APS Innovation Awards: winners announced

By Stephen Easton

July 27, 2016

Mining, asymmetric warfare, charities and government web publishing are the beneficiaries of four public service projects that represent the past year’s best examples of innovation inside the federal government.

That’s according to the panel of judges behind the 2016 Australian Public Service Innovation Awards, a Secretaries Board-endorsed collaboration between IPAA ACT and the Public Sector Innovation Network.

The winners were announced a presentation Wednesday afternoon at a Department of Human Services office called the design hub, in leafy central Canberra.

The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission came out on top of the digital transformation category for its Charity Portal, an online form for organisations on its charity register to keep the relatively new regulator updated. The judges were especially impressed by claims of $18 million in “deregulation savings” from the web form, and the way it took account of the high number of older Australians who work in the sector.

A cheap signal-jamming device to protect people in dangerous regions from improvised bombs put a team of Department of Defence boffins over the top in a category for new solutions to old challenges. The product was designed specifically for Afghan people to use after foreign troops are scheduled to depart.

The REDWING project, as it’s known, was up against the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s more chilled-out approach to recruitment and “Small Business Fix-It Squads” from the Australian Taxation Office.

One of Greg Hunt's first duties as Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science.
One of Greg Hunt’s first duties as Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science. Image RLDI / IPAA ACT.

A mineral resources mapping tool created by Geoscience Australia beat the competition in “engaging with the edge” — a category for projects that demonstrate public servants working on new and emerging issues. The audience heard there were two factors in their success: a creative team of geological scientists using modern analytics and visualisation techniques, and a very valuable set of legacy data sets the agency has acquired over decades, up there with the best quality information on mineral potential anywhere in the world.

Defence also made the finals in that category with something that sounds like 1960s spy technology called “Pyrofilm” — which The Mandarin understands is a very low-cost product to throw off heat-seeking missiles — alongside IP Australia’s Patent Analytics Hub.

Finally, the judges felt govCMS, which came out of the Department of Finance, was the project that did the most “contributing to a culture or practice of innovation” in this year’s entrants.

“We started in a tin shed in Fyshwick with no new money and no policy mandate to do what we did,” said Sharyn Clarkson, an assistant secretary who accepted the award for govCMS. “We saw a problem and we knew that we had a way to solve it, and we wanted to break down the walls between digital teams right across government, across all jurisdictions.”

“We knew that if we brought people together, they’d be able to work with each other in new ways. They’d be able to build things together instead of alone, in their own little puddles, separated.”

Clarkson said they took an unconventional approach, having looked at the normal shared services model and “hated” it. “We decided to pull the whole thing apart and re-create it, and we did it by people, and by community, and we’ve kept those as principles all the way through this.”

“We had a secret desire we didn’t tell anyone about; we thought our nirvana would be if we could ever get the states and the Commonwealth to collaborate on something together. And 13 months in, Premier and Cabinet in Victoria and the Department of the Environment in Canberra collaborated on building a big data visualisation capability for everyone on govCMS, and the Victorian Government delivered the budget on it.”

The drupal-based government web publishing platform came ahead of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s InnovationXChange — as “Googly” and “Facebooky” as it is in the eyes of the minister — as well as Tourism Australia’s inspired marketing project, The World’s Biggest Social Media Team.

The winners were announced by the new Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Greg Hunt, in one of his first public duties since taking up the Industry, Innovation and Science portfolio.

“In a sense, today is the Academy Awards for the Australian Public Service and I look around and I see the stars, in many ways, of the Australian Public Service; people who are engaged in the great national tasks,” said Hunt, referring to Finance boss Jane Halton as “one of the iconic figures” of the APS.

In an odd coincidence, his co-host was current IPAA ACT president Gordon de Brouwer, who reported to him until recently as Department of the Environment secretary, while his new portfolio department is headed by de Brouwer’s predecessor as IPAA branch president, Glenys Beauchamp.

“I do feel it’s a little bit too soon to be stepping out in public with a new secretary in front of the old secretary,” Hunt joked. “But I’ve been blessed and honoured to have worked with one extraordinary secretary, and to already understand that I’ve been gifted with an extraordinary department and a great public service leader in Glenys.”

Hunt said public service innovation was about individual bureaucrats using “the great Westminster principle of not just implementing, but generating ideas, putting forward proposals, putting forward new ways of doing things and transforming — and doing so fearlessly”.

“Ultimately, decisions have to made and then implemented, but that open dialogue between the government of the day and the public sector under Westminster is a fundamental principle that I want to assert on behalf of the Prime Minister and myself and the Cabinet and to thank you for being engaged in that,” he said.

The judging panel included a mixture of public and private sector experts: Tam Shepherd from Department of Human Services (pictured above at the award presentation), Allan Ryan from Hargraves Institute, Jack Dan from Telstra, Trixie Makay from KPMG (chair) and Samantha Palmer from Australian Bureau of Statistics.

IPAA Innovation awards 2016
L-R: Allan Ryan, Greg Hunt, Tam Shepherd, Samantha Palmer and Jack Dan. Image: RLDI / IPAA ACT.

Four winning teams receiving their awards

IPAA Innovation awards 2016
The Department of Defence REDWING project team. Image: RLDI / IPAA ACT.
IPAA Innovation awards 2016
The Geoscience Australia Mineral Mapper team. Image: RLDI / IPAA ACT.
IPAA Innovation awards 2016
The Department of Finance govCMS team. Image: RLDI / IPAA ACT.
IPAA Innovation awards 2016
The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission’s Charity Portal team. Image: RLDI / IPAA ACT.
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