Toning down the hierarchy and trusting staff were two of the key factors that helped WA’s property titles agency Landgate gain recognition as one of the country’s top public sector innovators. The Mandarin spoke to CEO Jodi Cant about the messy work of reform.
- Landgate has run an innovation program for 10 years, and celebrates innovation month in March.
- All employees are expected to spend 5% of their time on innovation activities.
- An innovative idea to digitise WA’s land registry led to a commercial opportunity, spun off as Landgate’s subsidiary Advara.
“We’re a land agency from WA, you don’t get that sort of kudos easily,” says CEO Jodi Cant.
“The only government agency above us was CSIRO, and given they invented Wi-Fi, I’m okay with that.”
That praise has been a long time in the making.
“When I got here in 2004, there were many, many brown cardigans loose in the building,” she told The Mandarin.
Cant recalls chatting to an employee who explained that he hadn’t been working there long but was excited about the changes being pushed by management and had lots of ideas.
“I said fantastic, how long have you been here? And he said 15 years. Bless him, he held onto his ideas for 15 years. But it was a place where someone who’d been there that long saw himself as the new guy. That’s what it was like at the start. It’s not like that anymore.”
The creation of Landgate
After the 2001 WA state election, the new government was keen to reshape the public sector. Faced with the prospect of the then-Department of Land Administration losing its identity in a merger, then-CEO Grahame Searle proposed allowing it to become a government-owned business.
He faced pushback: customers worried about price increases for important services provided below-cost, staff worried about their employment contracts and increased independence presented increased political risk for the government. The statutory authority model was eventually arrived at, allowing for commercialisation but retaining a greater measure of government oversight.
On January 1, 2007, Landgate came into being. By then the agency’s old technology was struggling to keep up with the state’s property boom, with transactions jumping by 35%. This stretched the budget, making upgrades even more difficult.
Landgate is in charge of collecting, storing and providing access to land data — things like property values, maps, and ownership — and delivers price-regulated services, such as property registration.
What’s different now is that Landgate can also provide consulting services, develop and sell data products and start or invest in companies. This has helped the agency become financially self-sustaining and prevents it going broke in a property downturn.
Thanks to the digitisation of its records, the agency is also able to fulfil its regulated functions far more efficiently now. A land transaction that would once have taken six weeks to process can now be completed in a few seconds.
Landgate also works with business to facilitate innovation in the private sector. The agency holds WA’s open-data mandate, acting as a central point for entrepreneurs in search of useful datasets. People outside government often have no idea where data is held or who to ask for it, so having a single point of contact helps facilitate private-sector innovation. They also give grants.
“We’ve helped new businesses come into existence,” says Cant. “Government aren’t necessarily the people who come up with new ideas, but we know our data.”
They’ve invested in imaging software — “like Google street imagery but with a three-point cloud behind it”, says Cant — forming a partnership with a US startup using technology developed for the Mars rover. Another investment was prompted by a global search for a cloud-based land-title system. “We couldn’t find one, but we found others who also needed one, so we built one,” Cant says. Landgate has now spun off a company called Advara, which holds the rights to develop that technology.
All this work has paid off.
“In the last year, we’ve had the worst property market in WA in 30 years,” Cant tells The Mandarin. “Without the reform we would have made a $30 million loss, but as it is we had a $25 million profit.”
The WA government is now reviewing whether to sell it off, as other states have been doing with their own land registries.
An innovation program from scratch
Landgate is also unusual for establishing one of the first government innovation programs in Australia.
But when Cant — then the agency’s comms manager — took on the idea of setting up an innovation program back in 2007, she couldn’t find any public sector examples to model it on. So she looked to big corporates like Toyota and 3M for case studies.
One of the most important things in getting the innovation program off the ground was being given the space to use her own judgement. Cant’s boss Grahame Searle told her: “I’ve got your back.”
“I said to him, all right then, I’m going to do all these things and if you don’t like them you’ll come and tell me.”
Her research taught Cant it’s important every staff member has the opportunity to contribute ideas, so her first move was to set up an online forum where everyone could post.
She encountered resistance. The organisation was very hierarchical at the time and many staff weren’t used to having to make changes.
“IT said it couldn’t be done. You know, ‘computer says no’,” she told The Mandarin. Eventually she found someone in IT who was interested in helping — and it turned out the agency already owned free software she could use.
Then came the next challenge.
“Our corporate execs said to me that before anyone puts anything on there they should have the permission of their manager,” she explained.
“They didn’t want it posted before it had already been discussed and killed.
“I defended it passionately enough that they let me get away with it, so our forum was unmoderated. I said ‘people are putting things up publicly, we can all read it, so let’s trust them’.
