Public Sector Innovation Network: so long, and thanks for all the membership requests

By Rob Thomas

Friday September 15, 2017

Open Innovation in government graphic
Open Innovation

So the time has come to hand in my lanyard and mosey onto pastures and challenges new. But before then let me tell you some of the things I’ve learnt working in public sector innovation these past four years.

Way back when

In May 2013 I walked into what was to become my next manager’s office.

“Rob, I want you to be in charge of public sector innovation.”

“Okay” I said — innovating the public sector sounded like a large role for a sole EL1 to take on.

“It consists of a blog and a newsletter.”

Oh. I can do that.

And so began my career in the nebulous field of innovation in the public sector.

The Public Sector Innovation (PSI) project was born out of the 2009-2010 MAC Project and formalised in the Innovation Action Plan of 2011. It consisted of a range of initiatives intending to deliver an APS more accepting of the work culture that encourages innovation.

These initiatives included:

  • Departmental Innovation Strategies;
  • Recognition of Innovation through awards;
  • The DesignGov Innovation Lab Pilot (at which my former colleague Alex Roberts was then based);
  • And the Public Sector Innovation Network (PSIN) which shared the stories of this innovation work and more with its membership — via a blog and a newsletter.

Looking back at the Action Plan now so much has been done; most departments have an Innovation Strategy or address innovation in their corporate strategy. The DesignGov pilot was the forefront to the multiple labs that exist in Departments across the APS now; multiple departments have awards for innovation, and of course since last year there has been the Innovation Awards which we run in partnership with IPAA.

But at the time, it was not clear where these actions things were at, so I decided to reach out through the PSIN to find out how the APS was progressing in developing these initiatives. However there was just one problem with the Public Sector Innovation Network at the time.

It wasn’t a network.

All our communication channels were one way. You could respond to the newsletter by dropping us a line at [email protected] or comment in the comment fields of our blogs (rarely happened) but largely ‘we’ were telling ‘you’. There was no flow of information between the members of the PSIN as there were no dedicated channels to use.

I decided to do what all good public servants do in times of uncertainty — I held a meeting.

But who was working in innovation in the APS at the time? It may be hard to recall but in 2013/14 innovation did not have the high level focus that it has today, and consequentially it wasn’t an APS priority to the extent it is now.

The Action Plan is an excellent document in intent and objectives, however as with so many plans when presented to a bureaucracy in a climate resistant to change, it faced the danger of being ‘complied with’; its actions compartmentalised, separated from its intent, actioned and then marked as ‘complete’.

In that climate I didn’t want to go through official channels seeking contacts. The Action Plan was the start of a journey, and I wanted to meet people who recognised that. The network had to consist of people with a passion for innovation; luckily I already had a list of people who potentially fit that requirement.

The PSIN newsletter had just reached 1000 subscribers.

Combined with the 2013 Innovation Month coordinating committee I put an email out asking who’d like to meet and discuss innovation activities in their department. I also updated the newsletter subscription form to ask if members you are interested in joining a local group. This question determines whether you are invited to PSIN meetings or not. Which is why when describing how the PSIN meetings work now it sounds a little chaotic; invites to PSIN Canberra meetings go out to over 600 local public servants who’ve clicked that ‘join a local group’ option — luckily they don’t all show up! We send the meeting notes to the same group and we don’t get mass un-subscriptions so we assume everyone’s happy to be kept in the loop.

The group grew from there, many passionate members joined us, many people with a direct responsibility for innovation in their organisation; often we’d receive new members who’d been tasked with ‘being in charge of innovation’ for their organisation and came to the meetings desperate to know what that meant. Watching their relief when they realised the network offers the resources and contacts to help them with not all of the answers (no one has all of them) but enough to start their work, confirms to me the value of the PSIN.

