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Farewell to the mother of invention

Patricia Kelly turned IP Australia from a bureaucratic backwater into one of the most forward-looking agencies in the APS.

The Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd and the Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane are not the only two senior public servants bowing out this month.

The Director General of IP Australia, Patricia Kelly, is retiring on Friday at the peak of a successful public service career, after four-and-a-half years heading the agency that administers the intellectual property rights and legislation for patents, trademarks, designs and plant breeders’ rights.

Once seen as a dusty backwater, where clerks filled large leather-bound ledgers with painstaking descriptions of inventions in perfect copperplate script, IP Australia is now one of the most forward-looking agencies in the APS.

Highly educated workforce

Its corporate plan projects out to 2030 to encompass policy advice, IP education and awareness, international engagement and new technologies, harnessing ideas put forward by its highly educated workforce.

“This financial year, IP Australia expects to examine 27,205 patents, 350 plant breeders’ rights, 78,185 trademarks and 1429 designs.”

IP Australia is a “listed entity” in the Industry, Innovation and Science portfolio. It has about 1150 staff and 170 contractors, mostly Canberra based, and an annual budget of $208 million, funded by cost-recovery through customer fees. Just $400,000 is appropriated for ministerial expenses.

The main office at Discovery House in Woden is undergoing a $40 million refurbishment to create a modern, activity-based workplace with various different workspaces, a coffee shop and childcare centre.

“We were lucky,” says Kelly. “It will end up costing us only about $10 million, because the state of commercial property means we have lower lease costs and we can also save space, so we will have 2000 square metres to rent out.”

Kelly came to the job after being a deputy secretary in Industry, at the heart of developing innovation policy long before it was a twinkle in the eye of the current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull.

She was a member of the review panel of the 2008 National Innovation System and chaired the steering committee of the Management Advisory Committee (the forerunner of the Secretaries’ Board) to report on innovation in the Australian Public Service in 2008-2009.

This financial year, IP Australia expects to examine 27,205 patents, 350 plant breeders’ rights, 78,185 trademarks and 1429 designs.

More than a third of staff in the examinations area hold masters or doctorate degrees. This makes them a questioning, critical and analytical workforce, she says.

“That is the way they operate, but if you put evidence in front of them, that is a strong way of getting them onside. I think you’ve got to give back to them. If you give them the freedom and the leeway, they come up with impressive ideas.”

Much has happened in the last five years.

On the technology front, the agency has moved its customer base to digital interaction; introduced a new style of electronic correspondence; created a virtual assistant, Alex; won an award for the innovative Trade Mark Search system; created the IP Folio app for customers and the Smart Examiner Toolkit for staff; and is pursuing possibilities offered by artificial intelligence and blockchain.

On the data front is the first complete and open national IP register called IPGOD (IP Government Open Data) that makes more than 100 years of records publicly and freely available; a Patents Analytic Hub; and TM-link, a new database linking international trademark data.

In policy and services, the agency has also set up a regional patent examiner training and mentoring program; posted a IP Counsellor to China; created an IP mediation service; and trialled a public online policy register showing what IP policy changes are under consideration.

Some things have taken off rightaway; some have a slower burn and others may not work. For example, the mediation service has been slow to take off. But Alex has been a great success, as has putting an IP counsellor into China.

“It’s been strongly used by Australian business and is also a very good link because the Chinese system is developing quickly, and we can have input into changes there.”

Kelly attributes most of the success to staff ideas.

“It wasn’t I who came forward and said, ‘Let’s look at AI and blockchain!’  The examiners, like everyone, are concerned about how AI will affect jobs. They came up with 80 suggestions on how AI could help, and they were pared down to about 17 or 18 impressive ideas.”

She acknowledges that many public service leaders feel vulnerable and not well prepared to manage large technology programs.

“We’ve all seen some failures; a lot of us feel there but for the grace of God go I,” she says.

Moving to more iterative approaches

She thinks the way forward is moving away from huge long-term ICT investments to more iterative approaches.

“Private sector companies have research and development budgets. We try to do that here.”

“We’ve had success with a few small innovative Australian companies; we work with three at the moment and because we are an important client they are doing a good job for us.  Private sector companies have research and development budgets. We try to do that here. Despite the pressure on ICT budgets, we try to quarantine some money for future developments, such as in blockchain. We don’t want to be always playing catch-up.”

Agencies may need to look at planning and budgeting for R&D in an overt way, she suggests.

As for herself, she says, “It’s the only time I’ve been in a CEO role so yes, I’ve enjoyed it. It’s not a mainstream department, so you are not immediately responsive to ministers. You are allowed a longer-term view.  So yes, I’ve enjoyed it immensely.”

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.