Shiny and new - why are these still words for government innovation? | acidlabs
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Shiny and new – why are these still words for government innovation?

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Shiny and new – why are these still words for government innovation?

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.

That 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.

Stephen Collins
trib@acidlabs.org
7 Comments
  • Alex Roberts
    Posted at 11:37h, 17 June Reply

    Hi Stephen – I’m responding wearing my official hat here.

    Thanks for the post, and thanks for attending. We think the event went really well, and have had a lot of positive feedback from attendees, which is encouraging.

    One of the things that a couple of people commented to me about was that it was great to hear at the table discussions some of the great things that are happening across the public service, some of which are using these approaches. A lot of innovation is happening across the public sector, but not a lot of it is very obvious, so an event like this can be great for connecting people from disparate areas and in turn, hopefully spur new connections and collaborations that will generate further innovation. (And even more hopefully, encourage people to document what they are doing so it can be shared more widely with others)

    I’d also suggest that there’s been some very practical focus on design and innovation going on from us at DesignGov – for instance we recently ran a couple of very successful workshops recently around personas and user pathways and what it means for improving business/government interactions. We’re also in the process of moving from early stage to mid-stage prototyping around one of the ideas that has come out of the business/government interactions project and we’re involving a wide range of potential users from across sectors. The expectations of our investing agencies are very much around concrete activity.

    And of course the very establishment and implementation of DesignGov is an innovation – it may not seem like a big one from an outside perspective, but we’re learning a lot from it (and trying to document it) and hope to apply lessons from that in a range of contexts – as you might appreciate though, that’s very much a work in progress.

    In terms of the event, apart from building engagement and increasing understanding of what is available to support public servants when they are applying innovation to the problems that they and their agencies (and the APS and the community as a whole) face, the workshop was also about trying build agreement around how to systematise some of these ‘shiny new things’. As was noted at the event many of these things aren’t shiny and new. But in the view of many they are still treated as such by a number of areas and people, despite them having been talked about for many years (or decades in some cases).

    I would suggest that is because these things are not systematic yet. If you have not seen it, I highly recommend taking a look at Tim Kastelle’s Innovation Matrix – basically no organisation is going to be proficient at innovation unless it combines efforts at both increasing competence and commitment. Activities of actively working on problems are great (and as said, we are working on that within our business government interactions project) but it needs to be combined with the systems support and integration into organisational frameworks, processes and expectations. Otherwise I think there is a risk of front-loading the innovation ‘supply chain’, and running into trouble when the ideas generation and selection part hits the implementation, the integration and scaling/diffusion aspects of the innovation process.

    Hope that provides a little further context to what we were trying to achieve with the event – and to try to reassure you that there’s plenty of ‘real’ innovation happening.

    • Stephen Collins
      Posted at 12:01h, 17 June Reply

      Alex, thanks a bunch for your effort in replying. First, as a reassurance, I thought Friday’s event was very good – smart people on the panel, useful information shared. And it undoubtedly connected several people up, which is a fantastic outcome.

      Where I get itchy, as you and I have discussed on more than one occasion, is the ongoing reflectiveness and fairly inward focus. I honestly think the APS can be past this and move to doing things, and mostly with the public involved (after all, they’re the end-beneficiary of the majority of services, strategies and programs developed by government, so they should be a part of it).

      I’ve seen Kastelle’s work before, and similar. The apparent need to defer to this kind of thing (and other academic perspectives) remains an irritant for me; there ought to be a bias to action (from d.school, if you want an academic reference) rather than bias to contemplation.

      I’m inclined to believe your worry about front-loading is a bit of a distraction. My experience suggests people are very competent at doing the kind of things you’re trying to highlight, especially when they’re encouraged to act and learn from acting. Sometimes that needs someone experienced to serve as teacher, catalyst, and moderator, but I think it’s always better to design do rather than design hesitate, waiting for proof, which is as much a public sector problem as it is in any sector (you are not alone by any means).

      As ever, much of this is cultural; in business we’re taught that we must understand something deeply before we try it, and that there must be a true path to the answer. I think the reverse is true – just have a go (and if necessary, get help from someone like you) and you might find the right answer, or at least identify the wrong answer quickly.

