At Gov­Camp Aus­tralia 2013 this week, there were two iden­ti­fi­able two groups of peo­ple who pre­sented and talked about the top­ics of inspir­ing gov­ern­ment inno­va­tion, empow­er­ing peo­ple and lib­er­at­ing capa­bil­ity. There were the ser­vice design­ers who spoke about the specifics of design and pre­sented case stud­ies, and the man­agers, pub­lic ser­vants and aca­d­e­mics who talked about inno­va­tion (in the abstract).

How impor­tant is design to inno­va­tion? As a designer myself I strongly believe in the util­ity of design think­ing and I wish the meth­ods and tech­niques I use on a daily basis were part of the stan­dard toolkit for those in gov­ern­ment respon­si­ble for pol­icy design and ser­vice deliv­ery. But I fear that too much empha­sis is being put on design when we talk about inno­va­tion in gov­ern­ment and that there are other dis­ci­plines that should be represented.

The other issue is that no one can actu­ally pin down what inno­va­tion is. We talk about rad­i­cal change. We talk about dis­rupt­ing the sta­tus quo. We talk about get­ting down to root prob­lems. We also down­play what inno­va­tion is, cit­ing exam­ples of incre­men­tal change that in the grand scheme of things really don’t stand out. Incre­men­tal change is the very antithe­sis of inno­va­tion, par­tic­u­larly when you look at the def­i­n­i­tion, behav­iors and skills offered up by peo­ple such as Clay­ton Chris­tiansen and his col­lab­o­ra­tors in research work such as The Innovator’s DNA.

We have thought lead­ers hav­ing a stab at defin­ing inno­va­tion but I don’t think any­one left Gov­Camp yes­ter­day feel­ing any more con­fi­dent about how to inno­vate back in the workplace.

Apply­ing design think­ing prin­ci­ples such as user research (or cit­i­zen research), iter­a­tive design with lo-​​fi meth­ods, pro­to­typ­ing with users, and eval­u­at­ing results in the field is not inno­va­tion, though it’s cer­tainly very valu­able. I would con­sider the Aus­tralian Pub­lic Ser­vice adopt­ing design think­ing as inno­v­a­tive in itself but design think­ing does not equal innovation.

Is there a thresh­old beyond which if you push you move from mere incre­men­tal change to being inno­v­a­tive? Is that a tan­gi­ble line? If man­agers adopted the prin­ci­ples out­lined by par­tic­i­pants as Gov­Camp, includ­ing not micro­manag­ing and giv­ing their staff the free­dom and resources to find their own path to a solu­tion, yes, it would allow for inno­va­tion but it does not mean that inno­va­tion will be forthcoming.

There was talk of tough times, of aus­ter­ity, of pub­lic ser­vice cuts, of bud­get cuts, but I don’t think we have made it appar­ent what the impe­tus for change is. Cer­tainly, apply­ing inno­v­a­tive think­ing can result in bet­ter qual­ity ser­vices and pro­grams, and bet­ter tar­geted pol­icy quicker and for less money, but unless the prob­lem is defined and unless we can illus­trate the risks and con­se­quences of con­tin­u­ing with tra­di­tional pol­icy and pro­gram design processes, then there is lit­tle rea­son for man­agers to let go or for staff to change their ways. And there is cer­tainly not going to be a cry from the pub­lic for the APS to be “more innovative”.

Steve Baty of Meld Stu­dios asked us to imag­ine a future where peo­ple live to be 1,000 years old and posed the ques­tion, “How do you design for a soci­ety of peo­ple who are going to live 1,000 years?” It’s an inter­est­ing ques­tion to pon­der, but I seri­ously doubt any­one went to work the day after Gov­Camp and thought “What am I going to do dif­fer­ently today, con­sid­er­ing the prospect of peo­ple liv­ing that much longer?”

I, like many peo­ple, don’t believe that inno­va­tion requires one big dras­tic change. How­ever, it does need to be game chang­ing. Inno­va­tion can hap­pen in a num­ber of small places over time that together improve the effi­ciency of one part of one depart­ment or agency that in turn goes some way towards improv­ing the lives of some or all Aus­tralians. Does inno­va­tion have to be sexy? Does the pub­lic need to acknowl­edge it as such? Does it have to win awards? No.

