Evolution or Revolution? A report back on GovCamp Australia 2014

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

Where could you hear a talk about public sector innovation that references Captain America? GovCamp Australia!

Saturday 19 July saw the first national GovCamp Australia, held as part of Innovation Month 2014. It was held in six cities (Canberra, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth) and involved a couple of hundred people.

What is GovCamp? It is an unconference style event held around public sector issues, with conversations and dialogue involving people from within and without the public service, but all interested in better processes and outcomes for government.

The day included discussions about a whole range of things, from leadership and changemakers, wearable technologies, values, digital strategies, design and empathy, how you organise for innovation, how do you teach innovation, and connecting policy makers and citizens using services.

Hannah Mattner has provided some curation (thanks Hannah!) of the tweets and materials of the day which gives a great overview of some of the discussions. We’ll also link to some more materials and outcomes from the day as they are finalised.

However, what I’d like to focus on from the day is a question that came up (and has been discussed at some of the other events of Innovation Month 2014) – what is the appropriate mix between incremental /evolutionary change and disruptive/revolutionary change?

Dominic Campbell of FutureGov gave a stirring talk on the day to the networked audiences, under the title ‘Playtime’s Over’, which had a lot to say on this issue – should we look to incremental innovation, or more significant changes?

Dominic made a number of interesting points. These included:

    • That innovation has a lot to do with power, power relationships, and disruption and so the innovation process needs to consider principles and values, rather than becoming too occupied with transactional processes/experiences
    • We can no longer hold to the idea that there is a managerial ‘truth’ that can be reached, we have to negotiate uncertainty and choices involving values
    • Design and open innovation can help with this, but decision makers will need to be helped to have the confidence and trust in such methods
    • It is important not to underestimate the extent to which the use of design and open innovation processes are changes in and of themselves. Design is important because it helps the conversation start around needs, and the need to think about need. Design helps the process and the people involved start with empathy and understanding
    • Technology has the power to hardwire change and to scale impact, but there is not always due consideration of the choices being made about how that is done and whose interests are served
    • Governments are getting good at transactional improvements and innovation. This reflects that the ‘natural heart rate’ of government is tweaking things. The public sector is good at tweaking, at polishing the box that is government – but where is the capacity for doing the Google Moonshot type innovations? If we were to be starting again, what would collaborative government look like?
    • Governments need to commit to innovation, and stop dabbling, and that this will require a collaboration of the brave and the bold
    • Safe spaces, such as government innovation teams and labs are a great starting place.

Dominic advocated for the public sector to consider more disruptive transformations, noting that the institutions we rely on and work in were not built for the world we are now in. He gave the provocation that we need to rethink a lot of what we do (or that we should ‘burn it down and start again’).

Dominic finished with this quote from Captain America: The Winter Soldier “to build a better world sometimes means tearing the old one down”.[1. Though Dominic was repurposing the quote from the side of evil, to the side of good…]

It was a great talk, and one that seemed to spark a fair amount of discussion on the ground and on Twitter.

What is the right mix? I think this is something that we’ll come back to once Innovation Month 2014 has ended as an area for further work.

We’d like to give a very big thanks to Allison Hornery and John Wells for pulling GovCamp AU together, and to each of the organisers and volunteers in each of the six cities for their time and effort in helping make a great day. While there were some teething issues with the technology link-up at times, I think it was great to have everyone see and feel like they were part of a national conversation.

I’m definitely looking forward to GovCamp Australia 2015!