      • Nathanael Boehm
        Posted at 14:10h, 17 June Reply

        I don’t want to use the phrase “disruptive innovation” as it seems to be used to describe every other tech startup and brand initiative these days … but it’s relevant here.

        I understand the need to balance trailblazing with consideration of the status quo in the APS and I realise that you all want to be employable once the pilot project is over … but I would like to see DesignGov as leaning more towards disruptive rather than conventional.

        Make more noise. Be as unbureaucratic as you can bring yourselves to be. You are testing a proof of concept here so really take it for a solid test drive. Be the contrast, the other way, not just a mildly different form of what already is.

        No one leaps a three-metre-wide creek by walking up to the edge and then trying to step across.

        Alex, I hope you take this as encouragement not criticism. I really want DesignGov to succeed. I don’t want anyone to see the work you do and think “Oh, is that all?” and I certainly don’t want it to just peter out in two years and everyone yawns and goes back to doing what they’ve always done.

  • Mik and Ruth
    Posted at 10:53h, 18 June Reply

    We aren’t particularly surprised at the sluggish performance of DesignGov. We heard right from its inception that ‘innovation is hard’.

    Only, it isn’t. Yes, innovation, particularly in the implementation phase can be hard work, but if people find it to be consistently and painstakingly hard, perhaps they might be in the wrong job?

    We have found innovation to be a tremendous amount of fun, very social, adventurous and daring. The design community in particular is incredibly open to sharing, building upon each other, and collaborating.

    We also love the exploration of doing things differently because it is science. And when you are a scientist, as we both are, you regularly engage in experimentation. Experimentation can lead to incredible discoveries, not only about the subject matter, but about the people involved, and most importantly, about yourself.

    Innovation is largely an experiment, and experimental technique almost always requires refinement and iteration. Sometimes experimentation doesn’t work out the way you hypothesized – but that doesn’t make it hard. It just means trying something different. And, for most of us, this is why we *f* love science!

    That might be the problem in this case. We have been disheartened to see the blog posts coming out each week about describing basic service design concepts, and their theoretical application in government. There are plenty of existing pathways and networks for these discussions.

    The Australian Government has been forging ahead successfully with the application of design methodologies integrated with other tools and evidence for some time, and in our opinion the use of design tools in government on their own is hardly an experiment worthy of the significant investment (and hope) that has been placed on DesignGov.

    We would have preferred to have seen a proof of concept by now equal in boldness to the Interactive Skills Integration Scheme, or the All Stars Cops and Kids. What makes these two examples successful to us is they strive to set new narratives amongst not only friends, but value the inclusion of opponents as well, while being playful.

    We have had lengthy discussions with the people involved in these two fantastic innovations and they both share a common trait – they just did it!

    It is our sincere hope that the prototype that comes out of DesignGov meets the needs of all the agencies investing in this experiment.

    Having been on both sides of the fence, we must say, we have found the government nothing more than helpful to deal with in our new business journey. Setting up, operating and working with government departments on large projects certainly hasn’t been onerous for us.

    Perhaps the biggest innovation required is effectively communicating that the government is open for business.

  • Alex Roberts
    Posted at 18:28h, 18 June Reply

    Cheers Stephen. I think you might be mistaking Tim though, as I don’t think he would argue for deferring, rather simply that attention needs to be given to both aspects or you’ll run into trouble – his view is informed by his practical work with a lot of companies. On the doing side – a lot of the doing side will (and should) be applied within the agency context – we’re hopefully joining up some of the conversation at the cross-agency side. And I assure you an 18 month timeframe is a very strong incentive for a bias to action! But the nature of our work though, which is partly focused on equipping the public sector, a lot of that action will not be immediately obvious externally. Happy to chat in person about some of that, not sure I’ll convince you via response here 🙂

    Nathanael – I’d suggest there are some very disruptive elements to the establishment of a capability like DesignGov – but they are not necessarily going to appear like it immediately. And by its nature, a lot of stuff we are coming up against is in the operational space, the unintentional intersections of multiple rule sets that can inhibit cross-agency collaboration. It’s not sexy, but by being a sort of ‘extreme user’ of the public service, we can surface some of those issues and point towards ways of how the public sector can work across agencies better. I know that sounds very public sectory. Again happy to discuss in a different forum if you have ideas you’d like to share.

