More than a buzzword: Beauchamp's tips for making innovation real

By Stephen Easton

November 21, 2016

Glenys Beauchamp was delighted to have the words innovation and science re-attached to the federal department she leads, but admitted candidly she feels the pressure of being front and centre in the Prime Minister’s signature policy as both facilitator and exemplar.

In terms of the first role, innovation is far more than a buzzword for Beauchamp, an economist by academic background. Speaking at a recent Institute for Public Administration Australia (ACT Branch) conference, she got straight to the practical point of the National Innovation and Science Agenda: “as much as 50% of long-term economic growth comes from innovation,” according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

What is the role of government in this process? “In the portfolio that I’m in, most of us economists talk about our involvement as addressing areas of market value,” she said.

“For example: access to information, developing a skills base, ensuring we’ve got a good regulatory framework; that the macro frameworks for operating are effective. In this sense, the government is very much a facilitator.”

Conference host Virginia Haussegger later asked Beauchamp directly about the sense that innovation had become a buzzword or a cliche.

“I think it has been used as a buzzword but if I look at some of the buzzwords of the past, about continuous improvement and all of those things, I mean it’s really accepting that we’re operating in an environment of change and you want to do your best and you want to be thinking of new things,” said the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science secretary.

“That’s what it’s all about … being open to what’s possible and taking the initiative to do something about it. I think we do want to get away from innovation being used as a cliché, and I think it probably has [become one], and it probably does get used a lot and I think maybe sometimes being in public service, the innovation is our responsibility because we’re running with the innovation agenda as such, but I think it’s a much more, a whole of government, whole of community thing …”

As well as making sure the regulatory, taxation and workplace relations frameworks are as “enabling” as possible for businesses, while investing in education and research, government is also expected to be an innovation catalyst, she said. According to Beauchamp, “there definitely was an announcement effect” from the NISA in the form of a “significant” positive effect on the economy.

“We also, we heard and we see in the National Innovation and Science agenda that government is an exemplar, and the Prime Minister’s expectation is the government is to be an exemplar,” she added.

“And I must say I feel under a huge amount of pressure in my portfolio, with ‘innovation’ in the department’s name, and if we’re not leading by example, by showing the rest of the public service what is possible but also walking the talk in terms of what we’re asking businesses to do, then I think we’d be failing.

For the public service to walk the talk as an innovation exemplar, its advice should favour “using the government levers that we have got” and avoid creating another layer of “programmatic confetti” around areas like tax and procurement.

The imperative to rethink, not just retweak

But, as Beauchamp warned later in the panel discussion, policy advice to government is now a very “contestable” space, meaning there are lots of competing providers and if the government as an advice “customer” doesn’t find what it is hearing from the public service compelling, it may well go elsewhere.

“If we aren’t responding to the customer’s needs, we become irrelevant and we would be abolished,” she said. “I think Treasury and PM&C are the long stayers but the rest of us, the government does make changes to organisations and governance and I think it’s up to us.

“We get appropriated a lot of money to run big departments, sometimes small departments, so the sole imperative should be on us to deliver, as it is in business. I don’t think we take that attitude.

“I think we [as public servants] very much [repeat] what we’ve always done, and we just tweak it with a bunch of processes … rather than looking at the whole canvas and saying, ‘What can we do with the resources we’ve got? And we’ve got a responsibility to run it for the long term and to be sustainable.”

For example, the government is currently considering the recent review of the Research and Development Tax Incentive, which aimed to determine what impact it is having and how it could be more effective in encouraging more private money to be spent on R&D.

“We do need to do more about what we’re getting in terms of that impact, and we’re going through that process with the recent review,” she explained.

She said “the history of the most innovative nations on Earth” showed that government should be a lot more than a facilitator for the private sector, pointing out that a lot of “revolutionary technologies” have come out of government-funded research organisations.

Beauchamp mentioned Australia’s participation in the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope project. It escaped the funding cuts that recently hit other areas of astronomy and other less commercially focused types of science, more generally, and will be “an absolute game changer in terms of being at the forefront of big data developments” according to the DIIS secretary.

She also spruiked the government’s investment of $25 million of quantum computing research through the NISA, as well as support for financial technology and providing open access to troves of data that allows entrepreneurs to build new digital services.

“I think secretaries and leaders have to trial new things,” said Beauchamp, giving a special mention to Clive Rossiter, general manager of her department’s Single Business Service ICT program, who recently began a movement to identify and stop following “stupid rules” in the department.

“One of the big things that we’re trialling is absolutely working with citizens and stakeholders and we talked about collaboration across government,” she added, referring to Industry’s in-house innovation unit, BizLab.

“We talk about robust evidence-based and the like, but I think what we’re doing now is involving users and citizens and indeed business, designing programs and looking at how do we improve current programs and we’ve had Biz Lab technology, Biz Lab methodology, being used for how we might improve the administration at the R&D system, as an example.”

Similar innovation units are cropping up all over Australia’s government bureaucracies. Beauchamp says they highlight the fact that people are the “best assets” of public sector agencies.

“I think we need to lead by example in developing the right skills,” she said.

“We shouldn’t be all economists. We should be scientists and engineers and design thinkers and the like in the leadership areas.”

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