Innovation a multi-generation effort for government

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday July 4, 2018

Public Sector Innovation Month is upon us, which means a range of awards, activities and events focused on new ideas inside the bureaucracy that ultimately lead to better outcomes in the community.

Heather Smith, secretary of the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, launched this year’s festival of free-thinking last night at the National Portrait Gallery. Events are taking place almost entirely in Canberra this year, with the flaghip being the Innovation Awards for employees of the ACT and Commonwealth governments.

It’s an opportunity to “take stock” of work over the past year and celebrate the positive achievements of public servants, she said. The award winners will be announced at Questacon on July 23.

She said these kinds of projects demonstrated there was a level of creativity and innovation within the public sector that “belies the stereotype of the slow and bureaucratic public service” and added that she believed government agencies could do a lot better at “communicating” and celebrating their success stories.

Innovation, Smith observed, was a cyclical process involving “stopping and starting, getting knocked off course, [and] regaining traction” repeatedly. “It’s what any of the start-ups and entrepreneurs will tell you; how to tolerate complexity, how to embrace experience, be OK with failure, and try again.”

Smith emphasised the importance of empowering the next generation of keen young public servants, particularly those who earn places in graduate programs, to think of better ways to run the machinery of government. When any sort of cultural change is desired, the younger generations always play a key role.

The event was hosted by two grads, Jamie Crowe from DIIS and Emily Casey from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, who spoke about some of their recent experiences, like being supported by senior mandarins to run a “graduate forum on data culture” which led to a series of roundtables and finally the establishment of a new “data network” across the APS, which includes over 100 grads from 16 agencies.

Secretaries Dr Martin Parkinson and Dr Heather Smith flank grad hosts of the event, Jamie Crowe from DIIS and Emily Casey from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

The APS and ACT public sector innovation award winners will be announced later in Innovation Month. There are 12 finalists across three categories: citizen-centred innovation; culture and capability; and digital and data. A video was played at the launch (below), showing snippets of their pitches to the judging panel.

Prime Minister and Cabinet chief Martin Parkinson also picked up the same theme of harnessing youthful enthusiasm, rather than beating it out of the lower-grade employees by saying ‘no’ all the time.

“As much as I hate to admit it, I think the best thinking about ideas and innovation in the public service are more likely to come from [the younger] cohort, than from Heather’s and my cohort,” Parkinson said, drawing a groan when he referred to the “old people” in the front row.

The word itself is almost worn out from overuse, he admitted, but he said innovation need not have a complex meaning and that APS grads were regularly demonstrating it.

“They’re having a go at doing things differently. They’re trying to revise and refine what we do, so that we get a little better at it each and every time, and that’s all innovation really is.”

He also went slightly off-script to endorse comments made by review panel chair David Thodey in The Mandarin — its terms of reference are deliberately broad so it can “go where the evidence leads it” — and to cheekily cock a snoot at some of Canberra’s eminent ex-APS commentators, who have questioned the idea, the terms of reference and the independence of the review secretariat.

He admitted it was an ambitious undertaking and said that while it was the “first root-and-branch review” since the 1970s Coombs Royal Commission, it was not a “revisit” of that inquiry. It was about looking ahead, not back.

“So, all those former public servants who get to write long and tedious articles in certain local papers: get over yourselves.”

Parkinson said the situation was summed up by the popular saying that past performance is no indicator of future performance. “We’ve had decades of fantastic performance but we face a fundamentally different situation going forward, and what has served us well today may not — and I say may not, because we don’t know yet — may not serve us well tomorrow.”

The panel has already held over 40 meetings and will run written submissions through “artificial intelligence and natural language processing” and attempt to glean insights that way, he revealed.

Most of his speech, however, focused on APS forays into data analytics, behavioural economics and the like.

The pre-prepared notes for the rather upbeat address — in some ways, perhaps a little too optimistic — are available from the PM&C website, along with a list of APS innovation success stories, the announcement of a new nationwide citizen-satisfaction survey and some remarks about the APS Review.

A video of the event (below) includes both speeches and the candid Q&A session with Parkinson.

All images: RLDI. Videos by Contentgroup.

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