For efforts to strengthen innovation in the public sector over recent years to make a lasting difference, the specific skills and methodologies behind the popular term must become part of mainstream public service practices.
That’s the goal public servants need to keep in mind, according to Department of Industry, Innovation and Science deputy secretary David Hazlehurst, who chairs the Australian Public Service Innovation Champions Group and has whole-of-government responsibility for implementing the National Science and Innovation Agenda.
“There’s lots of promising signs, there’s lots of good activity that’s going on,” he told The Mandarin. But he thinks public sector innovation will remain “potentially vulnerable to the cycles of enthusiasm for new ways of doing things” until it goes mainstream.
APS leaders have been encouraging innovative approaches to public sector work for much of the past decade. The 2010 report Empowering change, as just one example, argued an ability to question the status quo and relentlessly seek better solutions is an intrinsic and essential part of good public administration.
It suggested this was already happening, but in an ad-hoc way, and called for systematic action to identify and remove barriers like “red tape and siloed thinking” in order to work towards the explicit goal of building an “innovation culture” to last.
There’s been more reports since then, and practical examples of the kind of innovative public service that mandarins have been describing. Examples from 2016 are collated in the APS Innovation Snapshot 2016, newly published by the department this week.
Public sector innovation is also now more clearly defined. Hazlehurst refers to the examples in the report in terms of specific tools and skill sets like design thinking, crowdsourcing, or the Agile methodology, applied to policy and program design. These are now commonplace, but were not explicitly used in the 2010 report.
He is pleased to have plenty of fresh examples to report of public servants using these new approaches and working “in a novel or interesting way” but says these innovative practices need to move from trials to become second nature to public servants.
According to the Snapshot, it is hoped the initiatives it celebrates will “normalise” principles like “acceptance of risk and experimentation” as agencies adopt more contemporary ways of working and flatter organisational structures. Hazlehurst says innovation culture needs to penetrate into “the core business processes of the public sector” and he doesn’t think it’s quite there yet.
“But there’s some really promising signs that it’s continuing to gather momentum,” he adds.
“Most importantly, what you really want is to see examples of the hardest things we have to do being done differently, in contemporary ways that involve, for example, co-design or human-centred design or Agile methods — as applied to policy and service delivery, rather than just to digital.”
By Agile, he means the philosophy that is most often used in reference to digital transformation and ICT projects, which he believes can be applied much more broadly:
“A mix of: multi-disciplinary teams, co-located, working in sprints, moving quickly to a minimum viable product, iterating, working closely with users, and a really strong emphasis on design — human-centred design — and user research at the beginning so that you work out really what the problem is, before you dream up what the solution might be.”
The Innovation Champions, convened in mid-2015, act as a peer-support and learning network for senior leaders championing innovation in their agencies. It works to support the spread of innovation culture, and the specific skills and ideas behind the popular term.
“The real test is about mainstreaming them, in effect,” said Hazlehurst. “What you want is for these sorts of techniques and approaches and ways of developing new policy or new programs to be part of the toolkit, and that people naturally turn to them when they have a big problem.
“Of course, the other test is whether these approaches actually deliver better outcomes. There is good evidence to suggest they do, but we also need to monitor this closely.”
Getting ideas, inside and out
Innovation also involves ways for staff of all levels to contribute more ideas; organised events like competitions or hackathons are a popular option.
“Focusing crowdsourcing of ideas or other processes on specific challenges provides focus, which is helpful because the risk is otherwise, you get an unmanageable set of ideas,” Hazlehurst comments.
“And, what starts off as being quite motivating and exciting and liberating for staff potentially runs the risk of becoming something they end up being cynical about — where an unmanageable set of ideas is produced that overwhelms the capacity of and organisation to respond to them all.”
Dedicated innovation labs like InnovationXChange in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade or BizLab in DIIS are a good way to support new ideas that emerge from all over a big department, and help transfer new methodologies.
“We don’t throw a problem to the BizLab, ask it to work out the answer and then spit it back,” said Hazlehurst.
