CASE STUDY: Engaging staff is the key to real innovation in government. A unique crowdsourcing project conducted by a Victorian department is an example in creating a playing field where it’s safe to fail.
Public sector agencies in Australia, from the Australian Taxation Office to many at state level, are pushing plans to use crowdsourcing tools to tap into the innovation and willingness to collaborate that lies at the heart of their organisations — their staff.
Han Gerrits — a KPMG partner, technology lecturer and creator of the Innovation Factory — believes public sector leaders in Australia have the advantage of being “fast followers”, able to draw on leading practice and exploiting it. Gerrits helps major organisations, both public and private like the Delta Programme in the Netherlands, Heineken and Vodafone, to understand innovation and harness its power to improve organisational strategy, performance and culture.
He says the commitment to innovation must come from leadership, with the focus on instilling the right culture through the entire organisation. During one of Gerrits’ recent visits to Australia a major theme from meetings with the public sector was about getting beyond the traditional — and occasionally blocking — organisational hierarchy. In Gerrits’ experience, where leaders are not encouraging innovation, the use of performance metrics might entice them to get on board.
The Victorian government’s Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning has been quick to embrace this new thinking. The need to modernise and transform into an agile, high-performing public sector organisation has been clearly articulated by the secretary, Adam Fennessy, and his leadership team. Fennessy explains that “innovation can be obvious but hasn’t been given the support at work”. “This crowdsourcing approach has allowed us to look at organisational and cultural structures and challenge our thinking,” he said.
Innovation through collaboration
DELWP invited all 3200 employees to imagine they ran the department, and to provide ideas as to how they would improve the way the department worked if they were in charge. Staff named the challenge “ThinkShake”, following a discussion generated on Yammer, DELWP’s internal social media tool.
Claire Tomlinson, DELWP’s senior innovation manager, says “we hoped to generate approximately 50 ideas, which we would then evaluate against criteria in order to implement the top two or three ideas”.
The ThinkShake challenge ran for about six weeks, with the secretary and executive team regularly contributing and commenting on ideas. “By the end of the challenge we had 230 ideas; the online crowdsourcing approach opened the way for a great deal of interaction and collaboration,” Tomlinson explained.
Fennessy adds that collaboration across such a diverse organisation is vital. “We have a significant regional footprint, and the platform allowed everyone from across the state to participate from their smart device, or desktop, in the challenge. Many of the top 10 ideas have bought together individuals to collaborate on initiatives that will ultimately serve our communities better,” he said.“They’re also able to discuss and enrich each other’s ideas which leads to the creation of bigger and better ideas …”
This collaboration is essential to develop the best crowdsourcing ideas, says Gerrits, who worked with the DELWP team together with KPMG crowdsourcing specialist Dani Webster. Of the process, Webster explained: “It’s very important to understand that when we talk about crowdsourcing, we are not just talking about gathering ideas from people and then making a selection.
“With crowdsourcing, people can view all the contributions from their colleagues and vote for the ones that resonate the most. They’re also able to discuss and enrich each other’s ideas which leads to the creation of bigger and better ideas and has the added benefit of helping foster a culture of collaboration.”
This is where diversity of input is best, drawing on people from different areas of a department or with different experiences and backgrounds.
“The quality of the ideas and the quality of the discussion is dependent on the diversity,” said Webster. “And inclusion means everyone can participate, which is a critical element for successful ideation. Crowdsourcing preaches a very important factor: that everyone’s input is equally important.
“ThinkShake generated 230 ideas, but there were something in the vicinity of 4000 votes and 2000 enrichments to ideas. This shows a high level of collaboration, with an average idea receiving 10 different comments from participants, adding to the overall evolution of each idea.”
The next step in the program is to test and implement the winning ideas. “Having identified the top 10 ideas, the finalists recently had the chance to pitch their ideas to the secretary of the department, plus a number of deputy secretaries, with the aim of getting seed funding to make their ideas a reality,” Webster said.
“ThinkShake has been central to unlocking the latent innovation capability within the department. It has generated an absolute mandate for the department to continue to embed an innovation agenda, generating significant collaboration across the organisation.”
Starting, failing, learning — not stopping
For other government departments looking to implement a similar crowdsourcing model, it’s important to review where the organisation is currently at with innovation, and where it wants to go.
“In the beginning,” Gerrits said, “if you want to push innovation you should measure inputs. Do we spend enough on innovation? Do we have enough projects? Do we have enough people executing the innovation agenda? When these metrics are showing positive results, you know you’re on the right track.”
“Failing fast and failing cheaply” is another of Gerrits’ philosophies. “We reiterate that mindset. The communications piece, the leadership piece, they all integrate to help build a safe-to-fail environment,” he said.
Scrutiny from the media and public can make it difficult for government departments to feel it is “safe to fail”. However, this mindset needs an overhaul if innovation is to succeed. A culture must be in place where it is OK to take risks and make mistakes.
Fennessy said: “It’s not easy in the public sector to create a culture to fail. But we need to fail early and fail fast. Innovation requires courage. And it is the culture of innovation we want to support at DELWP.”
And with agencies working to budget, funding innovation programs could appear out of reach. But Gerrits says many of the ideas will lead to cost savings, so it’s vital to think through the cost-benefit analysis.“It’s not easy in the public sector to create a culture to fail. But we need to fail early and fail fast.”
“If you want to create a more innovative culture, budget must be allocated for the implementation of a number of ideas. The return from creating a more innovative culture could be immeasurable,” he said.
While it is “safe to fail” when it comes to new ideas and implementation, that doesn’t mean the crowdsourcing strategy itself should be taken lightly. Poorly conceived and executed crowdsourcing campaigns can damage the culture or reputation of a department.
“If ideas do not get implemented,” Gerrits said, “there can be a negative impact on an organisation’s culture of innovation, with employees choosing not to participate in future innovation projects.” In his experience, when organisations ask their people to innovate, and then don’t act on the results, employees quickly become disenfranchised. “Too often in the public sector it is the systems, processes and structures that get in the way, not the people,” he said.
Webster says the results of a quality crowdsourcing strategy are entirely the opposite.
“When you execute a strategically designed crowdsourcing campaign, you are sending a clear signal that leadership takes innovation seriously and, more importantly, takes staff input seriously. When an organisation implements some of the winning ideas from the campaign, that’s another clear signal to say ‘we take you, your ideas and innovation very seriously’,” she said.
Fennessy concluded: “This has been a fantastic partnership with KPMG. I have learnt so much from their experiences from around the world and that is why I am so pleased to announce our commitment to implementing as many ideas as possible.”