Innovation teams face an age-old problem for central agencies


Sam Hannah-Rankin

Centralised innovation capability-building teams may have the public favour of ministers and top secretaries, but it’s much harder to win buy-in from line agency project managers on the ground.

Who really wants to see someone from another organisation redefine your KPIs out of your comfort zone?

Representatives of innovation capability-building bodies from the Commonwealth, South Australia, Victoria and the ACT spoke candidly about the difficulties of that relationship at a forum last week for Public Sector Innovation Month.

There are a million ways to kill an innovative idea in the public sector, says Sam Hannah-Rankin, head of the new innovation fund in Victoria’s Department of Premier and Cabinet. Lack of buy-in from the frontline staff is perhaps the costliest way to fail. Yet, these staff are often the best sources of ideas, she says.

“There are things happening all across government — we come across them all the time but we don’t know enough about them. Quite often the people who are doing these things are trying to… ‘hide it’ is the wrong word… trying to make sure it flourishes as much as possible without causing it to become visible in a way that might cause it to get shut down.

“These isolated pockets are not necessarily communicating very well, not necessarily recognised or rewarded.”

Hence the increasing involvement of central agencies. SA’s 90-day projects and the Digital Transformation Office are two other models in play.

While there is an appetite for innovation — in theory — Hannah-Rankin and her counterparts ran into many of the same problems wherever they went. “Everyone is focused on delivery and too busy for innovation” was the frequently observed response to proactive engagement with line agencies. Innovation and structures don’t naturally coexist, noted SA’s Gess Carbone, creating another opportunity for things to fall down.

Metrics causing distrust

This was no whinge-fest though. If it was easy, it wouldn’t need this degree of top-level push, nor would it spark this many intra-sector fights.

The DTO’s Phil Webster says one such fight is over its performance dashboard — which measures other departments’ projects against four KPIs like user satisfaction and cost of transaction. That battle should be instantly familiar to all public servants in service delivery. The full details of the performance dashboard were expected to be released in May, but the federal election interrupted. There have already been concerns from project managers about how measures like cost of transaction are defined, especially as DTO intends to publish that data.

Metrics for evaluation of innovation present one of the bigger challenges for these central teams. The DTO is keen to have KPIs that reflect its world-view that the user should be in the middle of everything the public sector does. SA’s DPC has concerns about measuring the longitudinal effects when delivering outcome can take years. Victoria’s DPC is working through how to measure beyond a simple before and after on projects, to something that measures capability growth in the sector.

“Self-assessment doesn’t work,” says  Hannah-Rankin. “You get a lot of people who have walked into a training session and come out one hour later as an expert, self-assessed. It’s a difficult space. We’ve been looking at a lot of academic work to try to find common indicators, but you end up coming back to outputs or proxy indicators like how much demand or inquiry you’re getting from other departments as an indicator of value.”

Frame it around pain points

Hannah-Rankin, Carbone and Webster also offered tips for turning an idea into reality. The most common path for innovation to take off was when ideas are identified at the frontline, in an environment where middle managers encourage creative thinking and build on existing systems with modest improvements.

The Prime Minister’s innovation rhetoric is big on grand ideas and new commercial services. But the reality for the public service is most good ideas will only get traction if they shave a few dollars or minutes from an existing service.

The Mandarin will publish the video when it becomes available. Stay tuned.

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