Reflections on 7 years of public sector innovation

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

As some of our readers already know, I’m soon heading off to new pastures for a while. Before I go, I thought it might be useful to reflect on some of the things I’ve learnt and observed since starting to work on public sector innovation in the Australian Public Service back in 2009.

What has happened in 7 years?

When I started working on the Management Advisory Committee project on public sector innovation in 2009, public sector innovation as a focus was pretty new. In many ways it still is, but there has also been a lot of work done to build a more systemic approach to innovation in the APS. Some developments have included:

  • Empowering Change: Fostering Innovation in the Australian Public Service, a framework document developed for the then Management Advisory Committee, which helped set out an approach to thinking and acting on innovation in the public sector. Looking back, this work has informed much of what came after, even if some ideas and aspects took longer than some of us (e.g. me) thought it might. With hindsight this is not in the least surprising, as a common condition for successful innovation is that we must understand the role of time
  • The creation of the Public Sector Innovation Network, and it’s growth to some 2800 plus people around the world
  • The launch of this blog in 2010 and the rest of the Toolkit website in 2011
  • The establishment of Innovation week, which then became Innovation Month. I should recognise that this was inspired by the work of the Victorian Public Service in 2010 when they held a VPS Innovation Festival, and some of us thought “that’s a good idea, we should do that”. It may never have gotten further than that if it was not for the work of a couple of colleagues at the then Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry who took the idea and went the extra mile to make it a reality in 2011. It has grown from there, and while there’s always room for improvement, I think it’s provided a great platform for public servants and partners outside to explore innovation issues and have different conversations than they might otherwise have had
  • Last year we had the trial of the Innovation Hub, and the selection of two ideas for further development by the Innovation Champions Group
  • This year we have seen the establishment of the Public Sector Innovation Awards in partnership with the Institute of Public Administration Australia. While I have no idea who will ‘win’, I have had a chance to read and be impressed by a number of the 80 plus nominations received. It is always easy to be distracted by ‘business-as-usual’ so it’s important to take the time to celebrate the work of those trying to do something different
  • This year also saw the publication of our first ‘Innovation Snapshot’, providing an overview of some of the many innovative initiatives happening across the APS
  • In 2012-13 there was DesignGov, an interesting experiment that provided insight into running a cross-APS design-led innovation lab. Innovation labs are proliferating around the world, and across the APS and DesignGov contributed to the working knowledge of what makes such labs work
  • The Innovation Champions Group has met 7 times over the past year and has worked on matters such as the Innovation Behaviours, pursuing two of the ideas from the Innovation Hub trial, and considering how to best support and work with innovative endeavours across the APS
  • We are continuing to work on supporting Chapters of the Public Sector Innovation Network in the other capital cities to help give APS staff outside of Canberra the opportunity to collaborate and access to peer support as they too try out innovative approaches.

This isn’t the whole picture of course. There are many other bits and pieces that have happened, most of which have been catalogued on this blog. There are also the efforts of so many others, both within and without the APS, and the many formal initiatives and projects led by others and other agencies that I won’t try to capture here.

So there’s been lots of activity over the past seven or so years.

Observations, lessons and questions

Activity is a big part of innovation – trying things and giving it a go. But it’s not enough. Innovation is an evolving practice and one that needs to build on the lessons of what has gone before (even if sometimes innovation is about overcoming previous lessons). What lessons would I share from being part of the public sector innovation work?

