In defence of trial and error: the public sector innovation we all deserve

By Dan Wood

September 23, 2016

The first census is said to have been conducted by the Babylonians in the second millennia BCE. Using clay tablets and cuneiform script, a complex list was kept of those who were able to undertake military service.

Other than a move to papyrus, and later to paper, the process continued unchanged through to the modern day.

That is until this year when the Australian Census attempted to innovate what is a complex and logistically difficult process by moving much of the process to the internet. The result has left Census 2016 as a cautionary tale in the public sector.

While the execution was poor, the instinct was right.

Governments should always be trying to find more efficient ways to provide their services; they should always be trying to streamline timelines and processes. As the only business we, as taxpayers, are compelled to support they should be trying to find cheaper ways of providing better services to ensure we get the greatest impact from our hard-earned money.

There’s no doubt that after #CensusFail, and other high-profile public sector ICT failures like the Queensland Health payroll debacle, governments will see the reputational, legal and political risks of public sector innovation as too high — particularly that which is enabled by an IT system.

While that reaction is perfectly valid, the lesson of the 2016 Census isn’t to stop public sector innovation. The lesson is to ensure that the innovation is put in place for solid reasons and that it’s able to provide the same, or better service that the community has come to expect.

That is more difficult than it seems. The core problem is that the public sector has little tolerance for any failure and is structured to maintain business as usual operations, both of which aren’t natural fits for innovation.

Embracing trial and error: The City of Boston

The City of Boston is great at creating the environment that has otherwise eluded the public sector. Their New Urban Mechanics program — part of a network including Philadelphia and Utah Valley — has been set up to test, in a controlled way, public sector innovation.

The driver behind New Urban Mechanics is to, “explore how new technology, designs and policies can strengthen the partnership between residents and government and significantly improve opportunity and experiences for all.”

The program receives a dedicated budget from the council to trial things that may assist the core service delivery function of their city, on the understanding that some things will work and some things will not. To enable this, they have put a number of entrepreneurial project managers in that area to see what works and what doesn’t, and provide the tested innovation back into the council.

The idea of a civic network is a great one too – the lessons learned from each pilot project are shared across the three offices.

One of their success stories is the Citizens Connect app, which boosted citizen participation in reporting issues on the City’s streets. In 2010, reports from the app comprised 6% of all service requests and by 2014 this was up to roughly 28%. Boston also used their innovation as a way to support an innovative culture of local start-ups, with the PitchBoston competition. Start-ups could submit a video pitch to win space in the City’s Innovation District, also helping to showcase Boston’s innovation potential.

The idea is that not all ideas work – and that’s ok because there are always lessons to be learned and shared.

One such idea was QR codes on street furniture to get information from the public about problems they spotted in the streets. But the team soon realised the pilot had drawbacks, including a lack of data on each piece of street furniture, the unpopularity of QR codes, and not knowing how to best design the QR coded labels to be “discrete and attractive yet noticeable and instructive.”

Though not on the scale of a national census, the premise is what’s important. Trial and error are inevitable with any kind of innovation, including in the public sector.

It’s my hope that the brave, but conspicuously flawed, Census 2016 will not send a message to governments that public sector innovation is a Gordian knot of risk, but a continued imperative which can and must be enabled to succeed.

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5 years ago


Census 2016 was well past the innovation stage for an electronic Census, with the ABS first offering the option in 2006 and again in 2011.

There were a lot of learnings from those first two outings, which were shared, but not well internalised by the ABS. Very few of the learnings fed into the latest effort, partially due to timeframes and partially due to systemic challenges which limit the government’s capability to learn from mistakes.

Being the third outing for an eCensus in Australia, with both the ABS and IBM involved for a third time, the takeaway isn’t related to innovation, it’s related to a failure to learn from past events a failure to adequately design and test a digital system attracting significantly less traffic than most major commercial sites and a failure to plan the risks or to engage based on good crisis communications principles.

Innovation involves a significantly higher bar than upscaling and tweaking a system that’s already been used twice before in a decade – there’s plenty of good example of innovation in government, but, sorry, the 2016 Census is not one of them.

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