Andrew Metcalfe on 'the freedom to think differently' in the public sector: full video interview

By The Mandarin

June 21, 2017

The Institute of Public Administration Australia (ACT Division) recently brought in its former president Andrew Metcalfe to discuss public sector innovation in a video interview with The Mandarin.

Metcalfe, who is on the judging panel for this year’s Australian Public Service and ACT government Public Sector Innovation Awards, joined the APS in 1980 and served as secretary of four departments over a diverse and celebrated career. He is now a Fellow of both the IPAA and the Australian Institute of Management, and works in Canberra for EY as their lead partner for engagement with government organisations.

Today, we present the full interview, which is also transcribed below.


Stephen Easton: We’re here speaking with Andrew Metcalfe from the judging panel of this year’s APS and ACT Government Innovation Awards. Could you tell us, first of all, a little bit about yourself and your involvement with the Institute for Public Administration and the APS itself?

Andrew Metcalfe: Yeah. Thanks very much and delighted to be talking about this topic. It’s a really important one. I’m, of course, really pleased to be on the judging panel for the innovation awards this year. I’m probably wearing a couple of hats in being asked to be a judge. Firstly, my firm EY, Ernst & Young is a sponsor of the awards, but also, I’m a former departmental secretary of a couple of commonwealth departments and I was president of IPAA ACT for a number of years as well. Really looking forward to sitting down with my fellow judges in looking at some really interesting entries.

SE: Without going into too many specifics and giving the game away, what’s your impression of this year’s crop of entries?

AM: Look, I sat down the other day and went through each of the entries really carefully and I was just delighted to see what’s come forward for the judges to consider, and indeed, it’s going to be a pretty tough job for the judges.

We’ve seen quite a few different organisations both from the Commonwealth and the ACT and really good examples I think of public servants thinking differently about how they do things, thinking about how they deliver great results for governments and for taxpayers and for their clients and customers. So, diverse, but all really meritorious and representing what you’re hoping for in an innovation ecosystem.

SE: That’s good; there’s diversity. Innovation can mean different things to different people. For some, it’s a very general idea to do with new ideas, for others, a very specific list of words and concepts comes to mind. In a practical sense, what does innovation in the public sector mean to you?

AM: I think innovation means a number of things. Firstly, it probably means the recognition of the need to experiment and to think differently about things. It does need to be focused on the mission of the organisation and it does need to ultimately have foundations of a robust approach and based upon demonstrable results — success in other words.

But it is the freedom as well. It’s the freedom to think differently, to bring in other ideas and to say that we just won’t keep doing things the way we’ve always done them, but also to think, what are others doing? How could we think about things differently? How could we improve what we do? Having that environment of freedom, the ability to experiment, the permission to do that, but knowing that there needs to be a good, sound business reason for doing it, are all the ingredients that I think people look for, for innovation.

SE: In your impression, has that understanding changed or become more clearly defined in the APS since your time in government?

AM: I left government about three and a half, four years ago and it’s very, very clear that now is a time where innovation is being strongly encouraged, but I wouldn’t suggest that it’s never been the case in the past. So let me just explore that a little bit — but it’s very clear from statements made by the Prime Minister, statements made by the secretary of the Prime Minister’s department, and indeed many other public sector leaders, that they are looking for the public sector to innovate and continually look at new ways of doing things.

That reflects, I think, the fact that the public sector is part of the much broader economy and we’re seeing unprecedented levels of change — a word a lot of people use is disruption — and so, things that have been done in particular ways in the past, people are now seeing that they are changing dramatically, through the use of data, through the use of technology, through the use of new ways of thinking about things, through the way that people approach their customers and the expectations that their customers have of the service provider, whether it’s a company or whether it’s a government department.

So it’s very clear to me, sitting here in 2017, that there’s a strong impetus for innovation in the public sector.

