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Tom Burton: risk the elephant left in innovation room

For government agencies and their officials, the key message of today’s Innovation and Science Agenda — if it wasn’t already obvious — is that business as usual is no longer acceptable. “We have got to be prepared to take risks,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told the assembled press. 

When you have the PM (pictured) repeating to whoever will listen that government has to take risks and to become as agile as the start-up community it seeks to promote, then you know things are changing. Indeed, Turnbull goes as far as to turn this into a political doctrine of 21st century government, declaring he wants to reset the paradigm that says politicians have to guarantee every policy will work. 

Consider that this comes from the same governing party that only last year was dragging officials (and prime ministers) before a royal commission to investigate the pink batts insulation program, and you start to understand how different Turnbull wants government to be. 

But turning around over a century of bureaucratic practice and culture is frankly not going to come from within the public sector. Citizens need to trust their governments and there is a deeply honourable culture of managing and protecting the public interest that underpins our federal and state governments. This has largely rendered state and federal government immune from corruption, but means public agencies are just not built for risk taking activities.

“In government — at both federal and state level — risk management is stuck in the 90s …”

All the experience and research says innovation comes from the edge. There are a handful of organisations that have successfully reimagined themselves — IBM for instance — but in the main the inherent conservatism of government is not about to change without some fundamental rebuild of how it deals with risk. 

The banks went through the same issues over the last decade by rethinking their risk management systems to ensure strong centrally driven governance, which then empowered their frontline services to innovate. 

In government — at both federal and state level — risk management is stuck in the ’90s, with a plethora of five-by-five matrixes camouflaging a deeply administrative, tick-the-box culture.

So while today’s governmental initiatives around data and a digital marketplace to help SMEs access some of the $50 billion of annual government procurement are all worthy, the elephant in the room — risk — has not been addressed.

The two agencies charged with much of the delivery of today’s innovation statement — the CSIRO and its newly acquired Data61 (the former NICTA, or National ICT Australia) are a good example of this risk. Both have had tech entrepreneurs brought in to give them the style of agility Turnbull yearns for. But while NICTA was a fast-moving agency of that kind, it is now being absorbed by the behemoth that is CSIRO — and any one close to CSIRO knows it will take years for the Campbell-based agency to change its ways.

And while everyone is drinking the Kool-Aid of innovation — and it may kick-start some interesting initiatives — until there is a major rethink within government of how to manage risk in a modern way, it will struggle to do more than a few interesting skunk works.

Author Bio

Tom Burton

Tom Burton is publisher of The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He has served in various public administration roles, specialising in the media and communications sector. He was a Walkley Award-winning journalist and executive editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He worked as Canberra bureau chief for the Australian Financial Review and as managing editor of smh.com.au. He most recently worked at the Australian Communications and Media Authority.