The recent Public Sector Innovation Summit brought together people from all over Australia & New Zealand who work in central, state and local government. The focus? Improving efficiency in the public sector – essential in a world of high expectations and low budgets.
I was there with Thomas Kohlenbach facilitating two round table discussions about the role of Governance in Innovation. This was a great forum to learn more about what public sector organisations need.
I talked to people in a range of roles, from a range of organisations. The result: some fascinating insights into the issues and roadblocks to innovation in the public sector.
Is improvement innovation?
Defining innovation in the context of government was the first topic under discussion. Technology was seen as a big driver of innovation. Participants pointed to innovations in government like self-service kiosks in council offices, self-service software on the web, mobile monitoring and reporting through smartphones, and the gamification of development initiatives.
There was, however, a general consensus that innovation isn’t necessarily about huge, abrupt changes, but can be synonymous with slower, more continuous improvement. Most agreed that an organisation or department could be seen as innovative if they’re constantly improving their service – whether through new technology, process improvement, or simply by introducing new ideas as they arise.
The way the public sector works for staff can impact innovation as well. Anecdotally, in this era of budget deficits and intense scrutiny of public expenditure, many people in the public sector have a self-preservation mindset, which – although not a negative in its own right – can make them reluctant to share ideas and work together. Some public sector organisations go through almost constant mergers and restructurings, which can make people shy away from yet more change.
Similarly, organisational silos can make departments less likely to work together on goals and innovations. If every department is looking out for itself, it can be difficult to get people to look at the broader impact of a new idea.
Getting over governance hurdles
While I know from experience that governance is critical to the success of any innovation – gradual or otherwise – in the public sector, it can potentially stifle it.
These organisations are bound by strict governance requirements, so innovative ideas and technologies can’t simply be adopted – they have to be tested, assessed, analysed, budgeted for, voted on... the requirements can seem endless.
Although these steps are usually in place for good reasons, they often mean innovations aren’t used, or have slow uptake. Governance rules can also stifle creativity in staff – if people know that introducing a new idea is onerous and difficult, it can seem easier just to stick with the status quo.
Turning brick walls into opportunities
Innovation can come from unlikely areas. For some of our participants it was the roadblocks thrown up in the way of other new ideas that was their richest hunting ground. They found that looking at why initiatives were blocked or restricted helped identify broader problems and places where innovation could affect real, wide-reaching change.
One participant told us that they take the minutes from their governance committee meetings and use them to look for brick walls, or places where progress has stalled. The next step is finding ways to break the walls down – in other words, finding innovative ideas and changing the way the department or organisation works.
One example came from a team that wanted to develop an information-sharing app to help better manage environmental degradation by sharing details of repeat offenders between departments. In this instance, the governance group shut the idea down because of privacy concerns. Although frustrating for the team, this incident gave them the opportunity to have a broader conversation around privacy issues, which could pave the way for future innovation in ways to use anonymous big data insights to improve environment preservation outcomes.
Facilitating innovation and improvement
At Promapp, we believe governance plays a huge role in innovation. And clearly we’re a little biased, but we also believe that process management software, when used effectively, can provide organisations with a framework to help simplify governance and facilitate innovation – it means siloed teams are accessing the same information and systems, and it lets people access and improve their day to day work processes. It’s about enabling people – not just senior management, but frontline staff – to improve processes, improve service, and improve efficiency. In the public sector, it’s that kind of gradual, never-ending innovation that makes a real difference.