But I wouldn’t say that that’s new. It’s certainly present at the moment, but I’ve seen examples over a very long career. I started in the public sector as a graduate in 1980 and had a very long career, particularly in the Department of Immigration, but also the Prime Minister’s department and the Department of Agriculture, and I saw some extremely innovative approaches being taken over time.

For example, it’s 20 years this year since the first electronic application process for visas was introduced. So it’s not something that’s a recent development, but harnessing the power of technology before or around the time the internet was invented was something that the Department of Immigration actually undertook.

Now that system has developed and changed and is vastly more capable 20 years on, but that’s just one example of an innovative approach that had a direct beneficial application for users of the system — they didn’t need to fill in forms and line up outside embassies any longer; they could apply at that point through travel agents — and, of course, that meant far better collection of data and the ability to start interrogating data.

Innovation has been with us for a long time, but I do think that what we’re seeing today is a very strong focus and it’s great to see.

SE: That’s really good — so it’s always been intrinsic to good public service. … How much room do you think there is in government, states and territories or the commonwealth for pure research and development, to deliver new paradigm-shifting inventions?

AM: Look, I think in terms of pure research and development, to be honest, I suspect that quite often how that work is going to progress is the public sector working with other people. We’re working with universities, working with CSIRO, for example, working with consultancy firms and others and indeed, something I’m seeing because I now work right across government — Commonwealth, state and territory and indeed overseas as well — are organisations that are increasingly partnering in what they’re doing.

It might be indirect application of client services or it may be through the way they think about policy developments. There have been some really interesting innovations made in a number of departments because they’ve partnered with others and, importantly, because the government ministers, departmental heads have given them the permission to do that.

So I think that pure research will occur in parts of the public service and particularly at the Commonwealth level, the Defence science organisation or the Bureau of Agricultural Economics and those sorts of bodies — Geoscience Australia and so forth, and people involved at that research end, and perhaps taking it to an applied research end. But I’m also seeing many examples of the public sector partnering with others to ensure that we are really looking at the very best ways of advancing developments in the future.

SE: Public servants like to compare their service design efforts with those of the market-leading private sector companies, but it’s been pointed out that secretaries in the public service don’t have as much power as CEOs of companies; that executive power is held by a minister. What differences would you say between government departments and large private sector organisations are most relevant when we discuss innovation?

AM: I think that in many ways the systems are similar, but of course, their different and I think that’s what your question is about. In the private sector, of course, there is accountability. CEOs don’t have plenipotentiary powers, unanswerable to anyone. They’re answerable ultimately to boards and to shareholders and indeed their customers as well.

In the public sector, there’s of course a very strong accountability framework. We are talking about the expenditure of taxpayers’ funds and therefore any government, any minister, any head of department is going to be mindful of the appropriate arrangements to ensure that funds are spent wisely and not wasted.

At the same time, there are also strong probity arrangements in place to ensure that market testing and appropriate sourcing of activity, if it’s coming from outside the organisation, occurs as well. And that accountability, of course, is very evident in processes that I’m very familiar with like Senate Estimates hearings or indeed through accountability to media inquiries and so on.

There are accountability frameworks, but they differ I suspect between the private and public sector. What I see departments are doing now is being prepared to say, ‘A small proportion of our overall funding is something that we are prepared to use to experiment, to innovate, to test and to trial, and we’ll then make decisions as to whether this idea is worth investing in, whether it will represent a return on investment, whether we can realise the benefits of this investment and whether it in fact can, over time, produce significant efficiencies or significantly improve the services we offer.’ And so, that’s terrific to see that sort of conversation occurring.

SE: There’s various international rankings around the place for innovation, for digital government, things like that. How would you rate Australia globally in terms of innovation across all sectors?

AM: I probably wouldn’t try and double-guess some of those surveys and rankings, but I did go and have a look at my own firm’s work in this area and it’s quite interesting to see how Australia ranks quite highly compared to OECD countries in certain areas — certainly tertiary education and in a range of other areas as well.