The innovation process

  • The first step for many people is to ask “well what is innovation?” Innovation is inherently ambiguous because what is new or different to one person will not always be so to someone else. At its heart, there’s a lot to be said for the basic definition used in Empowering Change – the generation and application of new ideas. It is fundamentally about doing something different that you haven’t done before, doing an existing process in a new way, or thinking about something in a different way that leads to different actions. But each organisation will need to consider what innovation means for it and why innovation is important to the purpose of that organisation, even if it isn’t about nailing down a specific definition. A cautionary note is to not only associate innovation with good things – e.g. value or benefit. Innovation in the public sector takes place in a contested environment, and what is good for some, may not be so for others. Innovation should ultimately be about making things better (or why else are you doing it), but that doesn’t mean innovation cannot have negative impacts or that it will always or automatically be better than the status quo. Overall innovation is contextual, which is part of what makes it difficult
  • Innovation is a process, and so it is something that can be managed. Of course innovation can be serendipitous or spontaneous – but it usually isn’t, even when it might look like it is. An immature innovation process can rely on people going above and beyond, to come up with and implement new ideas but if there’s an expectation that innovation is going to be consistent, replicable and targeted towards strategic priorities then the process needs to be a bit more sophisticated
  • This sophistication is needed because it is very easy to inhibit or stop the innovation process. Responding negatively to someone’s idea can be enough to stop them trying again. Coming up with reasons of why something shouldn’t be tried is very easy. Seeming to be supportive while at the same time acting in a way that delays things is very easy. Innovation requires a certain amount of momentum to overcome the surrounding bureaucratic inertia of organisations, and that momentum usually comes from enthusiasm and passion, from leadership, from external forces, and/or from an internal innovation capability. The last one is the only one that organisations can really hope to try and manage, even if the others play a big role
  • The first place people and organisations usually focus on when looking at their innovation capability is idea generation and idea management. Organisations tend to learn pretty quickly that coming up with ideas is not the problem – working out which ideas are the most relevant to the organisation or that best fit with its priorities is harder. Ideas management systems are important, because they can help organisations channel and filter ideas, as well as providing a forum for ideas that might not be ready just yet
  • It generally takes time and practice for individuals to get comfortable with the idea that there are lots and lots of ideas, and that your first idea is unlikely to be the best one. Design and other practices can help in showing people that it is actually pretty easy to come up with lots of ideas. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy to let go of an idea that you have invested time, effort and care into. It does mean that it is better to try and kill an idea early, before you invest too much in it. If the idea works/survives, then that’s the time to progressively increase the investment of time and effort – though it may still need to be killed at any time
  • The best way to build up that innovation maturity is to give people the opportunity to try out and test their ideas, even in a limited way, so that they can get a better feel for what makes a good idea, what is needed to really test an idea to make sure it is good, and what are the steps required to take an idea from conception to delivery
  • An idea will only get so far if it is one person’s idea. Innovation is about changing the status quo, and that means you are (either explicitly or implicitly) asking others to change their behaviour, how they think or what they believe. For an idea to make an impact, it needs to have lots of people buying into it before the status quo (previous beliefs, behaviours or practices) begins to change
  • The best way to get others to buy into an idea is to show why it matters. For many ideas this is about testing them, iterating and developing the idea until it is easy to see that it will do as promised. An example might be a new product or service – initially the idea might sound great, but until the idea is tested and developed, you don’t know whether people have just said they like it, or whether they really like it. For other ideas it may be about helping explain the perspective or the framing associated with the idea. These conceptual or policy innovations may be as about much the arguments and language used to explain the idea. Do people really understand what’s being talked about and what it might mean if it was introduced? Getting that right can take a long time
  • Demonstrating that an idea is both relevant and something that matters means that it involves multiple people. More than ever before, innovation is a team sport and is not about the lone innovator
  • Just because innovation is not about lone actors, it doesn’t mean that the actors won’t feel lonely. Innovation is about putting yourself out there and making yourself vulnerable in some way – whether it be to the judgements of others about an idea, or because the idea or innovation may fail, or because it involves thinking about or seeing the world in a different way to other people. Organisations by their nature are about shared views and perspectives on common matters. It can be hard to both maintain a collective approach/view and encourage/allow divergence that produces really new ideas and insights
  • Innovation is a process that requires trust and faith. People putting forward their ideas or trying new approaches need to have trust that they won’t be judged or penalised for trying something new that might not work. Design and other innovation processes are exercises in faith because you cannot be sure what’s going to happen when you’re doing something that’s fundamentally uncertain, as innovation is. Yet trust and faith are not qualities that large and bureaucratic organisations (whether in the public or private sector) are renowned for.

The public service as an environment for innovation

The following are some observations about the public service as an environment for innovation. While they have been drawn from my experience in the APS, from conversations with many others I think they are common to the public sector more broadly.