    Mik and Ruth – I’m sorry to hear that you think the performance of DesignGov is ‘sluggish’, but I would suggest the application of design to the cross-agency space (rather than the space shared by a small number of agencies) is new, hence why the Secretaries Board chose to establish DesignGov. If it was something already routinely happening, I’m afraid we and the many stakeholders we have worked with haven’t come across it.

    As to whether innovation is hard – many people wiser and more experienced than me have spoken with me at length about the difficulties of innovation, particularly at an organisational or system level – after all that’s why sometimes big companies fail and governments around the world invest so much in encouraging and facilitating innovation (and why there is demand for innovation consultants). But I agree that just because something is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile, that it can’t be fun at times, or that it isn’t deeply rewarding and worth doing. It’s always great to see and work with people such as yourselves and Stephen and Nathanael with passion and enthusiasm for working towards better outcomes, including through innovation, whether it be within or without the public sector.

    Personally, I’m very glad to hear of your positive experience of interacting with government in establishing and operating a business. Unfortunately there are a number of areas of frustration and difficulty that remain for many of the businesses that we have spoken to.

  • Stephen Collins
    Posted at 09:00h, 19 June Reply

    Alex, you have four people very experienced in working with and in government on matters of innovation, design thinking, and service design, offering you some suggestions. That advice extends to your colleagues at DesignGov, who we rarely see interacting with the design community as you do (more’s the pity; I’d love to see them more public). I’m certain Nat and I, as well as Mik and Ruth (though I don’t speak for them) would love to talk to you and the rest of the DesignGov folk about our experiences.

    Here’s what that those suggestions boil down to: we love what you’re doing, but you’re treating it like business as usual and it’s not taking advantage of some of the best possibilities design thinking and innovation practice do – speed, high iteration, bias to action (18 months is not a strong bias to action), low fidelity before high fidelity. You also lean too heavily on traditional (rather than new or different) academic and business sources of authority, I’m assuming because those who you answer to defer to them (or what they represent).

    There’s a really good piece in a recent MIT Sloan Management Review on innovation culture; you should read it, and take the temperature of DesignGov against the behaviors described.

    You’re not disrupting. And you need to.

    We could go back and forth ad nauseam arguing positions to no beneficial effect, so, yes, I’d love the chance to talk to you and your colleagues.

  • Scott
    Posted at 10:05h, 11 October Reply

    I find it interesting to read both points of view on this issue, and it reminds me of something that I read a while ago about the penetration of keystone technologies.

    The article mentione that when electricity started taking over from steam power, some applications accelerated throughout society quickly: electric lighting being a good example.

    But it took time for various industries to introduce electricity into their operations, and several decades for them to actually use electricity in way that related to its paradigm. For example, for quite a while, electricity was introduced to go where the (existing) steam-drive machines were sitting on the factory floors, because it hadn’t occurred to those people making decisions that the whole point of electric power was that it didn’t have to sit next to the machines (or for the machines to sit near the power source).

    My point in using that example is that I think a similar situation is occurring here: Stephen, Nathaniel,Mik and Ruth appear to understand that it is not just the tool (in this case, a way of thinking) that has changed, but the whole paradigm it connects to. Alternatively, while I’m sure Alex understands the analogy I am drawing, he has to sell the idea of this new tool of innovation, but he has to do so within the existing paradigm.

    It is a lot easier to move some machines around on a factory floor than it is to shift the attitudes of a whole group of people, especially when their careers and other incentives are often based upon the continuation of the status quo.

    Also, in business, one has to adapt to keep up with rapid change, and it requires a really different attitude and skill set to the one existing in government. Not everyone in government is good at dealing with change, and in fact I’d go so far as to say that many have chosen careers in government precisely to avoid dealing with an increasingly high-speed, stressful and noisy world outside.

    As such, given that much of our education system is still set up for Industrial-era paradigms that encourage a fear of mistakes and a dislike of change, how do we encourage people in the public sector to feel inspired in, and comfortable with taking risks?

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