Buzzword or best practice? ‘Innovation’ keeps gaining ground in the public sector

By The Mandarin

Thursday March 9, 2017

The influence of the i-word in government shows no signs of waning as the Public Sector Innovation Network, which started in the federal Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, continues branching out across the nation.

In the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, an Innovation Resource Facility has been established by the InnovationXchange group, primarily to support the Australian overseas aid program but also to help other Commonwealth agencies develop “innovation capabilities” by providing access to general “non-aid related innovation skills” through the IRF’s online portal.

The new facility will adapt to changing demand from the public service over time, but claims to have expertise in eight areas including digital technology, new monitoring and evaluation techniques, sourcing innovative ideas, problem solving techniques and social impact investing. It offers three services to DFAT and other departments:

  • A help desk to provide rapid response advice on an innovation-related query.
  • The identification, management and deployment of targeted advisory support (short or long term) eg human centred design specialists to support program design or a policy challenge of a development partner.
  • Technical solutions in response to almost any technical or complex problem space.

The PSIN’s Victorian chapter reports its most recent meeting last month focused on brainstorming ahead of Innovation Month 2017 — July 3-30 with the theme “Making it Happen” — but also spent some time discussing how to grow the network in the garden state. There’s already a Yammer group for PSIN but some Victorian members suggested it might exclude some public servants if their agencies block the app and so a new common platform for communication might be a good idea.

One popular concept for Innovation Month in Victoria was to replace the typical feature-length conference presentations with two or three-minute “lightning talks” in which the speaker is buzzed off stage if they go over time. They’re also keen to hear more about “design thinking” in Melbourne, and to screen the documentary Design Disruptors.

A spokesperson from Sydney’s PSIN group reports innovators from state, local and federal government had the same things on their minds at its latest gathering: “The room had a real and positive energy as the 19 people shared the diversity of our backgrounds and innovation experiences; generated ideas to build a #PSINSYD community; and set the wheels in motion to “Make it Happen” for July’s Innovation Month.”

One big Innovation Month event for Canberra’s federal and territory government agencies is their combined annual Innovation Awards. Nominations opened on March 1 and the organisers at the Institute of Public Administration Australia ACT Branch are calling for volunteer assessors from the public service to help with the judging process.

Next week in Canberra is the launch of Hacking the Bureaucracy, a report by Melbourne web design firm Portable that has been floating around since late last year and promises to explore the “key drivers” of innovation in government.

And finally, in his most recent report from the first meeting of the Innovation Champions group for 2017, chair (and DIIS deputy secretary) David Hazlehurst brings some statistical links between “innovation culture” and traditional workforce metrics, thanks to the Department of Environment and Energy and the Australian Public Service Commission:

  • Management: departments with staff that considered their work environment as having a higher emphasis on innovation had managers that communicated and encouraged innovation. This was done in conjunction with a climate of accountability that accepted and learnt from mistakes, and proactively managed risk.
  • Department Size: typically larger departments were less likely to be perceived by their staff as encouraging innovation.  Staff in larger departments also considered their work environment as focusing less on development of new ideas, having poorer change/risk management, higher levels of red tape and less effective internal communications when compared to average staff attitudes across the APS.
  • Function: operational agencies were less likely to indicate that they had a culture of encouraging innovation. Staff were least likely to be satisfied with their supervisors’ ability to communicate with influence.
  • Assessing staff demographics, comparisons could also be made on innovation-related attitudes. Staff who were more positive about their department’s innovation capability were generally younger, at a higher classification level, were newer to the public service, and commonly located in the ACT.

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