  • There seems to be a strong tendency in the public service to default to ‘looking upwards’ when it comes to anything new. This may be about responsibility inflation, accountability mechanisms or simple conditioning of working in hierarchical organisations. I suggest it is incumbent on all of us to think about how much you can get away with – not in a subversive way, but as part of being a professional and the associated responsibility to be effective and self-directed
  • There is also a tendency towards desk-bound perfectionism – the need to make sure something is absolutely right before sharing it with others. While I think this tendency has weakened since we first talked about in in 2013, in part because of the growing prevalence of design thinking and methods such as Agile, I think it is still inhibiting collaboration and innovation more than it probably should
  • There seems to be a bit of a perceived conflict between standing out and being outstanding. Innovation still tends to be seen as something on top of or instead of core work, rather than essential for how you do core work. A lot of the praise, the recognition and rewards come from the ‘business as usual’ work. People who want to be outstanding therefore do not generally have a lot of incentive to stand out from the crowd too much by being really innovative. This may change as innovation becomes more routine, as the benefits of new ways of working become clearer. Or it may be a natural tension that continues, or it may be something that requires specific interventions to overcome
  • An associated tension is the consideration of risk. The natural focus when looking at risk is to ask what the risks of doing something are. Yet in a world of change, there is considerable risk with staying with the status quo. We need to ask ourselves, what are the risks of not acting? If we do not try this innovation, will that actually be riskier than staying with our current path, which may not be working as needed? Of course those risks are not always as obvious or as seemingly immediate or consequential
  • Of course an assessment of risk depends on knowing the relative chances and impacts of different things happening. Yet innovation is inherently uncertain. If you are doing something completely new, assessing the risks may feel like an exercise of prophecy. While there are methods to try and mitigate this – using design thinking and alternative project management techniques that allow for iteration or sensing – this aspect of innovation points to a broader underlying tension. Innovation and evidence can be uncomfortable bed-fellows. If you are doing something completely new, not only may you not have the evidence base to properly assess it, you may not even have the right measures to judge its impact. And if there are multiple innovations being introduced at once (e.g. new products and services by industry), the interaction between them all may make it very hard to isolate the impact of one specific innovation. In such an environment, it may be about sensing and feeling your way, rather than having a clear sense of what is happening, why, and what will happen next
  • Many of these issues – seeing what you can get away with, being prepared to share work that is not perfect, to try new approaches and ways of working, to be prepared to be ‘out there’, to consider risk in different ways, being willing to sense rather than know – can fit uncomfortably with our notions of professionalism. The APS is a professional environment, where part of our identity as being a public servant is around being a professional – someone who knows the answers, who knows how to get things done, and how to keep things operating smoothly. A greater focus on innovation can challenge that traditional conception of self, that identity of being a public servant. While there are leaders who are helping demonstrate that there are alternatives, that innovation and being a successful public servant is very possible, that does not mean that there are not some cultural challenges. My hope is that initiatives such as the APS Innovation Snapshot and the public sector innovation awards will help provide more and richer stories of people who have made innovation a part of their identity as an employee of the APS.

So you want to be an innovator?

Drawing on my experience as someone who has not only worked with many innovative people in the APS, but also worked on innovative initiatives (such as DesignGov), I suggest the following as some things to consider if you want to make innovation part of your repertoire.

