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Innovation Lessons Down Under

Anton Balazh/

Innovation has become a big deal in governments around the world. The Australian Public Service, for example, developed a formal action plan for innovation in 2011 and is rolling out a series of initiatives to build innovation into the government’s institutional framework.

In a recent article in The Public Manager, Australian civil servant Alex Roberts, one of the champions of innovation Down Under, says the new mantra for government is “do better with less.” He describes the Australian national government’s approach to systematically embedding innovation into agency operations.

In 2009, the Australian Management Advisory Committee (roughly equivalent to the U.S. government’s President’s Management Council) chartered a cross-agency initiative to investigate ways to boost new ideas across government. The 2010 report “Empowering Change: Fostering Innovation in the Australian Public Service,” addresses how to embed innovation into agency operations and overcome barriers that impede it.

The report led to the creation of the Public Sector Innovation Project, which in turn drafted the Innovation Action Plan that was symbolically signed by each of the department secretaries in the Australian government to indicate their personal commitment to its implementation. The plan is organized around four action areas:

  • Consciousness (creating awareness, a network and plans)
  • Capacity (creating a toolkit and staffing)
  • Co-creation (creating a design lab)
  • Courage (creating a leadership mandate)

While creating a vision, top-level support and an action plan are important. After all, these essentially provide the permission to innovate. The key steps are to identify ways to systematically engage employees and to act on their ideas. In Australia, a number of institutional mechanisms were put in place.

The Public Sector Innovation Network. A cross-agency network (and its coordinating committee) was designated to help spearhead the effort. The network performs similar functions as the U.S. government’s cross-agency councils, such as the Chief Financial Officers or Chief Information Officers councils. These entities “own” the action plan and develop initiatives.  But the concept in Australia, Roberts says, is “an open network for those interested, whether from the public sector, academia or the private sector.” This is much broader than many U.S. government cross-agency networks.

An Innovation Toolkit. To create capacity, the government sponsors an online resource center for innovation that is open to all. It includes the Innovation Blog, which offers weekly updates and news items. Roberts says it “is an ongoing discussion forum for new ideas, insights, practices and information about applying innovation within the public sector.” Probably the closest U.S. equivalent is the Office of Management and Budget’s MAX Federal Community, which is a closed network.

The resource center features a series of pull-down tabs that include the following tools:

  • Innovation 101, which offers a starting point
  • Diagnostic Tool, which helps agencies prioritize where they need to focus developmental attention to their initiatives
  • IDEAS for the Public Sector (Innovation Development Early Assessment System) to help individuals determine whether their idea is a good one to pursue in their agency

These tools “are complemented by a wide range of activities and efforts at the individual agency level or even within agencies,” Roberts says. In the United States, there is a parallel toolkit and network in the president’s Open Government Initiative.

Case Studies. In addition, the website includes an archive of case studies on innovation. Probably the closest U.S. equivalent is the Gellhorn Award, sponsored by the Administrative Conference of the United States.

DesignGov. Roberts also describes an 18-month pilot Centre for Excellence in Public Sector Design, modeled after the collaborative Danish MindLab. The pilot was launched in 2012 “to test how design-led innovation could be applied to complex problems that spanned the interests of multiple agencies,” Roberts says. Dubbed DesignGov, the initiative prototyped a framework to understand and improve interactions between business, interest groups and government. Here, the rough equivalent may be the Innovation Labs created at agencies such as the Office of Personnel Management, but the Australian Centre was designed to address cross-agency initiatives.

Agency Ratings. Much like the U.S. government, no initiative is complete without a scorecard on progress. Here is the Australian version.

And More. In addition, the Australian innovation initiative sponsors Innovation Month, an annual summit and awards.

While our federal government’s approach to fostering innovation is a bit different—we have Presidential Innovation Fellows, the website, and chief innovation (or chief technology) officers—there are many parallels. The U.S. approach, though, may not have as much of an institutional framework to ensure longer-term sustainability at this point.

Interestingly, the design and implementation of the Australian innovation initiative parallel other Obama administration efforts, such as the Open Government Initiative (e.g., use of scorecards) and evidence-based government initiatives (e.g., creation of policies and cross-agency workshops). So while the overarching initiatives may differ, many of the implementation strategies are familiar. But isn’t that what innovation is all about? Find what works elsewhere and make it work for you.

(Image via Anton Balazh/

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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