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How to train and teach innovative 21st century public sector leadership

19 June 2019

News and media


Image focused on hands representing people working together.

ANZSOG, the Monash Sustainable Development Institute (MSDI), and Beth Noveck’s NYU Governance Lab (GovLab) are collaborating on a project to design innovation-focused education and training programs for the public sector. 

The project team is examining innovation skills and capabilities within the Australian and New Zealand public sector. Federal and state public servants in any department or executive agency are invited to take part in a short survey to assist with the research. 

 In this article, project leaders Beth Noveck and Rod Glover  explain why public services need to change the way they approach innovation.  

Public institutions are often inefficient, inflexible and dysfunctional.

There is a widespread sense, reflected in declining rates of trust in government, that the public sector is failing to deliver solutions to public problems that measurably improve people’s lives. With entrenched inequality and growing challenges from climate change to the future of work, there is a desperate need to be able to solve problems more effectively but also more legitimately.

The challenge is less our loss of trust in government than the claim that government does not deserve our trust.

There is a growing realisation that for the public sector to perform better, public servants need to work differently. There is a widening skills gap between the public and the private sector’s use of creative problem solving methods, enabled by new technologies.

The innovator’s DNA

Clayton Christensen writes about the Innovator’s DNA, not an innate but a learned set of practices that help people in business solve problems more effectively. So, too, in government we need to identify and invest in the skills and abilities that make people more effective public problem solvers. If we do, we can improve how government works, creating a more effective and efficient government.

The 21st century public leader — the public entrepreneur — needs the ability to innovate and this requires new skills, including the know-how to define actionable and specific problems. The effective leader, according to the OECD, is able to apply participatory design practices to deepen her understanding of the problem by talking to those most affected by it rather than working behind closed doors.  

The public entrepreneur knows how to use data analytical methods and evidence-based decision-making to complement those qualitative with quantitative methods. That’s why Bloomberg Philanthropies invests in teaching data sciences to public officials as well as design, engagement and other innovation skills.

The public entrepreneur, however, does more than define the problem with the public, she also leverages the collective intelligence of our communities, working across agencies and across sectors, using methods like open innovation, challenges and crowdsourcing to devise better solutions.

To get things done, the public entrepreneur learns how to implement solutions faster and measure what works, often by building coalitions and partnerships.

Training for the future

So how do we develop these better ways of working in government? How do we create a more effective public service?

Governments, universities and philanthropies are beginning to invest in training those inside and outside of government in new kinds of public entrepreneurial skills. They are also innovating in how they teach.

Canada has created a new Digital Academy to teach digital literacy to all 250,000 public servants. Among other approaches, they have created a 15 minute podcast series called bus rides to enable public servants to learn on their commute.

The better programs, like Canada’s, combine online and face-to-face methods. This is what Israel does in its Digital Leaders program. This nine-month program alternates between web- and live meetings as well as connecting learners to a global, online network of digital innovators.

Many countries have started to teach human-centred design to public servants, instructing officials in how to design services with, not simply for the public, as WeGov does in Brazil. in Chile, the UAI University has just begun teaching quantitative skills, offering three day intensives in data science for public servants.

The public sector learning

To ensure that learning translates into practice, Australia’s BizLab Academy, turns students into teachers by using alumni of their human-centered design training as mentors for new students.

The Cities of Orlando and Sao Paulo go beyond training public servants. Orlando includes members of the public in its training program for city officials. Because they are learning to redesign services with citizens, the public participates in the training.

The Sao Paulo Abierta program uses citizens as trainers for the city’s public servants. Over 23,000 of them have studied with these lay trainers, who possess the innovation skills that are in short supply in government. In fact, public officials are prohibited from teaching in the program altogether.

Recognising that it is not enough to train only a lone innovator or data scientist in a unit, governments are scaling their programs across the public sector.

Argentina’s LabGob has already trained 30,000 people since 2016 in its Design Academy for Public Policy with plans to expand. For every class taken, a public servant earns points, which are a prerequisite for promotions and pay rises in the Argentinian civil service.

Rather than going broad, some training programs are going deep by teaching sector-specific innovation skills. The NHS Digital Academy done in collaboration with Imperial College is a series of six online and four live sessions designed to produce leaders in health innovation.

Innovating in a bureaucracy

In my own work at the GovLab at New York University, we are helping public entrepreneurs take their public interest projects from idea to implementation using coaching, rather than training.

Training classes may be wonderful but leave people feeling abandoned when they return to their desks to face the challenge of innovating within a bureaucracy.

With hands-on mentoring from global leaders and peer-to-peer support, the GovLab Academy coaching programs try to ensure that public servants are getting the help they need to advance innovative projects.

Knowing what innovation skills to teach and how to teach them, however, should depend on asking people what they want. That’s why the Australia New Zealand School of Government is administering a survey asking these questions for public servants there.

Finally, what matters is not how many people take a course or listen to a podcast but how much these innovation skills contribute to their ability to solve public problems better. The State of New Jersey this week unveiled a free, online training program in public entrepreneurship designed to introduce people to the basic skills for moving from idea to implementation.

Covering ten initial topics, the program includes lectures, practitioner interviews, readings and self-assessments.

In sum, investing in training and learning new ways of working is imperative if we are to respond to the challenges of our time and cultivate public entrepreneurs who solve public problems.

Thank you to the Australia New Zealand School of Government for supporting the research in this essay. This essay is based on an article that first appeared in Apolitical.

If you are an Australian or New Zealand public servant, we’d appreciate it if you would take ten minutes to help us with the project, by doing a short survey

The survey will help us understand your knowledge of new ways of working and solving problems, such as human-centred design and open innovation. It will enable us to better understand current innovation capabilities within the public sector and design better training programs for you, your peers and the next generation of public leaders. 

We want your input even if you are not familiar with key public sector innovation concepts – the survey includes definitions and other information to help you.

Professor Beth Simone Noveck is Professor in Technology, Culture and Society and Director of the Governance Lab at New York University. She was also Deputy CTO and head of the Open Government Initiative in President Obama’s White House.  She has served as an advisor to Prime Minister Cameron and Chancellor Merkel. She also serves as the Chief Innovation Officer of the State of New Jersey. Her new book Public Entrepreneurship will appear with Yale University Press in 2020.

Professor Rod Glover is Director of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute at Monash University and a member of the Global Advisory Council of the Governance Lab at New York University. He has previously been Deputy Secretary of the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet, and Senior Adviser to an Australian Prime Minister.