Public sector innovation: a recap

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

Late last year I spoke to the Australian Taxation Office Innovation Community of Practice about DesignGov and what I have learnt about innovating in the public sector. None of this is likely to be new to long term readers of the blog, but at the request of some of the members, and as an opportunity to recap some of the main points, the content is provided below.

Ideas are not the bottleneck

Innovation can be seen as a five stage process, and as many people have said better than I, innovation is about more than just having ideas. Ideas are, relatively, the easy bit. How you pick the good ideas and how you integrate and connect them with your existing practices, is usually the challenging aspect.

On the Public Sector Innovation Toolkit, there are two useful resources to assist with this:

    • diagnostic tool to help you and your organisation think about which are the weakest areas in your innovation process

Innovation and business improvement are different

Business process improvement and incremental efficiency improvements do not generally compete with the status quo. They are about achieving more from business as usual or doing the same thing better. They do not require different performance measures, different understanding of the problems or significantly different work practices/organisational settings.

On the other hand, innovation is uncertain – you cannot predict if it will work as intended or if it will result in unforseen changes. It also involves risk – there’s the chance that it won’t work or improve things, it may even make things worse. Innovation is inherently subversive. Innovation is about changing how things are done and understood (even if only at a small scale). Innovation may require different key performance indicators, ways of working, ways of reporting or ways of thinking.

Whereas business process improvement is about doing things better,  innovation  is about doing things differently; requiring different strategies and different forms of support.

Design is a powerful tool for generating and filtering ideas

Design is a great way of getting insight into the root problems or issues. By helping you understand the context and the real needs that you are trying to address, design can provide a much richer understanding of the ‘why’ of the problem, rather than just the ‘what’.

Once you have a good understanding of a problem, the ideas about how to address that problem will follow much more easily. The understanding of the problem and the associated needs will also give you a good basis for filtering and assessing ideas. The DesignGov website and the DesignGov Compendium have some useful initial guidance about design, how to start applying it and links to other resources that can help.

Of course there are many tools other than design that can help – horizon scanning for instance can provide you with many ideas from different but related settings.

Collaboration is not straightforward

When I first began working with Jane Treadwell in her role as CEO of DesignGov, she introduced me to this definition of collaboration – that it was an unnatural act between unconsenting adults 1 . At first I thought it humorous, but the more I consider it, the more serious it seems. Collaboration can be tricky, particularly when it is centred on innovation and the associated uncertainty, risk and absence of a guarantee that an idea will solve the problem, and that everyone involved will be better off because of it.

Design can be a very useful methodology in facilitating collaboration across different interest groups. Design can make explicit where the shared interest is between different groups/potential collaborators, helping them see what benefit might be achieved through collaborating. By focussing on the needs and the ‘why’, design continually reminds people what the problem is and why they need to work together.

Evolving to perfection

Unless you are amazingly brilliant, any idea that you have will need work, and lots of it. No idea starts out perfect, and rather than trying to make it so first, design thinking teaches us that the best way of improving our ideas is to test, test, and test. As previously discussed, there can be a tendency in the public service towards ‘desk-bound perfectionism’. In an increasingly complex and unpredictable world, this is not a feasible strategy – instead we need to evolve to perfection rather than presume that we can begin there.

Measurement and knowing what success is

It is hard to measure that which is new. The best measurement systems are in place for things that are understood and routine. Often the metrics will need to be changed to reflect how the innovation differs – e.g. to reflect a change from face-to-face interactions to online transactions. In addition, initially, any innovation will be inferior to what already exists, until sufficient time has passed and refinement has occurred, and it will initially measure as being not as good.

Innovation being uncertain means that the exact notion of what success will be for the innovation may be unclear. Articulating what success might look like or involve can help guide the innovation process. Alternatively, if the innovation is very uncertain, sometimes it might be worth considering what failure might look like.

Expect and understand resistance

Innovation can be an uncomfortable process. It may involve changing how people (including colleagues) work or it might affect the lives of the citizens that we serve. Sometimes that change will be resisted – and sometimes that resistance will be perfectly justified. Expecting a significant innovation to just happen, is to expect people to change their habits spontaneously.

Design can help here by providing a focus on the problem at hand and people’s experiences. The design process can help expose areas where resistance may arise early on, and help adjust or modify the innovation accordingly, or help you factor the resistance in and identify strategies to overcome it.

Link to strategic priorities

The more a specific innovation or idea can be linked to your organisation’s aims and goals, the easier it will be for the idea to overcome any resistance and hurdles that it may encounter. Any organisation will have a limited appetite and ability to pursue ideas, so those that are clearly linked to priority areas will have a much better chance of being considered and adopted.

Innovation can be personally satisfying, but…

Innovation can be a rewarding and stimulating pursuit. Fostering and developing a new idea, implementing it and seeing the changes that result from it, can be a great feeling.

However, I recommend going in with open eyes. Innovation is hard work. Innovation involves changing the status quo, and the bigger the change that you are seeking to make, the harder it is likely to be. Start small, involve others, and stick with it.

Build on interest and the interested

Innovation is a social process. It is about people. Start where there is interest and try to bring on board the people who are interested. Know that the innovation process will require different skills and aptitudes across different stages, and that other people may be better placed to help at each of those stages.

Risk, risk, risk

Is anything riskier than standing still in a fast-changing world?

In the public sector we are very conscious of risk, and for very good reasons. However, it can be important to remember that there is risk in not innovating as well. What is the driver for your innovation? How will it improve things? What does that mean about the status quo and how it is performing? Why is the current state not good enough, and will things get worse if nothing is changed? Ensure that any risk assessment includes consideration of the risks of proceeding and the risks of not proceeding.

Another strategy is to look to the extremes or the periphery. Are there areas within your organisation (or within partner organisations or groups) where there is a higher risk appetite or lower risk? Areas where the case for change is much stronger, and where the willingness to try something like your idea might be higher?

Culture, culture, culture

In December 2013, I was lucky enough to attend a multi-country workshop hosted by the United Nations Development Programme’s Global Centre for Public Service Excellence. Despite the different cultures and settings reflected there, many of the issues faced by participants in successfully applying innovation in the public sector were the same. Does that mean that the issues are more about systems and people, rather than specific organisational cultures?

Culture is important, but I think the best thing that can be done about it is to remember that each of us help create the culture we operate in. How we react to other people’s ideas, what we do to help or hinder them, whether we default to ‘no’ or whether we think ‘why not?’ – these are the actions and behaviours that matter and that will affect how open your organisational culture is to innovation.

Constraint is not the enemy

Constraints can help provide the reason for why things need to change. Constraints can help you consider different strategies and options that you wouldn’t normally consider. Constraints can help bring people together who might normally not collaborate if they did not have to. Constraints can help the innovation process – so understand them and consider how they might be useful to you.

In summary

My summary snippets then are that you should:

    • Understand the problem that you are facing
    • Understand why it requires an innovative response (as opposed to just changing things)
    • Understand how the problem/innovation relates to any broader strategic aims
    • Develop a ‘coalition of the willing’ – people who are also interested and engaged
    • Consider using a design-led process and iterate rather than simply project manage
    • Practice, practice, practice – and start now.

I hope this might be of use/interest.

  1. This definition seems to originate from Wandersman, A., Goodman, R. M., & Butterfoss, F.D. (1997). Understanding coalitions and how they operate. In M. Minkler (Ed.), Community organizing & community building for health (pp. 261-277. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.