March 2021 - ANZSOG
Public managers want to be more innovative, and governments need to offer them better training and encourage risk-taking, failure and creative thinking, according to a report from ANZSOG, the Monash Sustainable Development Institute (MSDI) and the NYU Governance Lab (GovLab).
Professor Beth Noveck, Director of GovLab, and Professor Rod Glover, Professor of Policy and Impact at MSDI, have been using the report as a starting point to develop better training programs for public sector innovation in conjunction with ANZSOG.
Professor Glover said that the report demonstrates the “desire for innovation and new approaches among public servants”, but this is stymied by existing institutional cultures and fear of failure.
“It is difficult to create safe spaces to fail in our hierarchical institutions, and we also need to recognise that there are political and civil contexts that public servants operate in,” he said.
“What we find is that there is an eagerness among public servants to use these new techniques but they're finding the environment in which they're operating is not always conducive to it.
"The public sector barriers that are set up, such as silo-based approaches to policy and the difficulty in working across agencies and sectors, are matched by a deep risk-aversion created within the public sector."
The report finds that the adoption of innovative skills in the Australian public sector is not widespread, even though awareness of these skills is often high.
Professor Noveck said she hoped that the report would be “the start of a conversation” around innovation.
“We are told on a daily basis that governments are not doing a good enough job to cope with the challenges we are facing. We are trying to solve 21st century problems with a 20th century toolkit,” she said.
“This report is motivated by the work being done around the world to create new ways of working, new institutions, and public servants with a new skill set, especially around data and engagement.
The report, based on a world-first survey of nearly 400 public servants, finds that Australian public servants are eager to join the world’s most informed and effective public administrations and adopt new ways of developing policy and services.
It shows that while Australia’s public sector is generally well-functioning, it faces a “creeping crisis” of effectiveness and legitimacy. Only 40 per cent believe that senior managers are willing to take risks to support new ideas, with risk-averse cultures and opposition from middle management also identified as hindering innovation.
As well as a change in mindset, public services need to increase their capability to innovate by enhancing the skills of their employees.
The report recommends: “introducing diverse forms of institutional experimentation, but with a view to bringing greater coherence to new adaptive, evidence-based and collaborative approaches, and forging alternative environments to the risk-averse and silo-based cultures now entrenched in much of the public sector.
The scale of the changes is not small. But the consequences of inaction could hardly be larger or more serious. The perfect storm surrounding public sector innovation, with declining trust at its core, calls for a radical reimagining of the role of government and the public servant.”
The report finds that there is a widening skills gap between the public and private sectors’ use of creative problem-solving methods, enabled by new technologies. This calls for a radical reshaping of the curriculum with which we train public leaders.
It lists five broad skills of innovation which public managers need for the 21st century:
The report states that collaboration has arguably become the core skill requirement of the modern public service, yet its embrace does not come naturally’. Public managers interviewed for the report said that the struggle to collaborate reflected not merely the institution’s capability and mandate, but a learned disposition among public servants to try to solve problems alone.
“In an era where we are struggling to deal with big problems, we need to start thinking in a systems perspective,” Professor Glover said.
“The challenge for the public sector is to collaborate better, to reach out and work with people rather than consider itself the fount of all wisdom, but as one player in solving public problems, not just their agency’s problems.”
Professor Glover said that there is some use of innovation in Australian and New Zealand public services, but it is fragmented.
“There is no technique or approach that is not being used, and used well, somewhere. The issue is how we make big lifts in capacity right across the public service,” he said. The report proposes that, as well as encouraging institutional experimentation, public services create more relevant training programs in innovation and skills training.
It recommends adopting ten global lessons in effective innovation skills training. To empower more public servants to become public entrepreneurs, it proposes that training programs:
Professor Noveck argues that innovation teaching needs to focus on a broad range of skills.
“You can’t just learn human-centred design or data for example, or you’ll only be able to bring that approach into policy. We need to connect all these approaches together to create a path for effective problem solving - otherwise innovation labs may become silos,” she said.
“No successful policy change is data-driven alone, they also involve going into the community and working to develop solutions with them.”