BizLab: walking the talk to increase public sector innovation

By Victoria Draudins

November 28, 2016

BizLab began with the idea that in future being innovative “is simply the way we do business” says Janna McCann, who heads up BizLab at the Commonwealth Department of Industry, Innovation and Science.

“The challenges we face are increasingly complex and there are more ‘big unknowns’ than ever. To complement a traditional focus on economic analysis and quantitative evidence, there is a clear need to incorporate more of the human sciences,” such as ethnography, anthropology and psychology. Ultimately, by marrying a range of disciplines, government can deliver better policies, services and regulations.

But, while the department has an overarching innovation strategy, it did not have a detailed action plan. As McCann notes, “a culture of innovation doesn’t happen by accident. It requires dedicated systems, frameworks and champions to cultivate cultural change.” Hence BizLab was established, encapsulated in a team and a physical space dedicated to drive citizen value creation.

“Teams working in a dedicated innovation function must operate in a highly ambiguous and flat structure and have excellent stakeholder engagement skills”

User Centered Design (UCD), which places the end user at the heart of everything, underpins BizLab’s strategy. “It’s about rolling up our sleeves and engaging with Australian businesses and scientists face to get a deep, rich understanding of their lives and needs” says McCann.

UCD is increasing popping up in government, especially in service delivery. Other high profile examples include the launch of the UK Digital Government Service’s user research lab in July 2014, and South Australia’s UCD Toolkit, which was adapted from the Digital Transformation Agency’s Service Handbook this year.

The driving force behind BizLab’s launch in August 2016 came from acting deputy secretary David Hazlehurst. “David in particular did tremendous groundwork in selling the vision and opportunity internally to gain the necessary resources to support the implementation”, which took about with about 6 months between inception to implementation, says McCann. “Having personally experienced the power of User Centric Design during his time as CEO of the [then] interim Digital Transformation Office, he is a passionate advocate of the need to develop empathy for end users.” Ultimately, his support along with other senior leaders like secretary Glenys Beauchamp was crucial to establishing BizLab.

Helping APS staff to put innovation in practice

One of BizLab’s clear value propositions comes from its ability to inject a diverse, new set of perspectives into existing processes – crucial to any good innovation offering.

The BizLab team is currently made up of nine people with a range of technical skills including private sector lawyers, experience designers and PHD students. A core part of McCann’s recruitment strategy is to focus on diversity as without it “we risk not establishing a deep empathy for the needs and motivations of people we engage with.” This includes tapping into the private sector, as well as the APS, to recruit talent.


The innovation hub has three types of service offering. First, BizLab work with cross-divisional and department teams to help solve complex problems in policy, program and delivery spaces. Staff also provides consulting services, such as to help define problems – a key challenge involved in experimentation – and conduct workshops to stimulate breakthrough thinking. Lastly, the BizLab team strives to build capabilities both within the Department and the wider APS. This includes through DIIS’s own innovation strategy, by holding events, supporting APS Innovation Champions, collaborating with parties during Innovation Month, and hosting the Public Sector Innovation Network (PSIN). Anyone interested can sign up to the PSIN newsletters or access their online tools and resources, with the PSIN website getting a refresh at the end of the year.

“I think fundamentally everyone knows it’s an operational imperative to become “more innovative”’ says McCann. Staff “understood the ‘why’ but didn’t have enough of the ‘how’. That’s the gap we’re trying to plug.” While the public service has countless examples of being innovative, “this is simply the next phase in terms of evolving tools and support structures to build a broader and more sustainable innovation culture”

Asked about how the rest of DIIS views BizLab, McCann says they have been flat out, especially from the delivery teams. This is “perhaps because they are closer and therefore more comfortable at the coalface of user interactions.”

BizLab’s most recent project involved the R&D Tax Incentive where a team of eight subject matter experts from DIIS, Treasury and ATO joined forces to speak to a range of business owners across Australia “to understand first-hand the current and idealized experience with the program.” By talking to and observing business owners in their offices or factories, the team identified opportunities to improve the program that simply wouldn’t have been uncovered through surveys or engaging with representative bodies alone.

Challenges of the APS

McCann, who worked for Fortune 500’s across industry, and ran a number of innovation agencies as well as her own business, notes that as a newcomer to government, she was struck by the complexity of processes in government. While some government processes will always need to be adhered to, “there are also lots of opportunities to strip out low value process that stop us being agile and responsive to citizen’s needs”.

Another contrast from the private sector McCann found was the low tolerance for risk in government. This “makes public sector innovation even more challenging — but not impossible!” Reminiscent of the DTA, BizLab has adopted a startup mentality to address this issue in its own establishment, until its official launch around the end of the year. “We are here to serve the department and it will take some time to refine our offer as we ourselves do user research into our internal client needs. We will and must make mistakes…our ability to learn and adapt will be what counts.”

Top tips on establishing BizLab

Janna McCann
Janna McCann

McCann notes five elements she observed that has been vital to BizLab’s success to date, which carries through into any new initiative in government:

  1. Ensure it starts at the top — without the support of senior stakeholders who literally walk the talk, change is near impossible
  2. Get the right people on the bus — the teams you have working in a dedicated innovation function must have the ability to operate in a highly ambiguous and flat structure and have excellent stakeholder engagement skills
  3. Get your foundations in place — skill up innovation team participants ASAP. In a learn-by-doing model, you need people who have the technical know-how in order to transfer expertise.
  4. Don’t do it alone — find your tribe, your community of practice i.e. other innovation teams both internal and external to the APS, to use as sounding boards. Develop an eco-system of formal and informal mentors and look to build supplier partnerships to fill capability gaps in the short term at least.
  5. Signal you mean inclusive change — I’m a firm believer that a physical creative space is invaluable in order to trigger the mind into a different mode of thinking i.e. from task to creative mode. However it must be managed carefully to not be seen as something off to the side that’s disconnected from the day-to-day department.  I spend a lot of effort communicating to teams that this is “Your BizLab”.

McCann’s leadership philosophy at BizLabs

McCann believes that a leader needs to have a clear purpose and set of values, which they openly share with the team. Her personal purpose is to unlock the greatness in others.

“I’m an advocate for the teachings of Simon Sinek– the Golden Circles (recommend you check it out on YouTube if you haven’t seen it already). It’s such a simple process to clarify your purpose ie. the “why” behind what you do, compared to just the how and the what. I shared this approach with my team recently and they immediately started using it successfully with internal clients as it can apply to an individual or a program or a brand.  People buy into the why you do something not what you do.”

And her values? “Curiosity, empathy and laughter. I believe when times get tough you have to look to your personal values to determine a response. I like to think I am demonstrating these principles with my team and I encourage them to be brave in trialling new approaches in tackling new challenges in our increasingly complex yet exciting world.”

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