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.