Then came Innovation Month

In 2014 the PSIN became the custodian of Innovation Month. The Innovation Month programme brings with it all sorts of benefits; it raises awareness of the issue of innovating the APS; it encourages participation in the PSIN and prompts members to connect with each other; and it offers a safe space to experiment with new ideas. Innovation moves at different speeds across government departments. What’s ‘new’ can vary greatly; it may be a policy hackathon to generate new policy solutions, or it may be a simple a presentation from an outside expert. If it’s the latter, the reoccurrence of Innovation Month encourages continued involvement, eventually people want to move forward and create more involving events, applying what they’ve learnt. The theme for 2017 made this a focus.

Innovation Month has typically had a programme of 50-80 events and over 5000 attendees. Anyone can host an Innovation Month event, and its programme is organically developed, largely by the grassroots operational staff as opposed to senior leadership directive. I’ve always considered Innovation Month to be a good yardstick for the APS’s appetite for innovation. The PSIN team in the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science (DIIS) only host a handful of events, the rest of the programme is developed by PSIN members. The number of events, their diversity, the range of departments hosting, and the attendance numbers prove that the APS has an appetite for innovation.

What a strange job you have

The PSIN is an oddity in the APS. It wasn’t born from a government initiative but is an APS one, it’s based in the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science but it services the whole APS (and other public sectors and beyond considering the membership is open for all to join), and its primary purpose is to encourage public servants to share with each other (yes that’s a full time job).

When writing this blog I was reminded of an old presentation I gave at the Attorney General’s Department called ‘Things I’ve learnt from the PSIN’; feedback I received was that I’d been very entertaining (I hadn’t planned to be). With a few updates, I think the findings then are still relevant today:

When it comes to innovation, everyone wants to be the first to be second.

In a way this is actually the basis of the PSIN. The purpose of sharing stories of innovation is to show how others have already done it. The best business case is an existing success story.

While this may seem disparaging, the APS is traditionally a conservative culture, often preferring to leave the really cutting edge risks to be taken by someone else. However over recent years the opportunity to experiment in the APS has developed; initiatives from the PSIN, Innovation Month events, the Innovation Labs, and opportunities through the National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) as well as the Digital Transformation Agency are providing places to experiment, to fail small and fail fast, and to learn from new ideas.

Senior leadership is probably more risk tolerant/innovative than you think.

From one point of view this is simple mathematics; the deputy secretary’s delegation is a lot larger than your EL2’s. We assume that aversity to risk increases the higher up the organisational structure you go, but by this simple rule the opposite can actually be the case.

I saw this first hand at the Innovation Champions meeting. Senior APS leaders were keen to rapidly try new ideas and spoke about wanting to develop an innovation culture. While grassroots members of the PSIN would talk about the difficulty of getting ideas approved through their immediate manager.

Historically the APS is a hierarchical organisation, with approval needing to be cleared from above, but as Secretary Beauchamp said at Innovation Month 2017, when it comes to innovation, you already have permission.

Getting an idea management system isn’t the end objective of your innovation initiative.

One thing to avoid in innovation is the lure of the shiny new thing. Enthusiasts of innovation can get too excited about new tools, and innovation pessimists can see buying something as the quick fix to addressing their innovation ‘problem’. Many early innovation initiatives focused on developing idea management systems for departments, while others faced the problem of having an idea management system in place, but without the processes or the organisational culture to address, assess or implement new ideas.

Building an innovation culture takes a broad range of tools and leadership commitment at all levels. Most importantly it’s not an end goal that gets delivered, but an ongoing journey of improvement, ever reviewing and developing. Innovation isn’t going to be ‘done’ — and that new tool you heard about isn’t going to be the ‘solution’ to it.

Innovation is part of your work.

Innovation IS part of your work, and this isn’t just a motivational tagline but actually my view on how innovation should be treated in large organisations. It should be part of your work in the same way information technology is part of your work. Most organisations have an IT team, and staff know what they do even if they don’t know exactly how they do it. Similarly many departments now have an innovation team or lab; unfortunately staff often don’t know what they do.

