Using innovation to encourage public managers to embrace risk

Image of a person delivering a seminar.
  • Published Date: 16 August 2019

Public managers want to be more innovative, and governments need to offer them better training and encourage risk-taking and creative thinking, according to new research from ANZSOG, the Monash Sustainable Development Institute (MSDI) and the NYU Governance Lab (GovLab).

Professor Beth Noveck, Director of GovLab, and Professor Rod Glover, Interim Director of MSDI, recently spoke at the Canberra launch of the Today’s Problems, Yesterday’s Toolkit report, which aims to improve innovation training programs for the public sector.

Both spoke of the decline in public trust in governments, and the need to develop new ways of working to take advantage of the expansion of available data.

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.

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, 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.

Building broad innovation skills

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.

The report lists five broad skills of innovation which public managers need for the 21st century:The Skill of Defining Problems Collaboratively: Public entrepreneurs must be able to go beyond vague issues to define actionable problems. This crucial skill precedes the use of new tools and methods in data science and collective intelligence, but ultimately depends on them for effective results.

Participatory Design Skills: Agencies are practicing the methodologies of human-centred design to deliver services more effectively in conversation with those who will use them. Human-centred design asks: “Who are we creating the service for?” and “What are their needs?” rather than “What are we building?”.

Data-Driven and Evidence-Based Skills: While the trend in public sector innovation is toward riskier forms of “failing fast” in human-centric lab settings, evangelists for public sector reform also embrace evidence-based decision-making and the use of data analysis as a key method for developing and evaluating policies and interventions.

Open Innovation Skills: As governments seek solutions to big and complex problems, open innovation (often backed by the incentive of a reward and known as a prize-backed challenge) has enabled the public sector to widen the pool of potential problem solvers beyond the “usual suspects” to discover good ideas faster and from more diverse sources using digital platforms.

Implementation and Collaboration Skills: Working collaboratively is a skill well understood by those developing new forms of public-private partnerships. These go beyond traditional outsourcing to include partnerships involving data and technology sharing. New kinds of collaborative partnerships with businesses, non-profits, and universities are enabling more effective governance through partnership with an increasingly networked and data-rich private sector.

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.”

Improving training programs

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:

  1. Survey people: Assess what they want to know and how they want to learn.
  2. Go hybrid: Create face-to-face and online training opportunities.
  3. Teach both quantitative and qualitative skills: The best training programs teach data and design together, rather than exclusively one skill.
  4. Turn students into teachers: Use alumni as mentors.
  5. Strive for scale: Train more people in more diverse roles.
  6. Focus on sector specific innovation: Teach public problem-solving in specific as well as general domains.
  7. Coach: Don’t just train people in the abstract, but coach them to take a project from idea to implementation.
  8. Train citizens as well as civil servants: Create more public problem solvers.
  9. Use citizens as trainers: Leverage public know-how to improve offerings.
  10. Teach problem-solving skills: Strengthen public entrepreneurship.

Professor Noveck argues that innovation teaching needed 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.

She said that improving capability of public managers to solve problems is vital for improving trust in government.

“This is a hopeful and optimistic report, and it offers concrete solutions to fix democracy."