Last Friday, I attended DesignGov‘s event Towards a Unified Theory of Shiny New Things, largely as a catch-up on where open government, design thinking and government innovation are at in the Australian Public Service. I’ve been busy with private sector clients of late, and I was feeling a little rusty. I was hoping for some fresh ideas, evidence of substantial activity, an evolution of attitude towards government innovation, and some maturity around perceptions towards design thinking.

Taking the glass half-full perspective, I’ve got to say I was delighted to see a significant number of new faces among the 70 or so people there. Naturally, there were a significant number of the old hands in the room as well, and that’s as it should be; you want a mix of experience and those for whom these ideas are new at any event, else you risk becoming an echo chamber. Helping the newer folk to enrich their understanding of abstractions such as government innovation, design thinking and open government is a valuable thing.

Sketchnote from Towards a Unified Theory of Shiny New ThingsThat said, I’m a firm believer in the idea that design thinking is best understood as design doing. Something I’m still seeing too much of in government innovation is organisations talking too much about government innovation, design thinking and open government as nouns rather than verbs, and not showing enough of what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, why they’re doing it, and who for. When you open with nearly 45 minutes of people talking about their perspective on “shiny things” and even whether that’s an appropriate name, I think you risk losing some attention; I’d much rather see people thrown into working on actual problems. And practical ones.

So too, spending lengthy periods discussing whether “shiny new things” is an appropriate terminology, and how the term (and the things it embraces) are best folded in to government innovation are an interesting abstraction in the academic sense, but do little to help people understand how design thinking can support innovation and open government, and what that support might look like.

As Nathanael noted in his examination of the recent GovCamp:

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.

It seems much of the conversation on government innovation and design remains firmly in the abstract, treating it as a noun – something you observe, rather than as a verb, something you do. I’ve had a number of conversations with people recently where we’ve agreed that four years on from the Government 2.0 Taskforce, and many more years than that of talking about open government and government innovation, it’s more than time to be treating this set of topics as active and concrete, rather than passive and abstract. It’s time to do things, show what we’re doing, and get filthy to our collective armpits, rather than observe from a distance and hold discussions about what doing might look like and definition.

I think the people at DesignGov are doing a great job with limited resources, but I can’t help but feel that they remain more than a little abstracted, spending too much time thinking, observing and discussing topics that are largely done with. I’d much rather see them getting dirty and making things happen.