Staff aren’t IT experts, and you’d only contact the IT team when there’s a problem. But everyone has a computer on their desk, and everyone knows how to turn it on and use it. Similarly everyone in an organisation should have the capacity to innovate. Just as you’re provided with a functioning computer and the expectation to know how to use it, you should have the skills, leadership support, space and culture to explore ideas that can help your organisation. If you run into difficulties you can discuss it with your innovation team. This doesn’t mean staff are permitted to explore flights of fancy; just as the IT department never said yes to everything I requested, there must be a way to park or resolve ideas. The important thing is that the means to explore and test new ideas must be in place.

Also (connecting to point 3) the IT team never finishes; it doesn’t install computers and declare the departmental IT initiative complete, it continues to address new IT challenges and opportunities for the department, as should an innovation team. Where this analogy falls down is IT departments generally don’t want staff to become experts and begin repairing their own computers, whereas innovation skills in the APS are becoming a staff development objective.

Innovation never leaves the APS, it just moves around.

Innovation moves at different speeds across different departments, but those speeds can also change rapidly. Over the years departments can be MOGed, have changes of leadership, lose innovation as a strategic priority, lose staff working on innovation projects; and then rapidly play catch up later as innovation became (or returned to being) a priority.

As a whole-of-APS initiative the PSIN has been able to keep track not only of what departments are doing, but also of members as they move between departments. And as thought leaders move, so does the innovation.

With the focus from leadership on making government an exemplar of innovation, this scenario is seen less, however from the whole of APS perspective that the PSIN grants, when it comes to innovation in the APS the quote from author William Gibson comes to mind: The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

A future with more interconnectedness

Looking back it’s an impressive road of growth we’ve taken. The PSIN now has over 3,600 members; Innovation Month is becoming more known across more departments, cities and at higher levels in departments; very good and dedicated people are forming their own local PSIN groups, working across departmental and government boundaries to coordinate with state authorities; I’d particularly like to point out the great work of our Melbourne, Hobart, and Sydney members in that regard; but I’d like close by highlighting my favourite development.

By late 2015 the PSIN was performing strongly, receiving a boost from the objectives of NISA, however there was one problem.

It still wasn’t a network.

Apart from the monthly face-to-face meetings and email the PSIN still had no cross-membership communication channels. For new members with queries the only port of call was the PSIN email inbox. We’d trialled online communities before but they had fallen flat; login difficulties, usability problems, and accessibility conflicts with IT security all made them too complex compared to sending email.

Then we trialled our Yammer group. It was easy to log in, easy to use, accessible to (most) agencies, and provided you an email notification of activity. The rules for membership are: you must be an employee of an Australian government agency (local, state or federal) and you have to register using your work email. At first it required some gentle persuasion to get the group started (posting documents on Yammer and sharing the link via email) but by early 2016 we had a group of 50 members and it had become self-sustaining.

We rarely promote the Yammer group but it continues to grow, now with over 750 members from 182 departments and agencies (list), the Yammer group is a hub of sharing innovation stories, developments, and queries. Agencies face the same challenges in developing an innovation system so why not pool experiences and learn from each other?

New members who contact us with queries on idea management systems, innovation awards or strategies will get a regular response; we know contacts who’ve worked in those areas, but why don’t you ask the Yammer group? We’ll tag in the people we know, but who knows what other knowledge is in a group of 750 professional public servants working in innovation? Posting on Yammer usually triggers a robust online discussion amongst members.

That this group continues to grow, receives and addresses questions from public servants from all tiers of government from across the country exemplifies why the PSIN was launched in the first place.

While working on the PSIN I have used the same principle I’ve applied in my previous science communications work — you don’t explain how it works, you explain how it affects your audience (then explain how it works). What innovation is to some, is not innovation to others, and while we can discuss the details, the important thing is to engage as many people as possible; the diverse range of Innovation Month events is demonstrative of our efforts in that regard. To adopt an innovation culture you must have a low barrier of entry, not one stacked with jargon, one that is welcoming, explanatory, and open to sharing. Those are the principles I’m glad to see shared and demonstrated by the PSIN membership everyday when new members come forth with questions and I know that’s going to be the PSIN that sustains itself into the future.

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