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Renee Leon: crowdsourcing and ideas ownership in policymaking

If government needs to become less risk-averse and more innovative in responding to policy challenges, it’s a job for ministers as much as public servants.

The Prime Minister and the head of his department, Martin Parkinson, spoke of the partnership at the heart of public administration as they addressed the APS at Parliament House recently.

One role of public servants is to seek out and advocate what they believe are the best possible solutions to policy challenges. In the providing this advice, the Commonwealth’s top mandarin reminded them, public servants should be guided by the national interest, not the minister’s office.

A previous occupant of Parkinson’s chair, Peter Shergold, has been arguing lately that ministers need to clearly define and communicate their risk appetite in various areas of policy, if they truly want a stream of novel and clever ideas to come across their desks. Further, Shergold argues new ideas should be tested on a small scale in genuinely experimental trials, and that political leaders need to clearly explain this approach — and the possibility trials might fail — to the electorate.

The Department of Employment’s new Empowering YOUth Initiatives program is an attempt to outsource innovation through this experimental approach, awarding grants to fund service providers to test out their most creative ideas on increasing youth employment rates.

“The department will use them as trials to build an evidence base, and possibly use successful ones more broadly in future,” secretary Renee Leon explained to members of the Trans-Tasman Business Circle at its recent briefing.

Leon mused that Empowering YOUth Initiatives was also like “a little trial” of its own “to see whether we can safely have a minister publicly launch something that is expressly called ‘innovative’ and that might not work, and say that up front”.

The test would be when some of the funded trials prove unsuccessful, she explained. Will there be the typical outcry about waste and incompetence? Or will the public largely accept that it was always a bunch of experiments, some of which helpfully prove what not to do?

“Interestingly, we found even assessing the grant applications quite challenging for our people,” said Leon, explaining that even “assessing whether something’s innovative … or too risky” fell outside her team’s core areas of expertise because it was so different to anything they had done before.

Give ideas time to develop

Leon is hopeful that, however the Empowering YOUth trials turn out, the program will stand up to scrutiny. And that her department has prepared government well to defend it if necessary. But she also thinks a wider change in the culture of government is needed to restore some independence to the public service and take some of the pressure off ministers.

The Employment secretary thinks it would be better if public servants could “take more visible ownership of ideas without the government having to feel that it’s committed to them”, as they did more often in the past.

“I think there’s much to be said about a cultural change and a political change …”

“These days, as soon as we put out any kind of discussion paper, immediately the relevant minister or prime minister is asked if they’re going to rule it in or out,” said Leon, reflecting that it wasn’t always that way.

She recalled a time when “the public service regularly engaged in much broader discussion and consultation” about various policy options without committing to how likely the government was to accept them, before a decision was made.

“And I think there’s much to be said about a cultural change and a political change that would enable that kind of conversation,” she added.

Leon reminded the private sector audience that risk aversion in the public sector is not simply a cultural problem to overcome, but a consequence of electoral politics and a policy development process that “does not induce courage” on the part of ministers.

“Our principal clients do not have the luxury that everyone else in this room does, of sometimes trying and failing, because they have to face the ballot box every three years, and often less,” she said.

Ambidextrous ambitions

Leon told the business crowd that, in her view, stimulating innovation in a large organisation “paradoxically” requires “some systemic processes” to be in place.

Similarly, she said the shift to an innovative culture had to be “very much led from the top” but that her innovation strategy was created by tapping “the ideas and capability of the whole workforce” rather than being sent down like the gospel etched into stone tablets.

“So we didn’t do that with innovation, recognising that we’re all, frankly, middle-aged people who may not be the most innovative people in the organisation,” said Leon.

And the experience of her senior executive team, more than half of whom have over a decade in the department, meant they were “strong, visible leaders with deep technical and subject knowledge” who could also form an unwitting barrier to innovation.

“[When] you’ve seen many changes come and go and you’ve been the one managing it, it’s quite hard to step back from that and see it from a completely different perspective and imagine doing something radically new,” Leon said. “So our strengths are also our weaknesses.”

The department’s figures back up the secretary’s contention. Employment’s 2015 staff survey revealed 82% of staff felt their supervisor was “good at achieving results” but only 66% felt they encouraged innovation. A healthy 88% agree the agency “emphasises the importance of delivery” but only 50% think it “prioritises development of new ideas”.

The difficult thing, says Leon, is keeping up the good work of the past, focusing on continuous, incremental improvement to the way core functions are performed, at the same time as becoming “brave and innovative” in response to the rapid and accelerating pace of technological and social change.

“You need to be ambidextrous in your organisation,” she told the business luncheon.

Employment and internal crowdsourcing

In her department, “it’s very much a work in progress”. But she says the innovation strategy is already “energising” staff and “giving them permission to challenge existing thinking”. It was an opportunity to practice co-design and the delicate art of effective crowdsourcing, internally.

In a similar way, Leon said an overhaul of the intranet system was “a safe, internal way of learning about user-centred design”. “We’re then better equipped to put that into practice … in what might be more controversial, which is around our public facing programs and policies,” she said.

User-centred design is of particular interest to Leon, who recognises that in all the consultations about employment services, unemployed people themselves have never been part of the conversation as a specific group.

“And there’s a risk for that kind of thing with government,” she pointed out. “It’s a big cohort; they don’t all sit neatly in a room.

“If we don’t find ways to design our main programs with a user-centred process then we are missing out …”

“They’re not going to necessarily say nice things about you, but they are the people who are going to use the system and if we don’t find ways to design our main programs with a user-centred process then we are missing out on an important feed for innovation.”

A lot of the innovation strategy’s elements are much smaller tweaks to how the department runs. “They’re just about teaching ourselves to not say ‘no’ when someone suggests something, and especially not to say: ‘oh we’ve tried that before’,” Leon said.

“So that immediate naysaying that often comes in a hierarchy is one of the cultural changes that we’re seeking to do.”

Soon, the department plans to start using the online ideas platform Mindhive to connect public servants with academia and industry.

“It will enable us to … put out a policy challenge, or an idea or a problem, and a whole bunch of experts from outside the public service can comment on it … and that way no one’s at any risk if someone says something more adventurous,” the Employment boss said.

“We’re increasingly using data analytics to better explore what we’re doing well and what we’re not, and to make that visible to our providers and stakeholders,” she added.

“We’re also trialling some behavioural economics approaches in influencing the people who use our services.”

Another small act of innovation in employment is the establishment of a “virtual taskforce” to progress its Future of Work research by “leveraging the brains trust of the whole department”.

“So rather than creating a branch or something that we normally do in the public service, we’ve got a small little hub of people who are concentrating on this full-time, [and] we’ve got about 70 people who are from a broad span of policy and program areas, who come in and out of the work in a flexible way while they’re still doing their day jobs,” Leon explained.

“They join in discussion, they comment on policy ideas, they organise seminars and forums. They even have a book club.”

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.