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.

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