Innovation in a no-risk system: ‘we have to be smarter’

Politicians want the public sector to innovate and claim there will be less punishment for taking risk. Here are some steps public bodies can take, at a leadership level, to make that happen.

Public sector leaders, even politicians, are talking up a push to encourage more innovation and risk-taking in government bodies. Several approaches that leverage the capabilities and direction of the agency leader were offered at a recent governance forum in Canberra.

The public service’s risk-averse nature is hardly a recent discovery, although it does seem to be recognised now as a suffocating blanket on innovation. Put a dozen or more senior public sector figures and a few academics in a room and the topic often drifts to the “problem” of encouraging innovation in a zero-risk environment. Add a politician, and it quickly turns to finger-pointing.

Federal minister Malcolm Turnbull made a point of calling out the public service culture where “penalties for failure are vastly out of proportion to the rewards for success” at the launch of The Mandarin:

“We’ve got to try new things and, if you try new things, a lot of them won’t work. But so what? If you smash people because they try something and it doesn’t work, then they’ll never try anything new again.”

FREE membership to The Mandarin

Receive unlimited access, get all the latest public sector news and features, plus The Juice, our daily news update sent direct to your inbox.

The Mandarin is where Australia's public sector leaders discuss their work and the issues faced within modern bureaucracy. Join today to discover the latest in public administration thinking and news from our dedicated reporters, current and former agency heads and senior executives.

  • Having seen the inner workings of the ADF and the aged care sector I can see how being risk averse is a safe alternative to many. With many changes coming into the aged care and disability sector (such as NDIS and Consumer Directed Care), they have been thinking one way for such a long time that it can be difficult for them to be more innovative. These people have the knowledge to support innovation they have just been paralysed by fear and lack of funding for SO long!
    I really hope that “the rewards for success” begin to outweigh “the penalties for failure” and these are achieved sooner rather than later – AND with active support and recognition from the Government and the media.