Why you’re seeing more hackathons in the public service

Improvement programs are everywhere in government, with one of the biggest focusing on efficiency though contestability. But increasingly, agencies are turning to hackathons for a good reason.

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?

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