Inaugural Meeting of the Innovation Champions Group

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

When you discuss innovation in the public sector in Canberra, there’s a recurrent topic that comes up quite a lot – permission.

Whether it be those who are unsure of whether something is allowed, or those who advise “Seek forgiveness, not permission”, there’s a lot of discussion around the level of appetite for innovation from senior leadership and whether there’s really support for doing things differently.

Recently the Secretaries Board agreed to the establishment of a high level Innovation Champions Group with representation from each of the Portfolio Departments in addition to the Digital Transformation Office and the Australian Public Service Commission. This group helps reinforce the support for innovation by the senior leadership and look at what that means in practice.

The first meeting of the Innovation Champions Group took place on Monday 3 August.

In keeping with their innovation role, and the demonstrated value of openness and sharing when it comes to innovation, we will be sharing some of the key points from the meetings through the blog. We hope this will help affirm the support of the leadership of the Australian Public Service for innovation, and build wider understanding of the innovation journey.

Where are agencies currently?

One of the first things the group did was to look at the question of how innovative agencies are, and how innovative do agencies want or need to be. This was very much an exercise of informal self-assessment and we used the Innovation Matrix of Tim Kastelle as people can generally quickly identify where they fit from the names of each segment. This was a useful conversation starter.

Innovation Month 2015

The Champions were provided with a quick overview of Innovation Month 2015 and some of the key insights and issues that seemed to emerge from the events around the country (a more formal analysis will take place and be shared through the blog later).

This included:

  • There is a strong appetite for conversations, sharing and collaboration across jurisdictions and sectors, given they are facing similar issues and challenges
  • Different agencies are at different stages in the innovation journey, ranging from those actually implementing or development formal innovation frameworks/strategies to those just beginning to think about their appetite and need for innovation
  • There is an underlying question coming through from many of the events and discussions about what a truly digital public service looks like, and what it might mean for how individuals and agencies work. For instance:
    • There are a lot of things individual initiatives and developments happening, but there isn’t necessarily a commonly accepted coherent framework/narrative for people to understand how all of these things are connected
    • The digital world is an open one, but there is still hesitance in sharing, or giving people the opportunity to learn more about what is being done elsewhere
    • There is a lot of focus on the efficiency/productivity side of innovation, but less exploration of the transformative aspects/questioning of core practices and whether they are still relevant/appropriate

  • There is often a strong perception that there is a gap between what is said by the leadership of the public service around innovation, and what it is actually like ‘on-the-ground’. This perception exists when individuals outside of the public sector probably have more capacity to contribute and make change than ever before
  • There appears to be an increasing application of new methods and adoption of new mindsets, however there is an open question as to how effectively/to what extent these are being integrated into/with core processes in public sector agencies
  • There appear to be a number of opportunities for cross-agency innovation and collaboration, however these do not sit comfortably with the standard silo approach
  • There is progress being made, but innovation is still often perceived as an added extra rather than a core part of how things are done.

Following this the Champions discussed some of the core aspects of the innovation process.

  • Navigating risk – how do agencies manage the risk of innovation and weigh up the risk of not innovating?
  • Making innovation manageable – there is value in breaking big things down into smaller constituent parts, rather than taking on the whole task at once and increasing the risk and consequence of failure
  • Possible pay-off – the risk appetite for innovation should be set in the context of the possible outcomes of transformative innovation
  • Encouraging divergent thinking in a bureaucratic environment – holding the space for divergent thinking open as long as possible before a decision is made can avoid a lot of heartache later. This can be challenging and more could be done to help engrain this as normal/expected
  • Involving other sectors – GovHack was pointed to as a great example of the value of working with others to achieve public purpose, and the value of publishing data was emphasised.

The Role of the Champions Group

How will the Group operate and what will it focus on? There’s only so much that can be covered in one meeting but some key issues raised by the group for consideration included:

  • What are the problems that innovation is going to solve (or be needed to solve)?
  • How do existing processes exclude people from being involved in helping the public sector innovate?
  • How can innovation be effectively embedded in the culture of the public service, particularly when the status quo is a motivator for many?
  • What can the Champions group do, and how it will know whether it has made a difference?

Some opportunities the Group identified were:

  • The potential of short term and cross-agency projects (such as 90 day sprints), including involving people from outside of the public service and changing the standard problem solving dynamics
  • Supporting the digital transformation agenda
  • Articulating the imperative for innovation and what it looks like to make it meaningful to staff at all levels
  • Helping reshape assumptions within the public service and helping counter the tendency of the public service to underestimate the rate of change outside of the public service
  • Sharing examples of innovation (and lots of them).

The group also discussed whether it might be worthwhile for the group to identify:

  • What success might look like
  • What failure would look like.

Next Steps

Some next steps for the Group include looking at:

  • How to contribute to the development and implementation of the initiatives agreed by the Secretaries Board
  • Identifying some specific and small action areas where the Group could make real progress
  • Agreeing to a framework for the Group
  • Developing a narrative around innovation, what it offers and what can be done.


This is a new group and a bit of an experiment, in that innovation is a bit different to many of the other cross-agency leadership issues. It will take time for the group to settle on how it operates and where it concentrates its efforts, just as it did with the Public Sector Innovation Network Coordination Group (the officer level cross-agency group).

We look forward to keeping you informed about the work of the Group as it evolves over time.


  • Sue Weston (Chair), Department of Industry and Science
  • Ayesha Perry*, Attorney-General’s Department
  • Greg Williamson, Department of Agriculture
  • Marianne Cullen, Department of Communications
  • Brendan Sargeant, Department of Defence
  • Peter Rundell*, Department of Education and Training
  • Jo Wood, Department of Employment
  • Helen Wilson*, Department of the Environment
  • John Sheridan, Department of Finance
  • Ewen McDonald, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
  • Natasha Cole*, Department of Health
  • Pam Spurr*, Department of Human Services
  • Maria Fernandez, Department of Immigration and Border Protection
  • Helen Duke, Department of Social Services
  • Craig Orme*, Department of Veterans’ Affairs
  • Kim Terrell*, Digital Transformation Office
  • Peter Alexander, Treasury

(* Denotes stand-in for official Champion)


  • David Hazlehurst, Department of Industry and Science
  • Damian West, Australian Public Service Commission
  • Nicole Spencer, Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development
  • Mike Fordham, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

Secretariat (Department of Industry and Science)

  • Ann Bray
  • Nicole Metherell
  • Alex Roberts
  • Rob Thomas.