Transformation nation: set free the public sector's intrapreneurs

By Anne-Marie Elias

September 9, 2016

The system is broken. We are burning more and more money to achieve fewer outcomes, like the wasted ideas boom ads and exclusive agendas. Making big splash announcements of giving more incentives to investors (who were investing anyway) while we are no closer to dealing with big demographic challenges.

Talk to some people in government and they tell you the status quo is killing good ideas and losing good people. A failed program isn’t just an embarrassment to a politician, it’s a disaster for the people it was meant to help and a blow to the public servants who have to administer bad policies, programs and projects. Process-driven systems are failing people — both our employees and citizens.

“The cost of staying the same is greater than adapting to change.”

Will anyone care in six months’ time to remember what was promised and what was delivered?

Take the NSW Premier’s innovation initiative — almost three years down the track and nada, nothing, zip — well, don’t know about you but I reckon that one is so dead it’s gone. Is it acceptable that a program like this run by the Department of Premier and Cabinet, no less, can just disappear?

Public servants want to get it right but they are drowning in molasses-like processes that cripple the bravest of intrapreneurs. Let’s face it, our systems are cumbersome and all the processes in the world have not made things easier, better or any more sustainable. In fact costs are blowing out and Treasury is needing to find new money each budget to feed the system; the problem is that system as it currently stands is insatiable.

The new breed of innovators

Intrapreneurs understand that the greater risk is doing nothing and staying the same. We will lose good people — both good public servants and service users — who will fall through the cracks of an unyielding system that is harder to turn than the Titanic. But is it really all that hard?

Government knows it’s failed, many good public servants that have fought the good fight, and some who continue to fight for change and transformation. We need to look beneath the hierarchy to find the people that are championing the change.

There is a new generation of intrapreneurs rising in the public sector. Those who know that system-driven policy and process fails every single time; they hunger for the change and are driving it in mysterious ways — with few resources, a lot of goodwill and a connected mindset.

Intrapreneurs — these are the public service warriors who won’t accept the status quo and embrace change, the future leaders who will create a more human-centred, lean and agile public service. It’s coming sooner than you think.

The DTO is a beacon for transformation in the big old Canberra bureaucracy. Led by Paul Shetler, this crack team is showing government that it can be done. Shetler and his team have an important mandate — to improve public services while building capacity of agencies to manage their own transformation. They have a number of exemplars demonstrating how digital transformation can improve the way we design and deliver services.

Shetler’s first statement as the Tsar of digital in July 2015 was very brave when he said, “Our job is to serve the public, and we are failing.” He was right and his vision to get public sector innovation on the roll is welcomed by the intrapreneurs across the service. Heads up to the change-makers and innovators — watch this space and collaborate with the DTO where possible, this crew are all about getting stuff done.

DTO is a new breed — a federal agency that works across sectors and collaborates with change makers across three levels of government auguring a less siloed and more collaborative future in digital service design and delivery that is more user-centric than the old world of service-centric.

Steps to transform to an innovation mindset

For the past 30-odd-years I have worked in social change. That journey took me across all levels of government, NGOs and ministerial offices searching for the holy grail of social innovation. To my surprise I fell into it over two years ago in the tech, start-up and innovation ecosystem. I became enamoured with the methods used, which focus on solving problems in a collaborative and user-centric way. Methods like design thinking, rapid prototyping and co-design are key to transforming the way we view, approach and solve complex problems.

Re-purposing these methods for government and NGOs to adopt more innovative ways of solving problems has been my mission the last two years. I was most inspired by Gavin Heaton and Disruptor’s Handbook’s emphasis on identifying shared value and the problem worth solving. This is the missing link in social change, we need these methods to help us improve the way we engender an innovation mindset.

The journey to social innovation is not difficult but it does require some key features including shared value, co-design and collective action. If government and NGOs adopt these methods to solve problems I believe we will be able to deliver better outcomes in the future.


The key to transformation is leveraging our biggest asset — our people, both our employees and our service users. It is through them that we can approach problems worth solving with a more collaborative mindset and empower service users to co-design services that are more user-centred than service-centred.

The new paradigm is collaborative and leverages the talent and assets of our people to transform the way we design and deliver services. It leverages the breadth of stakeholders that are needed across sectors to shift the way we approach solving complex problems.


The new world is exciting and hopeful and intrapreneurs are key to solving complex problems in new ways that will save money, time and eventually, lives. I believe that this is future.

Anne-Marie Elias is holding a workshop for UTS on Igniting an Innovation Mindset, October 31, 2016.

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Geoff Edwards
Geoff Edwards
5 years ago

Sounds optimistic, Anne-Marie. In reading your post, I don’t think I’m quite crystal clear as to what is your diagnosis of the causes of the ills besetting the current “broken” system, or their remedies.

If the cause (or at least one common cause) is the predilection of governments for announcing new programs such as innovation incentives without putting in place the preconditions for them to actually happen, then I fully agree. I suggest that this is partly because most Australian governments now hold to a faulty theory, being the assumption that business drives economic activity whereas in fact economic activity depends upon a range of public institutions such as research, education and prudential regulation, supplied by public agencies. Business is a beneficiary of these services not the driver of them.

As to the remedies, I am wondering whether the key ingredient of the success you have been observing is digitisation as such, or rather collaboration + codesign. If digitisation as such, it would seem not to be a universal remedy because not all public functions can be automated; and some such as nursing will always require face-to-face human interaction. If collaboration + codesign is the key to success, with digitisation simply being the trigger or rationale, then yes it could be applicable to all bureaux dealing with multi-headed policy challenges. So long as they are funded adequately.

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