra staff, she says.

But Ranieri hopes [email protected]’s experience demonstrating it can work will encourage others to take up the concept and apply it themselves across the public sector. “Well we do have 100,000 employees, so we need for this to actually go viral.”

‘We don’t collaborate very well in government’

Ranieri has been Commissioner for Public Sector Employment since July 2014, and before that was CEO of the Office for Public Sector Renewal.

“Be careful what you complain about, they could appoint you to the job and then ask you to fix it, which is sort of what’s happening at the moment!” she joked to the ANZSOG audience.

What has she learned since starting the first 90 day projects back in 2012 at the Office for Public Sector Renewal, asked The Mandarin. Without wanting to be negative, she answers, she would argue “we don’t collaborate very well in government.”

This means leadership is an important factor in making innovation happen. “Making it from the centre is a really important part of business,” Ranieri explaned. “It needs very strong leadership and a commitment to say we’re going to keep going on this.”

A key idea underpinning South Australia’s approach is ensuring the public sector acts as ‘one government’. “People do still see themselves as working for a particular agency,” she says.

All the projects need to incorporate an element of collaboration. “You cannot do it on your own, it has to be with multiple agencies,” she states.

Consulting with the users of services is important, too. Often government produces apps that don’t do what customers want or puts forms online, but they’re unreadable on a smartphone.

“What we need to be doing in fact is representing the views of the citizens we serve and [asking] ‘actually, how do you truly get that public value and that engagement?’ So speak to customers, that’s what we did with the projects.

“We consult with industry, we engage with citizens, and we integrate multiple reform tools. It has to contribute to the vision of the state. It’s not okay to be doing things that really don’t make a difference to anyone.”

Stakeholder engagement no longer a ‘nice to have’

One recent project focused on building up stakeholder engagement resources and capacity within the state bureaucracy.

This project took a systematic approach to understanding and identifying best practice in stakeholder engagement, engaging experts across government and co-design the solution. The result is a suite of tools in an online library to help public servants improve their approach to stakeholder engagement.

Stakeholder engagement “is not just a nice to have, it’s critical,” argues Ranieri.

“Citizens need to know if they’ve got a complaint that there will be a consistent approach. Right now it probably gets left to individuals who are passionate about it.

“If you’re developing policy, you need to know who is going to be affected by it. Governments need to get better at this, and government workers don’t necessarily have the skills for this.”

Ranieri is proud of the changes she’s helped bring about, but believes this is only the beginning.

“I think it’s still going too slow. People need to use the methodology to start their own projects all over the place,” she said.

“What I would like to see is it almost going viral.”

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.