Can you be an effective public servant if you’re not innovating? (aka Innovate or Die!)

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

One of my favourite cartoonists is Hugh MacLeod of GapingVoid who creates ‘art with purpose’. His work provides commentary about contemporary work and organisations. He believes that art can convey ideas better than other forms of communication.

One of my favourite pieces of his is his piece ‘Create or die!’ which served as the inspiration for one of the final Innovation Month 2014 activities, the Uncomfortable Ideas speaker series event ‘Create or Decline: Can you be an effective public servant if you’re not innovating?’ In a fast changing world, is the appropriate default setting for public servants shifting from innovating on occasion, to not innovating on occasion?

At this session, Dr Sarah Pearson (Interim CEO of the Canberra Innovation Network) and I spoke about the changing dynamics of innovation and what that might mean for public servants – Sarah from her experience in the private sector and academia, and I from my experience in working on public sector innovation for the past six years or so.

Dr Pearson – Changes in innovation: Can the public service ignore them?

Dr Pearson began by noting that the very process of innovation is undergoing innovation – i.e. how we innovate and how we think about innovation is changing.

Sarah noted that in the commercial world, the perception of what should be a company’s purpose is changing to a focus on value delivery. Whereas once a company might have tried to control its innovation pipeline of idea to outcome, the process for many firms is now much more permeable. Firms can draw on external ideas and capabilities, or they can licence or spin out ideas to others. The innovation process can sometimes mean collaborating with competitors, as long as it will help them deliver value, whether it be for current markets, new markets or the markets of other firms.

The question was posed to the audience – does the public service think like that? Are we focused on delivering value or are we about programme delivery? Value delivery can be challenging culturally as it may mean a loss of ownership and control, and possibly the loss of kudos.

Sarah shared a quote from Jack Welch (former CEO of GE)…

“Trying to define what will happen three to five years out……is a futile exercise. The world is moving too fast ….. What should a company do instead? …define its vision and its destiny in broad but clear terms.…maximize its own productivity….be organizationally and culturally flexible enough to meet massive change.”

…and noted that this was a quote from 20 years ago and that the pace of change has not slowed down in that time.

Sarah emphasised that companies now have to “innovate, innovate, innovate”.

Consumers are increasingly well informed and companies have to earn their trust. If we look at the public service, we need to earn the respect of citizens, and part of that is recognising that they increasingly expect services to be improved and to be personalised to them and their needs. When companies do not meet their needs, consumers will look to their competitors. Sarah suggested that despite the different setting for the public service, increasingly the same tension will apply – if we do not meet the needs of citizens, they will look to others.

Sarah outlined some of the structural approaches being tried to facilitate greater innovation, including crowdsourcing, open innovation portals, collaborative models, and sandboxing or controlled testing. Some examples of these approaches being used in the public sector include innovation labs and teams such as Melbourne’s CityLab and TACSI (The Australian Centre for Social Innovation).

Sarah finished her presentation by issuing a call to action using the song ‘Why Not?’, noting in particular the lyric “if you lose the moment you might lose a lot, so why not? Why not?” There are opportunities to be gained from innovation, whereas there is risk that if we don’t, that we might lose a lot.

Alex Roberts – Can you be effective if you’re not innovating?

My own presentation was a little less polished, and was an attempt to test out some developing thinking about disruptive innovation and the public sector (in other words this isn’t an official position, rather some exploratory thinking).

Disruptive innovation

I began by noting that the Internet has had significant impact on industries, but that those impacts sometimes took a while to hit (a great illustration of this is the impact of the Internet on US newspaper ad revenues). The shake-out of this and other disruptive innovations has been significant churn and upheaval for some of the largest private sector organisations – with the average lifespan of companies in the S&P500 down to 18 years.

I proposed that if we were to consider ourselves in the public service as an industry sector, our primary commodity would be information. If we compared ourselves to other information industries, I suggested we might consider whether there was an order to how the disruptive impact of the Internet was carried through industry sectors.

As a crude thought experiment, I suggested that we could see the impacts of the Internet as a wave and that it was now starting to lap against (crash against?) the shores of the public service.

A disruptive wave proceeding through information industries?

Restructuring as a response

The public service has long had a mechanism to ensure flexibility and the ability to reorganise and refocus on different issues as needed. Machinery of government changes provide more flexibility than has been available to the private sector in some ways, but I suggested that some of the restructuring and repositioning that has occurred in the public service might be a reflection of some deeper shifts.

Increasingly agencies are trying to find forms that can deal with the issues of citizens and firms and stakeholder groups on their terms, rather than on our own silo/organisational lines. For instance there has been the development of the Department of Human Services, MyGov, and the Single Business Service. Such moves have also been mirrored in other countries – e.g. Gov.UK. Citizens increasingly want and need services and information provided on their terms, as opposed to being provided on an agency by agency basis.

