Our June 2016 article Public Service Lessons Learned described two distinct approaches to Australian Public Service culture change, both successful. July 2016 was Public Sector Innovation Month, with the theme Disrupt · Develop · Display , and has brought some further, sometimes conflicting, insights on culture change, with lessons for both Public and Private Sector. One of the forums, Bringing ideas to life in the public sector featured top rank speakers from the Departments of Premier and Cabinet in Victoria and South Australia, from Innovation, Trade and Investment, ACT Government, from the Digital Transformation Office. The discussion is reported in an article in The Mandarin, Innovation teams face an age-old problem for central agencies.
The “age-old problem” is that “Centralised innovation capability-building teams may have the public favour of ministers and top secretaries, but it’s much harder to win buy-in from line agency project managers on the ground.” Key pain points include:
“Lack of buy-in from the frontline staff is perhaps the costliest way to fail. Yet, these staff are often the best sources of ideas”
“Everyone is focused on delivery and too busy for innovation”
“Metrics for evaluation of innovation present one of the bigger challenges for these central teams.”
The general consensus from this forum was that “The most common path for innovation to take off was when ideas are identified at the frontline, in an environment where middle managers encourage creative thinking and build on existing systems with modest improvements.”
The Mandarin will publish the video of the forum when it becomes available.
However, a rather different view comes in a July 5, 2016 podcast by Mike Bracken, founder of the UK Government Digital Services, reported in The Mandarin July 19 article, Mike Bracken: bureaucratic inertia felt like being set up to fail. The article provides a link to the podcast, in which Bracken downplays the difficulties, noting that “Government services are important, but delivering them isn’t nearly as big or complex a task as all the grand buildings and hallowed traditions suggest”. He makes the comparison, “Most government services are nowhere near as large and as complex as your average dating site. That is very difficult for people who run tax and welfare systems to understand; they’re important, but they’re not big.”
The podcast pulls no punches. “The system is not set up to do stuff. It’s set up, frankly, to have an intellectual pissing match around how its things should be.” Bracken describes how he got results , “we hired insanely talented internet-era technologists and gave them a chance to change government, and the great thing about them is they move at such pace. They move so quickly that they can deliver in the time it takes to have the meeting to discuss whether to do the thing in the first place. And they did, time and again.”
However, government was not able to deliver at the same pace. The Mandarin article notes that “GDS built the UK’s online platform for petitions to parliament, in eight weeks with four staff at a cost of 100,000 pounds, while in contrast it took six months to get the office set up.” Bracken’s real success was to start a culture change. “From a standing start with no set-up, we’d delivered something which had very visibly changed the democratic system, because you could see people asking questions [based on e-petitions] in the house of parliament…..that helped shift the “very introverted, academic, intellectual” mindset of civil servants because it made them question why it took months and years to run procurement processes and draft policy advice.”
The Mandarin article gives further details, concluding that “The GDS “has become a case study in how you reform an institution from within using internet era skills” since 2011 and inspired other nations to explicitly copy it, as Australia has done with the Digital Transformation Office. Still, Bracken eventually tired of being an agent of change inside “the machine” that runs the UK.”
Further input comes from Academia in a July 21, 2016, article in The Conversation, Study of top business innovators shows more is needed than being tech savvy. Written by Stuart Cunningham, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation, Queensland University of Technology, the article summarises the findings of the Skills and Capabilities for Australian Enterprise Innovation report from the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA). This is a significant report, “focused on human dimensions of innovation across every major sector of Australian economy and society. The study interviewed 19 senior executives in organisations that were identified either by being recipients of recent innovation awards or by their peers as leading innovators in particular sectors.” A key finding is that “Innovation actually demands a cross-range of technical and non-technical skills, even more so in an age where the value of tech skills are diminished by the sheer number of people who posses them.”
xThe article gives examples of the approaches used by successful innovators, concluding that “Many other Australian businesses and organisations can learn from these leaders in innovation, to look beyond specifically skilled individuals to approaches that are more innovative.”