Innovation Week 2012 – GovCamp – Academics Panel

[Originally published on the Australian Government Public Sector Innovation Network under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY AU licence]

What does it look like when you mix innovation and Gov 2.0 practitioners, academics, senior leaders of the Australian Public service and interested stakeholders together? The answer is GovCamp, a one day event held at the University of Canberra’s INSPIRE Centre on 5 June.

The day saw presentations from the Australian Information Commissioner, practitioners sharing their stories about innovations that have been introduced, an academic panel discussing the innovation process, workshops and mini-discussions around particular public sector innovation issues, and a panel of senior leaders discussing their views on innovation.

This post looks at the discussion by the Academic Panel.

Academic Panel

The Academic Panel involved a number of academics involved in the innovation field providing their insights about the innovation process.

Professor Sandford Borins from the University of Toronto commenced by saying how impressed he was by Australia’s commitment to open government and some of the uses of social media (as demonstrated in the practitioner’s presentations earlier in the morning) and by what he had heard of GovHack.

    • He noted that it was a common problem for there be a lack of financial resources for R&D in public organisations. It, like innovation, has usually come out of organisational slack, something that is increasingly scarce
    • He outlined his experience in studying innovation in government (including through the Harvard Kennedy School and their Innovation in Government Awards)
    • He recommended to public servants that they make themselves available, and make their data and information available, as that is what helps academics understand and analyse the innovation process

Dr Sarah Pearson, CEO of ANU Enterprise, followed. She explained that she had been involved in many of the stages of the innovation value chain (as a scientist, in commercial operations, and with some experience with the public sector) and found that innovation is very similar wherever you do it.

    • It is very important that innovation is done strategically – think about what you are trying to achieve, and consider which of those require innovation
    • Innovation is about a way of being
    • It is about change, and many people can find change scary
    • Some people will see it as a waste of time or not part of their day job, and this needs to be addressed if an organisation is going to be innovative
    • Collaboration is very important and we do need to bring academics and practitioners together, but we shouldn’t expect the academics to have all the answers
    • Organisations need to be ‘elastic’ – flexible and sustainable, goal oriented and constantly changing and adapting.

Dr Mark Matthews from the ANU Crawford School spoke next. He discussed how government can work in partnerships in order to undertake experimental and exploratory work that lets them share and manage the risk involved with innovations.

    • Government does tend to be risk averse – but it often has to be to avoid problems that will affect people before they happen
    • He discussed how it is important to decouple risk and uncertainty. Uncertainty means we do not know the chance of something going wrong, and this is something that governments, rather than the private sector have to manage
    • The Crawford School is doing some work on how decision making in agencies might be made more nimble and elastic.

Sam Bucolo, Queensland University of Technology, noted that his research was in design-led innovation and how it could be introduced into firms to build resilience.

    • Design thinking is about allowing organisations to fail fast – to try something and move on quickly if it doesn’t work
    • It is much easier in a company to focus on the ‘knowns’, but that this can lead to developing solutions that are looking for problems rather than the other way around
    • Organisations need a vision for their operations based on deep customer insights, and those insights will come from working with customers
    • Innovation is everyone’s responsibility
    • Universities are great for helping build the capability for innovation in organisations
    • Organisations need to identify the meaning behind the problems that customers are facing, and universities can be very helpful here as well. They can be used as a means to ‘provoke’ your customers, and capture great insights about what customers are thinking or what sits behind their thinking and needs

Deborah Blackman, University of Canberra, began by stating that one of the difficulties faced is that innovation has to be embedded and be systematic in organisations.

    • Her research often focuses on why something does not work
    • A useful beginning point is to get the relevant people together and ask them what will be different if they have innovation. This can help unpack what people mean by innovation
    • People may think they are open to new ideas, but most of our inbuilt judgement processes are about rejecting different ideas
    • Therefore organisations need to consider how they keep their systems open to new ideas and ways of doing things
    • That may require advocates and champions
    • We often try doing things that are different – however it is very easy for the situation to return to the default/normal practice
    • A lot of the measures used for innovation are often the wrong ones
    • The focus of measurement should be on what things will look like if the innovation works – identify what should be different
    • If we want a culture of adoption then we need to consider the response to ideas put forward – the culture needs to be accepting, if not of the idea itself, then at least of the contribution
    • People need to know it is safe to put forward and try ideas, how to be innovative, and they are going to be supported in doing it.

Ken Friedman, Swinburne University of Technology, also noted that innovation requires organisational slack.

    • Universities have significant slack built into their systems for that very reason, and austerity poses a threat to that
    • Innovation is always embedded in the context – you need to let the context ‘speak’ and the problem present itself rather than taking too narrow a focus
    • He spoke about how human systems draw on cultures and past practices, and therefore innovation is limited to incremental change. Culture is good as it preserves and carries all of our past practices, however it does this by preventing change
    • That means that a lot of history involves a reversion to the mean.

There was also part of a video presentation from Andrew O’Loughlin, Deakin University.

The discussion was followed by some questions and answers, much of which focussed on the issue of ‘failing’, which necessarily accompanies experimentation and innovation. Responses included that when failure is not allowed, it often just involves hiding real failures and trying to disguise them as success instead; that the focus should be on how to turn failure into something useable (e.g. a lesson about what not to do); that governments can ‘collaboratively’ fail, and work with others to share the risks of experimentation; and the use of pilot initiatives.

For me the Panel’s discussion emphasised some important points about innovation:

    • Be strategic – clearly link your innovation to the larger aims and goals of the organisation
    • Be systematic – does the agency have a systematic approach to innovation?
    • Innovation is risky – but there are ways of dealing with that, such as partnering with other organisations with a bigger risk appetite or using prototyping in order to fail fast
    • Innovation is hard – if you introduce an innovation, things can quickly return to normal unless the new way of doing things is integrated into how the agency operates and people change their behaviour to create a new ‘normal’
    • Measure the right things – innovation requires measuring different things than normal. Think about what the world should like if your innovation is successful and measure whether the innovation brings you closer to that
    • Academics and public servants can help each other learn more about the innovation process.

That’s my take on the discussion, but you can watch the full Panel discussion on YouTube for yourself if you want.