Innovation in government – an oxymoron?

- September 2021

Typically not built for or with, but it does break out sometimes

In my time working with and for governments, both state and federal within Australia, and internationally, the topic of innovation never goes away. Governments are constantly espousing innovation, seeking it from agencies, commissioning inquiries into it and introducing programs to encourage it. Sadly, in my observation, despite these aspirations true innovation in government is a rare achievement. I was recently asked to provide a guest lecture on this topic to a group of post-graduate business students, and my thoughts on why this is so rare and a couple of examples of where I have seen it occur (to provide at least some optimism) follow.

Looking at what impedes innovation, I came up with the following list:

Government is not really structured to reward innovators
Most of the time, the best path to success in government agencies is to be competent, not make mistakes, communicate well and clearly in providing advice, be across the detail and manage stakeholders well, and to be efficient and effective in the obtaining and use of resources. Innovation by its nature involves moving outside these relatively safe boundaries, and unlike in the private sector, is generally not a great pathway to growth and promotion in government.

Risk aversion is too often a good pathway to success
There is usually no penalty for being risk averse in government, whereas there is frequently a penalty for taking even a well-considered risk and failing. This is pretty much the antithesis of an entrepreneurial mindset that embraces innovation.

Institutional inertia
Government agencies tend to have a degree of inertia at their core which, while it does not really stop them adopting different policy agendas from new governments/ministers, it does tend to limit thinking around how to do this. I recall a Defence senior leader once saying that “this place is like a bowl of jelly, periodically shaken up by reviews and reform, but then settling back into the same shape”.

Group think
Something that I noticed most strongly on an overseas posting, observing Australian governments from afar, was a surprisingly large element of parochial “group think”. Ironically this arose at one point when asked to provide some input back to Australia on US Government approaches to fostering innovation. Pretty much anything that was a point of difference was ignored by the Australian side, with approaches identified as similar seen as validation.

Lack of trust in and within government
Even within government agencies there can be a surprising level of suspicion and lack of trust between different areas, and we are also living in a period of low trust in government generally, which is not a great environment to present new ideas.

Lack of acumen in timing and advocacy
Good innovative ideas need good timing and skilled advocacy to succeed. If the innovation is presented at the wrong time or without sufficient acumen, it is very difficult to bring it back again, against the tide of “we considered that idea before.”

All this is a bit depressing, but there is some room for optimism from the following factors that can overcome impediments to innovation in government:

Passionate individuals
Individuals and small groups with the right balance of passion and quiet persistence can go a very long way to overcome any impediments. Motivation is always a powerful asset.

A crisis or critical imperative for change
The cliché about never letting a crisis go to waste is absolutely true when it comes to introducing innovation. Seeing QR codes go from an interesting novelty to an essential tool of public health is just one of many examples of this borne out of the Covid-19 crisis.

Government, bureaucracy, academia and industry collaboration
On those rare occasions that all these elements come together, usually as a consequence of a critical imperative, the results can be transformative.

Good understanding and management of risk, including appetite
The Commonwealth has an excellent risk management regime for departments and agencies, which if implemented well and actually used can provide a great tool for decision-making around innovation. In particular, developing a risk appetite statement, while not easy to get right in any organisation, can provide guiderails for fostering innovation systematically.

Actively looking for new ideas and perspectives
Organisations that are led with this emphasis, and reward innovative behaviour will provide the optimal environment for it to occur.

National Water Reform in Australia from 2004 is a good example of innovation in government borne out of a crisis and involving national and state governments, politicians, officials, academia and industry collaboration towards a common goal. While the area of water resource management remains contentious, it is worth reflecting on what was achieved in the period following the millennium drought which included some world leading innovative reform.

In a highly politically charged atmosphere, reforms included water trading aimed at resources going to the highest economic benefit combined with environmental flow allocations, comprehensive water planning, registers of water rights and standards for water accounting and sustainable water use in over-allocated or stressed water systems. The significance of these changes was brought home to me as Australian Trade Commissioner in Washington DC several years later when observing the reaction of World Bank and US Government officials when Australian policy, science, technology and industry approaches were presented to them. The common view was not much short of amazement, with Australia seen as 20 years ahead of any other country, and a strong export industry in services and technology has developed as a consequence.

Another example of innovation in government that I had direct involvement in was the Defence Redwing program providing counter IED devices to Afghan allies, a program involving technical innovation combined with new approaches to commercialisation, international agreements and even logistical arrangements.

Redwing was also borne out of a crisis, in this case the significant impact on Australia’s mission in Afghanistan of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) on our Afghan allies.

The Redwing devices were developed by the then Defence Science and Technology Organisation, sponsored by Defence’s Counter-IED Task Force and manufactured by Australian industry under project coordination by the Australian Military Sales Office. Industry partners involved in the project included Micreo, Ultra Electronics, Associated Electronics Services, AXIOM Precision Manufacturing and Lintek.

While meeting a clear imperative, as a project Redwing did not have a clear pathway in Defence as it was unique in being developed solely for a foreign ally, initially without a clear solution for commercialisation and production, direct funding, a legal solution for transfer or logistical and sustainment support arrangements. While there was a consistent and clear desire for Redwing to succeed, there were also significant risks and the appetite for addressing these was quite inconsistent within different areas of Defence.

In practice, aspects of Redwing’s development appeared very much like a skunkworks project, with a very small team proceeding with passion and persistence to methodically address all the impediments and ultimately succeed. Recognition of Redwing came in the form of the Inaugural Public Sector Innovation Award from the Institute of Public Sector Administration Australia (IPAA), but the true motivation of the team involved was the knowledge that the introduction of this capability was directly saving lives.

So can innovation be built in structurally to government activities?  In my view the answer to this is yes to an extent, but it requires strong leadership reinforced through action at all levels, developing a culture that is open to different ideas, regardless of where they come from and managing risk properly rather than avoiding it (including risk appetite).

Brendhan Egan is a Parbery Principal and former Senior Defence official and Trade Commissioner who has led trade and investment promotion activities including the areas of education, energy and environment, biotechnology, systems integration, and advanced manufacturing. 

Photo by Juan Marin on Unsplash