The business of running government is always complicated, with multiple stakeholders to satisfy, conflicting priorities, and intense scrutiny of spending. Make any innovation in service delivery, and you can be sure lobby groups will pressure opposition hopefuls into promises to neuter the changes.
Tackling these problems within government agencies requires a serious effort of leadership, which appears to be finally emerging in Canberra. In 2010 the Department of Innovation produced a rather useful analysis of ways that the Australian Public Service (APS) can improve innovation within government agencies. In addition to highlighting the huge cultural leap required, some very sensible recommendations were made.
“This will require a paradigm shift in the approach of many agencies where much development of new ideas is done in a climate of secrecy. In particular, the APS should adopt innovative practices and increased openness in the development of new policy proposals through reforms such as:
• introducing outside experts into the policy development process (e.g. as participants in inter-departmental committee processes)
• transparent consultation processes
• reviewing the rationale for data restrictions (including by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Australian Taxation Office and other key public data collections) as greater availability of data will drive innovation
• undertaking detailed design and implementation post the announcement of an initiative, in consultation with users and stakeholders
• identifying the risk associated with an innovative project or initiative upfront and how it will be managed
• including analysis of the new policy development process in the evaluation of program and delivery outcomes.”
Now some of these observations about risk management and planning might seem rather trivial to anyone who has been involved in large corporate projects, but they should be put into context. Grass roots innovation has traditionally been a lightning rod for political punishment. Policy innovations are often imposed on the public service, with little bearing on feasibility, productivity, or even the laws of physics.
In short, leaders within the APS face an entrenched culture where anyone advocating bottom up change is seen as foolhardy, with little prospect for career advancement in the public service.
Nevertheless, there are important cultural changes underway. Perhaps the most important is in the area of talent management – with the formation of the Strategic Centre for Leadership, intended to provide a standardised set of leadership tools and training opportunities for federal bureaucrats, with programs for ongoing career development. The State of the Service Report (2009-10) revealed that only 10% of agencies already have an active talent management strategy.
Putting a focus on lifting these leadership skills has the potential for long term improvements in employee productivity and professionalism, and is long overdue. It may not make government agencies more creative, but it will help leaders within the departments to better nurture innovations, and give them the skills to measure and articulate the benefits change will bring.