Text size: A A A

Innovating away the black spots in public administration processes

The qualities of the winners in this year’s Public Sector Innovation Awards are not measured by success in the furnace of the commercial market but more broadly about making improvements for the public good, says Verona Burgess.

With the conclusion of another round of Public Sector Innovation Awards it feels safe to say that a culture of innovation is beginning to be valued in the Australian Public Service, even if, in practice, it is only in niches or towards the margins.

The concept of public sector innovation is hardly new (think CSIRO, Defence Science and Technology, Geoscience Australia and more).

But applying new thinking and products to black spots in public administration processes seems to be gaining traction in federal policy departments and service delivery agencies, despite the obsessive risk aversion, defensiveness and multiple accountabilities that are the enemy of creativity.

That does not mean the trials and tribulations of digital transformation and ‘UX’ – user experience – have magically dissolved.  Obviously not.

Nor does it mean that innovation should be the main driver of reform in the review of the APS being chaired by David Thodey, more of which below.

But first, credit where it is due. The winning projects, and others on the short list, showed a willingness to look for solutions that improve their agency’s connection with the outside world, and also to partner with external expertise to get good ideas off the ground.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ win of the citizen-centred award for the marriage law postal survey was a no-brainer.

AUSTRAC’s win in the culture and capability section for its inaugural ASEAN-Australia codeathon set an example in partnering across highly sensitive borders and sectors to help disrupt terrorism finance and money laundering.

It was also a nice farewell present for outgoing CEO Paul Jevtovic who is leaving to join HSBC in Hong Kong, the irony of which is not lost on those who are mindful of the bank’s colourful past. Let’s hope he is able to contribute to a better future.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s win in the digital and data section for “Tupaia”, its health resource and supply-chain mapping tool for the Asia Pacific region is a useful development and morale-booster for the much battered and reduced aid program.

And the Department of Home Affairs’ judges’ award for abolishing the annoying outgoing passenger cards, replacing them with a system that captures data in “other ways”, brings rare praise to a department that suffers more than the usual slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

While Innovation and Science Australia’s Australia 2030 Prosperity Through Innovation plan was a key driver for establishing the Thodey review, its recommendation for conducting it was closely focused on what it called “the aim of enabling a greater role and capability for innovation in policy development, implementation and service delivery.”

Thankfully the terms of reference are wider and Thodey has signalled his intention to go wherever the review takes him.

Podger’s insights on technological change

A former Public Service Commissioner and secretary of several departments, Andrew Podger, has included some observations on innovation and technology in his submission to the review.

Podger provides some historical context to the impact of technological change in the public service, not least the dramatic effects on classification profiles since 1980 with the proportion of staff at or below APS 1 and 2 levels falling from more than two-thirds to around 5% today.

“It is important for the review to recognise that other contextual issues are no less important for the APS than technology, and some way well be more important.”

He reminds us that: “Technology was also a major factor in the commercialisation and then privatisation of telecommunications, and the shift from public provision to public purchasing and/or regulation across a range of industries and programs.”

He adds further discussion of the changes to citizens’ expectations and experience of government, and the possibilities of big data.

But he also says, “It is important for the review to recognise that other contextual issues are no less important for the APS than technology, and some way well be more important. Some involve less dramatic shifts and some demand a greater degree of stability.

“For example, the role of government in a Western democracy and market economy continues to focus on providing a stable framework in which markets and individuals can go about their businesses and daily lives with confidence.

“Governments need to be innovative in how they operate, but they also need to provide the stability that facilitates investment and innovation in the marketplace and society.”

“Innovation” in the public sector, he says, is a very different creature from the concept of innovation used in the economic literature applying in the private sector.

This is important. When you consider the winners in this year’s Public Sector Innovation Awards, their winning qualities are not measured by success in the furnace of the commercial market but more broadly about making improvements for the public good.

Podger says, “Governments will continue to be involved in providing public goods that the market cannot deliver, in addressing market failures, and in ensuring an equitable distribution of income and wealth. The nature of public goods, and the types of market failures, may well be affected by technology, and there may be important impacts on the distribution of income and wealth that governments must address, but the fundamental roles of government remain essentially unchanged.”

“Governments need to be innovative in how they operate, but they also need to provide the stability that facilitates investment and innovation in the marketplace and society.”

This sense of continuity and stability, he says, is critical to the institution that is the public service: its values of accountability and impartiality, its due processes under the law, its non-partisanship, its professionalism and emphasis on merit-based employment, and its commitment to the public interest.

“Central to this is the governance structure of the APS and its relationship with ministers and the parliament, and its relationship with the public”.

He is right. They are the pillars of public service.

Where innovation can make improvements, it is tremendously useful. But it will not be the concept of innovation that determines whether they are in need of fixing and how that should be achieved.

Main image: The winning ABS team (L-R):  Laura Neill, Samantha Palmer, Michelle Howe, Michelle Hamlin, Andrew Sillis, David Kalisch and Duncan Young, to the right of Senator Zed Seselja.

READ MORE ON THE TOP PS INNOVATORS:
The Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey: lessons in risk and collaboration
Flying international will be as easy as flying domestic, says DIBP
Risk-embracing culture driving successes, says outgoing AUSTRAC boss
The positive effect of DFAT’s InnovationXchange
Keenan lays out priorities for modernising APS

Author Bio

Verona Burgess

Verona Burgess is a former Government Business Editor and senior columnist for the Australian Financial Review. She has been writing about the Australian Public Service since 1990. A former Jefferson Fellow, she was also joint winner of the inaugural Richard Baker Senate prize and won a Walkley award with The Canberra Times for team coverage of the 2003 Canberra bushfires.