“The relevant area owns their challenge. The BizLab scaffolds them with new tools, techniques, new philosophies, to come up with their own answers to the problem. And that way the area owns it, they feel a sense of ownership over the solution, and you get to a result you might not otherwise have been able to.
“But also, of course, you’re partly ‘teaching them how to fish’ — there’s actually a skills transfer that’s occurring as well.”
Good ideas are also increasingly being sourced externally. The Business Research and Innovation Initiative, which aims to open up government problems to the private sector to compete and develop innovative solutions, is one example in the report.
“The people who are responding to those challenges, about four SMEs for each challenge, get a grant to test the feasibility and if successful, a grant to develop a proof of concept,” Hazlehurst explained.
“They also then own the IP, so the goal is to develop a new product or business. But this is also a way of widening the pool of insight and capability to solve problems for the public sector.”
Defence is also doing similar things, using the Defence Innovation portal to crowdsource innovative ideas from industry and the research community and channel them through the Defence Innovation Hub and the Next Generation Technologies Fund, he adds.
These popular design principles emphasise empathy with the users of whatever you are designing, and are another way of getting more input from stakeholders, through an iterative process based on lots of user testing.
“Human-centred design includes approaches such as ethnographic user research, where you sit humbly in the place of the person you are talking to — the business for example, from my perspective it is businesses — and really develop deep empathy and understanding of what life is like for them,” Hazlehurst explains.
“Not just specifically to do with the thing you’re most interested in, but a bit more generally than that, to understand the circumstances in which they’re operating and develop a better understanding … and empathy for why they are making the decisions that they are, why they behave the way they do, and what would actually help to deliver a better outcome.”
This is not a substitute for the normal methods of consultation like talking to representative bodies or quantitative analytical work, he adds, because it’s difficult to have detailed conversations with a representative sample of stakeholders.
“Taking a design approach can complement other forms of analysis. It’s to help you understand not what people are doing, but why are they doing it. It helps you respond with prototypes, if you like, of policies or program designs that might work better with the reasons why people really behave as they do.”
“These approaches are not new, but embedding them in our approaches to policy and program design would make a big difference.”
The outputs of innovation
Public servants are doing similar things at all levels, nationwide, and there are plenty who look forward to more substantial changes to the interface between citizens and government agencies.
In the medium-term, perhaps in the next five or six years, Hazlehurst thinks service delivery could start to look quite different as APIs allow third parties to provide access to digital government services: “You won’t go to a government agency, you’ll go to Siri, Cortana or even Google.”
This is already starting to occur. Industry is taking some baby steps in this direction, in collaboration with the New South Wales government’s service delivery agency.
Working towards a “no wrong door policy” where everything one needs to start a business is in one place, Service NSW has developed a small-scale trial limited to the hospitality sector in Parramatta.
Serendipitously, the new Business Registration Service beta was released on April 19. This is the initial phase of an initiative developed by Industry, the Tax Office, ASIC and Treasury. BRS allows customers to apply for 10 different business registrations at the same time, in the same place.
“And now we’re going to be able to join that up and make it one seamless experience with Service NSW,” said Hazlehurst.
Initially the integration will guide users through the process of getting their Australian Government registrations as well as state and local government licenses in a single journey, without re-entering any information. Eventually, the Commonwealth’s new business registration service will be embedded in the Service NSW platform so users won’t have to leave its site.
“The really cool bit” will be when the API is available to other third parties, Hazelhurst says, so the same registration service could then be embedded elsewhere, in other sites, apps or accounting software.
Meanwhile, the APS will host its second Innovation Awards this year and another Innovation Month approaches as the Public Sector Innovation Network, which now has 3400 members, continues extending support to chapters around the country.
For Hazlehurst, “the real test” of all these initiatives all over Australia is the same, wherever they take place: “the extent to which innovation crosses the threshold from being something interesting, but not mainstream, to being something that actually is core business and core skills for the public sector.”