Public servants can become innovation leaders

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday January 19, 2016

To David Hazlehurst, the executive charged with delivery of Malcolm Turnbull’s big-ticket science and innovation plans, it’s not so far-fetched to imagine public servants emerging as leaders in thinking creatively and leveraging the latest technology.

The Department of Industry, Science and Innovation deputy secretary says a list of examples published yesterday by Canberra’s Public Sector Innovation Network in its first annual retrospective “innovation snapshot” is evidence that public servants can and do think outside the square.

Hazlehurst, who led the Digital Transformation Office in its formative stages, also cites the pledge contained in the National Innovation and Science Agenda that the federal government would endeavour to “lead by example” on innovation. The rather optimistic promise acknowledges there are big cultural barriers and the fact that most of government has a long way to go if it is to come true:

“It has often been easier for government to continue with the ways things have been done rather than embrace new technological opportunities. We’ve consistently lagged behind the private sector in innovation so we must learn from our mistakes and begin backing new ways of doing business.”

Industry secretary Glenys Beauchamp writes that this means the Australian Public Service has to take more risks, open new avenues of collaboration and “be more open than we sometimes want to be” in a foreword to the report. The challenge isn’t easy for the private sector, either, she adds:

“Innovation, therefore, is a shared challenge and something where industry and the public service can learn from each other. It is an area where we can both help each other.”

Beauchamp says the 2015 APS innovation highlights that fill the pages of the PSIN report can be seen as a kind of “down-payment” backing the “promise” contained in the innovation and science agenda:

“It is a sign of what might come of government as an exemplar.”

Hazlehurst, whose various roles include chairing the new APS Innovation Champions Group, adds that agencies need to apply fresh thinking and use the latest technology to improve how they perform their core work, instead of just hanging the “tinsel” of innovation fever around for “ornamental” reasons:.

The lack of a single, easy way of “embedding innovation” in day-to-day work leads him back to collaboration and knowledge-sharing, across the public-private divide, between public service leaders and within the PSIN.

Networking for success

The Canberra-based group formed in 2009 and continues to grow with the spread of innovation fever, adding 500 to its roll last year. It now has about 2,400 members, mainly from the APS but also the other tiers of government, academia, not-for-profits and for-profit firms, and is encouraging the formation of chapters outside the capital.

Its main co-ordinators, Alex Roberts and Rob Thomas, jointly offer their reflections on promoting innovation in a process-oriented, hierarchical workplace where rules must be followed and boxes ticked, and where almost everyone is an expert:

“… these characteristics can sit uncomfortably with innovation and with how the operating environment of the public service is changing. Three manifestations of this tension are to do with risk, uncertainty, and being unsure.”

On risk, the pair observe that the “knowledge to quantify or reduce risk” and “safe spaces in which to engage with risk in a way that limits possible consequences” can resolve the tension.

They add that while the public service work is traditionally about reducing uncertainty and “dealing with the known” as much as possible, government agencies have often proven extremely effective in times of crisis as well. Likewise, politics throws up sudden and unexpected change that public servants deal with routinely.

Thomas and Roberts suggest politicians are not necessarily risk averse, but are almost always “surprise averse”, and this can hamper any new experimental project with uncertain outcomes:

“Innovation is, by definition, uncertain. It involves doing something new, and that involves experimentation, testing, trial and error, and learning. So it can be difficult to be innovative if you are trying to avoid uncertainty, especially if you do not have the capacity or the freedom to try something and see what happens.”

This inherent uncertainty also sits uncomfortably “in an environment of professionalism where subject matter and process expertise is valued and rewarded”, they contend:

“Innovation often means admitting that you do not have the answers. Innovation involves being vulnerable – of putting your ideas out for others to judge, or admitting that current practices are not as good as they need to be.”

Their conclusion? Innovate anyway, knowing it won’t be easy. Persist, connect with others, share and collaborate, and perhaps the dream of leading by example will become reality, as the new PSIN report confidently asserts:

The public service can be a major contributor to a more innovative Australia – as a source of bold ideas, as an implementer, as a partner, as a regulator and as a custodian. It can lead by example.

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