Why you’re seeing more hackathons in the public service

By Todd Soulas

September 5, 2016

Contestability is undeniably one of the more important concepts in the provision of public services in recent times. Principally it has been employed as a reaction to changes in the government’s environment. It has risen to prominence due to a confluence of factors such as shrinking or increasingly volatile tax revenues, citizen’s increased expectations of efficiency in public service delivery and the rapid pace of technological development.

If we take the Commonwealth Department of Finance’s view, contestability “refers to the prospect of competition in public sector functions to improve both the efficiency and effectiveness of contributing to achieving government’s outcomes.”

Put another way: how can we do better?

This simple question is now being asked throughout the Australian government through the Efficiency through Contestability Programme being run by Finance; as well as in specific departmental teams being stood up independently of the program. However, there are limitations to this approach that will see the current approach to achieving contestability fall short of the intended outcomes. Without getting into the detail of how the program is run, it is the use of a stimulus approach to contestability, being the use of external motivators for contestability to be triggered and interrogated, in isolation that is the issue.

“The key in this situation is the veracity of the questions being asked at the start of the process rather than at the end.”

This approach in of itself will not create an environment that supports contestability in public services in an enduring or effective way. I would like to note however that the stimulus approach shouldn’t be discarded; it is an important tool in facilitating change. What does need to be done though is to look at what else needs to be done. If we are serious about reforming public services and encouraging a culture of contestability we need to ask — somewhat ironically — with an intended outcome of doing better: how can we do better?

If we take this simple question we find a more comprehensive answer; hackathons. For the uninitiated, hackathons have gone beyond the perception of being a group of developers fueled by fast food and energy drinks building a website, mobile app, or even hardware hack over a weekend. Now hackathons are more akin to large brainstorming sessions that bring together people from all walks of life to compete and create prototypes or concepts that innovate on a theme by solving a persistent problem or improve something that already exists. Hackathons take that simple question, “how can we do better?” and apply it to a whole range of themes and problems.

What makes the hackathon culture worthy of emulation by the public service? The key in this situation is the veracity of the questions being asked at the start of the process rather than at the end. The positive note is that we are already part way there, through the government’s existing innovation agenda and associated programmes.

This now needs to be built on with stronger links made between the contestability programme and the innovation agenda. If the outcome is to truly entrench the mindset of contestability and innovation within the public service then a more comprehensive strategy needs to be developed with a focus on culture and linking the various improvement projects the government has initiated.

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