My hypothesis is that this pressure on public services has been encouraged by two factors:

    • Increasingly complex and interconnected issues
    • A trend to ‘consumerisation’/democratisation of technologies, platforms, products and services.

Increasing complexity and consumerisation

There’s been a lot said about the growing complexity and interconnected nature of the problems that the public service is responsible for, so I won’t repeat it here.

The second factor, something I’m referring to as ‘consumerisation’ is a trend I’m suggesting is helping facilitate the growing complexity and the need for more flexibility and innovative responses.

By consumerisation, I’m referring to an apparent series of technologies – cloud computing, social media, platform technologies, 3D printing – that are putting more power and capability within the hands of individuals, networks or groups. For instance crowdfunding platforms give citizens the opportunity and ability to mobilise and leverage resources towards specific tasks at a speed that previously only large organisations could (sometimes) muster. 3D printing potentially means that some forms of production will no longer require large supply chains. Social media can make anyone a publisher.

I suggest that this means that complexity is increasing (due to the possible interplay of an increased number of actors with increased capabilities or access to capabilities) and that the public service is no longer by default the lead player in many issues and policy settings. Others can, and are, starting to ‘play’ in this space, whether it be social enterprises, not-for-profits, community groups or networks, individuals or traditional private firms.

In other words, the public service can now be disrupted as well as being a possible source of disruption for others. And if this is the case, it means we share more with private sector actors than has previously been the case. To borrow from Sarah, we in the public service also need to focus on value delivery and differentiate ourselves.

But does that mean we should be innovating all the time?

If this is the case, how can we change the default position for public servants might need to change to one of innovating?

I suggested three elements in how our thinking may shift to facilitate this.

Innovation as a tool

There has been a lot of discussion in Innovation Month 2014 about the appropriate balance between change and stabilisation. There has also been mention that innovation is just a tool, and is not an end in and of itself.

This is a valid point. Innovation is not something that should be done for the sake of it. Innovation is certainly not an inherent good. It is risky, disruptive and in a complex, interconnected system it can easily have unintended consequences. It also can be difficult, time consuming and difficult to prioritise (particularly for organisations).

But if we look at many of the other tools that we use (e.g. recruitment, procurement, legal services, human resource/people management, accounting, communications, stakeholder engagement, IT platforms, buildings, policies and programmes…), how often do we feel it necessary to say about them “they’re just a tool”?

It is true that organisations cannot continually innovate everything they do (or they wouldn’t be an organisation – something that is established to do repeated activity). However, perhaps innovation is a tool that should be considered as one that is necessary more often.

How many public service agencies have not been challenged by policy or service delivery issues where a new approach is needed? How many individual public servants do not have to negotiate challenges around resources and demands, situations requiring a new approach?

The risk balance

A previous speaker in Innovation Month mentioned that innovation in the public sector has been long on risk, but short on reward. But is it that balance perhaps changing?

When everything else is changing, the riskiest approach is not changing. This is not just in an abstract sense – the career of a public servant is no longer as predictable and stable as it once might have been, so a strategy of sticking with what works, or what we know, is probably a lot more risky than developing options and cultivating new alternatives.

A saying that I have heard often in the public sector is that ‘no one was ever fired for picking X’ (X being the large incumbent supplier/provider of your choice). Yet in an environment with significant cost pressures, where the private sector is experiencing significant disruption itself, and where more agile strategies are preferred, I suggest that may no longer be the case. Perhaps the ‘safe’ option is risky.

If the status quo is becoming risky, might there be less risk in trying something new? Might the risk appetite for innovation be greater than the presumption of safety in sticking with what we have now?

Can everyone innovate at once or all the time?

Organisations cannot innovate all the time – they need to prioritise and have some stability. But is that the case for individuals and networks or if we conceive of ‘government as a platform’, rather than a series of discrete organisations/activities?

I sincerely believe that everyone can be creative and can contribute to the innovation process. Everyone has a role and can contribute different skills, insights, experiences or perspectives.

I suggest that individual public servants will increasingly need to concentrate on skills (such as behavioural insights, design thinking, open innovation, horizon scanning) that equip them with the capability and confidence to innovate and to continually deal with new situations, new ways of looking at problems and apply new strategies.

I also suggested that the public service will continue to experiment with different structures, just as the private sector is, to see how the baseline level of innovation can be more constant.

In line with being a part of the ‘Uncomfortable Ideas’ series, I concluded that I think public servants do need to shift their default to one of innovation. I do not think this will be comfortable, or necessarily a good or easy thing, but I do think it will be a necessary one.

(A caveat)

As noted, this is exploratory thinking, developed as part of the ‘Uncomfortable Ideas’ series to stimulate or provoke discussion. Critiquing (preferably constructive) is welcome, either in comments or alex.roberts [at]’re%20not%20innovating?”>directly to me.


I’d like to give a special thanks to Dr Pearson for her presentation (in particular for linking a Hilary Duff song to innovation), and to NICTA’s eGov Cluster for their support of the event and providing us with an excellent venue.