While I don’t have the answers, there is at least one area where the need for inno­va­tion is clear and obvi­ous, and that is in address­ing wicked prob­lems, those com­plex, shi­fit­ing, social prob­lems that tra­di­tional tools and approaches are over­whelmed by or fail to make any sig­nif­i­cant head­way with. Prob­lems where you have no choice but to throw out the play­book. They are those chal­lenges that require tak­ing on a bit (or a great deal) of risk, exper­i­ment­ing, and being com­fort­able with not get­ting it right the first time or being able to pre­dict the out­come. They’re the ones often put in the too-​​hard bas­ket. This is where inno­v­a­tive think­ing and action excels and can have a sig­nif­i­cant pos­i­tive impact on the com­mu­nity and econ­omy of our nation.

there is at least one area where the need for inno­va­tion is clear and obvi­ous, and that is in address­ing wicked prob­lems

In these instances it is a tan­gi­ble line; in fact it’s a wall. Don’t shy away when you hit these bound­aries. Acknowl­edge it for what it is and think about whether it’s worth­while solv­ing even if you have absolutely no idea where to begin.

One of the com­ments from the lead­er­ship panel at Gov­Camp Aus­tralia 2013 was that pub­lic sec­tor inno­va­tion is con­strained by our obses­sion with fixed bud­gets and finite resources. Apart from the fact that many ICT projects in gov­ern­ment have gone far over­bud­get and still failed to deliver, the truth is that a small box is the per­fect place inno­va­tion to occur. If I had all the time and money in the world I would never get any­thing done. For­get the idea of sand­pits and skunkworks; when you’re given not enough time and not enough money think of it as an oppor­tu­nity to inno­vate. Would you insist on try­ing to bake a cake if you didn’t have any flour?

Not every­one is inter­ested in ris­ing to the chal­lenge of inno­va­tion. If the APS was cut in half today then out of neces­sity you would see a lot of inno­va­tion hap­pen­ing overnight but also a lot of peo­ple throw­ing the hands in the air. As John Sheri­dan, Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment CTO at AGIMO, said “If you have peo­ple who don’t work well within this open frame­work then help move them on.” This doesn’t mean that every gov­ern­ment depart­ment now needs an inno­va­tion unit that cen­tralises all inno­va­tion (there’s an almost cer­tain way to kill inno­va­tion — put it some­where and make some­one respon­si­ble for it). For exam­ple, Design­Gov is great as a pilot project, but it is surely not sus­tain­able as the cen­tral agency for all Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment innovation.

But what about the rules? What about the fact we work with tax­payer money? What about the fact we’re in the pub­lic eye? And again, the rules? Again, John encour­aged us to revisit what the rules actu­ally are and pointed out that the sta­tus quo — the way things have always been done — does not equate to rules. The box the pub­lic sec­tor inno­va­tors have to play in is big­ger than you think. While man­agers are being trained and encour­aged to step back, to clear obsta­cles, to com­mu­ni­cate intent rather than solu­tions … pub­lic ser­vants also need to push back up to show that they’re ready and will­ing to take on the challenge.

While con­sciously try­ing to avoid men­tion­ing design in asso­ci­a­tion with inno­va­tion, I would like to close by illus­trat­ing how per­sua­sive insight into human atti­tude and behav­iours can be when look­ing at novel approaches to prob­lems. It’s a good start to chang­ing how you work if you can demon­strate defi­cien­cies in cur­rent out­comes and new ideas that will have a pos­i­tive impact for real peo­ple, not just “the pub­lic.” Get­ting out and talk­ing to peo­ple and doing some lo-​​fi co-​​design is fast, cheap and low risk, and could open the way for being per­mit­ted to do some­thing a lit­tle uncon­ven­tional that could result in ideas and solu­tions you can’t even imag­ine within the con­fines of the cur­rent processes, hier­ar­chy and expectations.