But it’s well known I think that in some other surveys, Australia ranks quite poorly, particularly in converting great ideas into practical applications. And I know this has been very much part of the conversation that the Prime Minister and the chief scientist and the head of CSIRO and various other public figures have been leading: How do we great ideas that we have and actually turn them into tangible results?

One of the other interesting surveys is that my firm, EY, sponsors a global Entrepreneur of the Year program and, indeed, the Australian winner of the Entrepreneur of the Year in this last year has been Aspen Medical, which is a Canberra-based company headed by Glenn Keys and a number of other people.

And Glenn, of course, was recognised in the Australia Day honours list [and] in the Queen’s Birthday honours list yesterday and was made an Officer of the Order of Australia. Glenn this week has been in Monaco at the World Entrepreneur of the Year finals. I haven’t heard the result, but I’m sure he and Aspen Medical did very well.

So here’s a Canberra company that is delivering medical services in some extremely challenging parts of the world, in Iraq. They were of course very closely involved with the response of the Ebola outbreak in Central Africa a year or two ago. Fantastic example of innovation, of new ways of delivering services and partnering with governments in order to innovate.

So Australia ranks high in some areas, but there’s obviously more to do in others, so my impression is that even if you’re number one, you don’t want to stop trying. And clearly, we’ve got a little way to go before number one — and developing that innovation ecosystem and converting those great ideas into tangible practical results is something that many private sector leaders are focused on and many public service sector leaders are focused on and that’s a great thing.

SE: That’s really good. That’s a very good example. In terms of the ecosystem within the public sector, there’s two ways I’ve broken this down: Which do you think is more important for public sector leaders to focus on? Encouraging staff directly to generate new ideas and new approaches in the existing framework or setting up new or changed processes, professional development, structures, work environments, to create this culture of innovation to encourage it to flourish?

AM: The answer is obviously both. It’s not a question of choices here and I think one of the important things about innovation and the ideas and thinking behind innovation is that there shouldn’t be any wrong path, that you should look at what you do now and say: Can we make this better?

The electronic travel authority that I mentioned earlier — 20 years ago some very smart people, Ed Killesteyn and some of the people that worked with him, looked at how we could change the problem where we have large queues of people lining up outside the Australian High Commission in London or the Australian Embassy in Tokyo, wanting to come to Australia as a holiday and we were making it difficult because we were forcing them to wait in lines and fill in forms, and all that sort of thing.

The thinking then is: How could we use what technology is now offering and the other experiences that they’re having — so we know that people at that point, pre-internet, were going to travel agents … to book airlines and that sort of thing. How could we work with the travel agent network to capture their data, their names, their dates of birth, and to transmit that, to regard that as the application, and to run that across warning lists and systems to make sure that we were picking up people of concern. And that, overnight, almost got rid of queues and made Australia far more welcoming.

Another example from my own past is the innovative way that we worked with the Chinese government to open up tourism out of China to Australia under the Approved Destination Status Scheme, which is something that Austrade developed [with the] Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and my old department, Immigration and Citizenship, as it then was.

That was very much responsible for capitalising on the fact that we had virtually no tourism out of China. And now China is if not our biggest, one of our very biggest sources of tourism and enormously important to the Australian economy, and to Australian jobs, and to our engagement with a very, very significant economic power. Innovative public sector thinking.

I’m sure that public sector leaders are thinking about how can we improve what we’re doing. But also what I see is a real appreciation — and this comes through the finalists that we’re judging in the next few weeks. We’re also seeing people thinking, ‘How can we take the best of what the world is doing?’ How can we adapt that for our own purposes? How can we reimagine the way that we interface with our clients, or how we develop policy advice, or how we use this extraordinary wealth of information that data is starting to allow us, and how can we make things better?

So, the answer to the question is we need to do all of those things, and we need to encourage the spirit of innovation in the public sector.

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