  • Innovation is hard. You are trying to change how things are done. As described, that means you are trying to change how people think or behave or what they believe. This is not an easy thing to achieve
  • What are you trying to innovate for? If you can answer that question clearly, in a way that resonates with other people, innovation becomes much less hard. What is the story of the innovation? Will it make things better? How? Will it make things easier? How? Will it allow new possibilities? How? If you can identify the problem that you are trying to address, the pain point you are hoping to salve, or the opportunity you are seeking to exploit, then it will be easier for people to understand, to engage with, and potentially participate in realising, the innovative idea
  • “You won’t be thanked.” This was some advice I was given early on in my public sector innovation work, and it was offered in good faith. It was very good and wise advice. If you start out on in innovation either thinking or expecting that you will be thanked, you are likely to be disappointed. The things that tend to get thanks are the things that are understood. This generally means routine or irregular but known tasks where others understand the effort that have gone in to them because they too may have done them, or because they know what is involved. Innovative initiatives are new, and a lot of effort can be involved in just getting to the starting line, negotiating all the unknowns and overcoming process hurdles that more established tasks don’t require. For these and other reasons innovations also tend to be less good than existing services/products/concepts at first – so you may achieve something only for it not be immediately clear that this could be better than what we already have
  • Plan always, act spontaneously, know that the unexpected will happen. Innovation is uncertain, so it is guaranteed that things will not play out as you expect or as you have planned for. That doesn’t mean that planning is not worthwhile. Plans can help us build up our mental flexibility, to identify and think about our assumptions and to provide us with strategies. A plan is never a prophecy, it is a tool that can help codify what we do know, and highlight what we don’t know. At the same time, innovation is about action. Action is what reduces uncertainty because it gives us feedback about the idea and the environment in which we’re trying to introduce the idea. Innovation is also aided by being able to see opportunities and act on them at short notice. I have found that being comfortable with the tension of planning and considering different scenarios as well as being able to act spontaneously and decisively is very helpful when innovating
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. And communicate. Innovation is an area where you can say the same thing again and again (and again), but where what is heard will change over time. New is different. It takes time to understand. Don’t assume you’re on the same page – or the same book, or even in the same genre or library. When you describe a new idea it can be hard for those listening to immediately make the connections and grasp what you’re saying. It is, after all, a new idea. You may not share the common experiences, the reference points, the analogies or metaphors, or use cases. A huge part of successful innovation then is ongoing communication and ongoing efforts to convey the idea and its import in different ways that connect with different audiences
  • Respect (or at least consider) my authority. Innovation is challenging, and on lots of different levels. Whether deliberately or not, you are trying to change the status quo, and that means there may be winners or losers, or just transaction costs and effort for others. Sometimes people will resist an innovation – and there may be very good reasons for that resistance. Sometimes an innovation will challenge people – either at the level of their identity (“this is my job”), their positional authority (“that’s not how we do things”) or their beliefs (“you can’t do that”). Whether you agree or sympathise with any resistance or reactions, it is essential to consider them and to factor them in. Resistance and reactions can feel personal for those putting forward ideas, but equally it can feel very personal for those engaging with an innovative idea. Respect is essential
  • Stick with your course. Change course. Sometimes you’ll just know you’re right. Sometimes that will even be true. Working out which is which is a big part of becoming a successful innovator. Innovation requires flexibility and being responsive to reality and the feedback of others. But sometimes innovation is about pushing ahead with an idea, because you see that there is an opportunity or need that others may be missing. I don’t have any advice at how to get better at this other than practice
  • Learn from others, ask questions and keep trying. Innovation is a skill and one that everyone can learn. The best way, other than direct experience, is to learn from others, to ask questions about their experiences, to take advantage of their knowledge and expertise, and to seek input from others. Most importantly, keep trying. Practice does not make perfect, but it does make a huge difference. Of course innovation is also a lot about luck and timing, so being prepared for that is also important
  • Take pride in being a “corporate irritant”. Large organisations are often talked about as having ‘immune systems’ that respond and react to changes and interventions. This is fair – large organisations are usually about replicating processes and systems. Yet we live in a world with many disruptions that can potentially incapacitate or make an organisation obsolete. Corporate irritants can be seen as an alternative protective element – they are engaging with disruption and change, and testing out new ways of working that may help the organisation adapt or evolve to deal with sudden shocks or changes. So perhaps those seeking to innovate need to take pride in being a corporate irritant, in the knowledge that without such irritants, organisations will be unprepared for disruptive shifts. Organisations need a mix of people and irritants play an equally valid and useful role as others
  • Find your edge – personal, professional or official. Innovation happens at the edge – it is there that dissatisfaction with the status quo is more pronounced and where there is more incentive for change. What is the edge can vary – it can be at the outer edges of an organisation, it can be in service delivery where you’re at the interface with clients and customers, or it can simply be a matter of having a different perspective informed by different experiences. To innovate, you’ll need to think differently, and that means finding your own edge which can expose you to different ways of seeing the world/problems, to new insights, new practices or different people. Your edge may relate to your hobbies, to your background, to your identity, or to your networks. If you can find your edge, it can help you innovate
  • Connect with your passion, your purpose. So innovation is hard, you aren’t likely to be thanked or even necessarily recognised, it may put people’s noses out of joint, you may be seen as irritating, and success may be down to luck or timing or factors out of your control. Sounds inviting doesn’t it? Why would you bother innovating? The answer will be different for different people, but I have worked with a lot of innovative people over the past seven years and I think it comes down to this. Innovation is essentially about recognising that there are better options out there. Once you realise that, once you accept that, and once you see how you might make a difference, it can be hard to do anything other than to try. If you can connect with your passion, your sense of purpose, then you will have a clear sense of why you’re trying to change things, and why it matters enough to make those other aspects not matter. That can make it all worthwhile
  • If you don’t innovate, and others do, what will that mean? If passion or purpose isn’t something that resonates with you, then there may be more pragmatic reasons to think about what innovation means to and for you. If you accept that the world is changing quickly and will continue to do so, then it is likely that your work and your organisation are also going to change. What will that mean for you? Change is generally a lot more interesting when you can help shape it. Even if you don’t see yourself as someone with lots of ideas, how might you participate in the innovation process? Unless you think things are perfect as they are, then there’s going to be change and innovation
  • Keep a sense of humour (or do yoga or something). Innovation and change can be demanding and draining. Innovation and change can also be stimulating and rewarding. Sometimes they can even be tedious and repetitive. Find something to balance that reality or risk getting exhausted or burnt out.

Closing thoughts

The past few years have been a real mix – certainly challenging, sometimes frustrating, often enlightening, but always full of learning new things. I have found it extremely rewarding to meet, and work with, a diverse mix of people from inside and outside of the APS who share a common interest in helping the public service be and do better. There are many, many people who have been involved in and who have shaped this work.

I especially want to recognise my colleague Rob Thomas who was instrumental in much of what I have been involved in over the past three and a half years. I’d also like to thank Lynne Goodyer for her many contributions since she joined us in the Public Sector Innovation team late last year.

While there’s always more that could be done in this space, there’s only so much that can be done. I’ll leave it to others as to whether we’ve gotten the mix right so far.

I look forward to seeing what comes next as the APS continues to show what it can do when it comes to creative and clever ways of doing things differently.

I’ll still be working on public sector innovation so if you’re interested you can find me at @CaptainInnovate, through LinkedIn, or via my personal blog.

Until next time – let’s keep on innovating, as there is always an opportunity to do things in new and (hopefully) better ways. And if there’s the opportunity, surely it would be a shame not to take it?