“I think we’ve only ever had to take down one post for being too negative. It’s fine to criticise but it needs to be constructive.”
At the five-year mark Cant recommended less money for the innovation program. “They couldn’t believe it,” she said.
“But it helps the focus. Every time the board would say ‘do you want more money?’ and I would say ‘no I want less’. It takes a lot of effort to spend that much money effectively.”
Innovation won’t happen if things become stale, she says. Each appointee to Landgate’s innovation manager role, created by Cant, is only there for up to two years. “No-one should be in it permanently. Everyone comes in fresh, passionate with new ideas. I always say the innovation manager role in Landgate is the best role in the public sector.”
Many agencies are now appointing people to permanent innovation roles. “To me that’s really short sighted,” she says.
Telling a story
When pushing for change it also helps to have a compelling narrative. Faced with staff scepticism about the innovation program, Cant tapped into Landgate’s history. “Walking into the unknown is very much in our DNA,” she told The Mandarin.
Landgate’s ancestor, the Survey office of the Swan River Colony, was one of WA’s first government agencies. Founded in 1829 by surveyor and explorer John Septimus Roe, employees were faced with the massive task of mapping nearly one-third of the continent — a tall ask in the mid-1800s — so Roe, a navy man, adapted naval techniques for surveying the state.
“It helped that we could tie it back to our history when we wanted to change, and say that exploration is in our history and has been very important to us,” she says.
Now Landgate employees enjoy the right to spend 5% of their time working on innovative ideas, whether directly related to work or not. Participation is measured through the performance management system.
It’s an idea more typically associated with Silicon Valley firms than public-sector bodies, and, predictably, it took some convincing.
“When I pitched it, I got some funny looks,” she says.
“I discovered that in our IT policy it said people could spend 5% of their time looking after personal stuff. So I said, people can do their banking but not work on innovation? That worked.
“It’s a challenge still; you need to be able to trust your people.”
The idea is actually less radical than it sounds once you get into the details.
“People have to record their time, what they’re working on, anyway,” Cant says.
“Most people make it business related. The money we have in our innovation fund, we don’t spend it on far-out things. We define innovation as a change that adds value, so mostly rather than people feeling they need to stop and be innovative, they think, how can I improve this process?”
Despite the inevitable concerns about people slacking off or pursuing frivolous ideas, it’s actually not that easy to convince people to take the opportunity.
“The challenge for us has always been getting people to do it,” Cant says. “Even though we gave people the 5% to do what they want, they rarely use it because it’s challenging. Some people are comfortable thinking like that, and some are process thinkers.”
While huge progress has been made, innovation being a part of business, as usual, is still a while away.
“Success at the 20-year mark is no innovation program,” she says.
Landgate celebrating 10 years of formal innovation program
- The innovation program is now run by SPUR, powered by Landgate.
- SPUR was launched in April 2016 and is WA’s location technology hub. SPUR takes Landgate’s innovation expertise externally and is aimed at nurturing new location-based businesses in WA.
- SPUR leads the implementation of the open-data policy on behalf of the state. We work with other government agencies to make data more accessible to the community through data.wa.gov.au.
- SPUR provides start-ups with simple access to location data and other government datasets through the provision of developer licences.
- SPUR offers SPURonWA grants to innovative new businesses that have a strong location information component.
How it works
- The innovation team has a guaranteed annual budget to fund innovative projects.
- Employees post ideas on our online forum. Transparent collaboration occurs through input from colleagues, subject matter experts and senior management, ensuring ideas are robust and strategically aligned.
- A team of 14 cross-business representatives votes weekly on which ideas to fund. Successful idea owners are assigned a project manager to create a plan.
- The mission is simple: to make Landgate a better organisation for its customers, its people and its community. We define innovation as “change that adds value”, realised through a balance of incremental or radical improvement.
- The program provides a safe place to develop, test, and demonstrate value without a large investment. Landgate’s vision is to use this learning to become a world-renowned innovative agency that shapes the way government operates and collaborates.
Innovation Month at Landgate
- March is Innovation Month at Landgate.
- Employees attend a wide range of activities, including panel discussions with innovation experts, presentations from leaders in innovation, training, and “hackathons” to improve the business.
- WA Lands Minister Rita Saffioti is opening the month to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the program.
- Guest speakers, to be confirmed, include Professor Fiona Wood and representatives from innovative heavyweights, RAC and Australia Post.
- Last year’s Innovation Month saw most events at capacity at more than 100 people and 50% of staff attended at least one event.
- A total of 83% of attendees at Innovation Month last year were satisfied or extremely satisfied with the month.