Creating a culture and environment for innovation

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

How do you set the conditions for innovation within an organisation? ComSuper and the Australian Bureau of Statistics shared some insights at an Innovation Month 2014 event on 25 July.


Dr Jill Chalker, CEO of ComSuper, started by sharing some details of her agency’s innovation journey, including the establishment of an inaugural innovation strategy. ComSuper also held a ‘town hall’ style event where all staff were asked for their ideas for improvements or innovations.

Dr Chalker noted that some of the best ideas come from those at the front line, rather than those in managerial roles. She shared a story of one small idea from a staff member that helped make a significant difference.

ComSuper is an agency that does a lot of work in administering pension payments. The agency sends out a letter to pensioners every year including some administrative information as well as the payment summary for taxation purposes. Every year however, ComSuper experienced an increase in calls to their call centre around the July-August period – and a number of those calls were from recipients asking about where their payment summary was.

One staff member put forward the idea of changing the colour of the payment summary to help recipients identify it. After some procedural checking (e.g. re readability and printing), the next year the payment summary was printed on a different coloured sheet of paper. Between 2012 and 2013, with no other difference in the process, there was over a 70% drop in phone calls.


Paul Lowe from the Australian Bureau of Statistics spoke about his experience in ensuring a fertile environment for innovation in the lead-up to the Census in 2011. The Census is a massive undertaking, the largest peace-time logistical exercise in Australia, and provides very important information needed to support effective decision making.

In the lead-up to the Census in 2011 however, there were challenges around resourcing and a need to address a rising ‘under count’ (people not captured in or completing the Census), especially in particular demographic groups.

The core challenge was to change public perceptions and behaviours in relation to the Census without using many resources. They had to develop engagement, but recognise the different audiences and appropriate channels.

Paul spoke about how their area embraced social media, something that at time was relatively novel for many areas of the public service. Their aim was to engage the public and bring the Census ‘to life’.

There were three main elements to this, including:

    • ABS Spotlight (an interactive site providing information about the Census)
    • Run that Town (an interactive mobile game using data from the Census).

Each of these channels helped engage people (and in turn the networks they shared it with), and educated users about statistics and the power of the Census. They were also very well regarded internationally and contributed towards a high participation rate and awareness of the Census amongst the Australian public, including the harder to reach demographics.

What was the culture, the environment that allowed this to happen?

Paul outlined what he did to ensure the environment was right for his staff to try something different. This included avoiding traditional messages such as “don’t take unnecessary risks” or “keep me posted” which he suggested were just code for do not fail, and don’t try anything too major.

Paul discussed the importance of leaders in creating the right culture; including giving people responsibility and accountability, giving people space, and helping remove barriers both real and perceived. A big element was trust, and recognising that perhaps your staff know better than you.

In regards to the team environment, Paul spoke of why it mattered that the team believed in the project, and that there was an understanding by all of the directions and the outcomes. An environment of reciprocal trust, where people had the permission to challenge the status quo and the expectation that at times they would make the senior leadership uncomfortable, and where they felt empowered to be creative and allowed to self-manage, meant that the team was innovative and resilient and adaptive to change.

Thanks to Paul Lowe, Dr Jill Chalker, and to their respective organisations for putting on this interesting Innovation Month event.