Parkinson: public service isn't as risk averse as everyone thinks

By David Donaldson

October 13, 2016

Martin Parkinson speaking to CEDA on October 10, 2016.

“Public servants are risk averse” is a mantra so often repeated it almost gained the patina of immutable truth.

But the head of the Australian Public Service reckons it’s not as bad as many would have you believe.

“There’s this view that the public sector itself, basically public servants, are inherently risk averse,” says Martin Parkinson, secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. “I don’t know that we’re actually really that much different to anyone else.”

In fact, recent problems with open data, including the discovery that publicly available Medicare and Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme data could be decrypted, has not put the APS off increasing the amount of information published.

“We can’t hold data to ourselves. We’ve got to be prepared to fess up when we get it wrong. There have been a couple of instances where people have had to fess up big time in the last little while,” Parkinson told the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia State of the Nation conference on Monday.

“Let’s be explicit about it: the MBS and PBS data. The natural tendency if we were risk averse would be to say we’d better not release any data again. In fact what I’ve been struck by and regard as incredibly positive is the ‘what lesson do we take from that so we can accelerate the release of data from the public sector?’ I think that’s really important.”

“So I’m not sure we’re actually less innovative. I think we haven’t got a track record of being innovative, so we’ve got to go and now prove we’re up to it, and we’ll know in the next couple of years. Take that as a challenge.”

But the mandarin acknowledged it can be difficult for public servants to be innovative. The incentive structure in the public sector “doesn’t always help us to be innovative,” Parkinson told the CEDA event.

There are plenty of ideas about, though. PM&C recently asked five groups of graduates to come up with innovative ideas for how it might do things differently, he recalled. They came up with “really interesting” ideas, said the secretary, including suggestions around crowdsourcing policy development and cooperating policy development with the private sector.

“The question is: why haven’t we done it to date? Maybe we are less innovative, maybe the incentive structure’s not quite right,” he noted.

“But one thing I’ve been doing since I took over this job is telling the public sector we’ve got to become more innovative.”

Part of the problem is how Australians view failure, he thinks.

“It’s got to be okay to fail. If the incentive structure, whether in the private sector or in the public sector, doesn’t allow you to fail and fail fast, and then if you’ve learned something, try and try again, then I think you actually might find it really hard to foster that culture of innovation that we all want to see,” Parkinson explained.

“I often reflect on the cultural difference between Australia and the United States — and I’m going to paint this in extremes, but it always strikes me as if I have a go and I fail, but I’ve seemed to learn something and I have another good idea, people will be willing to back me again [in the US].

“And I might even fail a second time, and yet if I’ve still got another good idea and people can see I’m getting closer to it then they’re still inclined to back me. … Whereas in Australia there’s a tendency to say you’ve failed and there’s a mark on your forehead.”

Watch Martin Parkinson answer question on Australia’s public and private innovation

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