The 2017 Public Sector Forum was held in Canberra earlier this month and featured presentations and panel discussions from government leaders, experienced directors and industry experts. This year’s speakers explored why public sector innovation is different to other kinds of innovation, how cross-sector collaboration is key to working towards the greater good and how big data is changing the way that the public sector operates and how we interact with government.

Challenging common assumptions about public sector innovation

Keynote speaker: Dr Robert Kay MAICD, Co-founder and Executive Director of Incept Labs and Adjunct Professor at Macquarie University.

There is a common misconception that the public sector is not as innovative as the private sector. However, this view was challenged in a world-first study by Dr Robert Kay and Dr Chris Goldspink in 2016. In Public Sector Innovation: Why is it different? Kay and Goldspink examined comparable data sets from both the private and public sectors obtained over two studies to find that not only is the public sector innovative, but the ‘nature and form of that innovation is different to the private sector and arises from fundamental differences in the two sectors’ measures of success’.

In a wide-ranging presentation, Kay shared the following insights.

Drivers and barriers for public service innovation are different and complicated

It is commonly accepted that innovation occurs when the uncertainty around any given idea or strategy is reduced so that it can be implemented. But in the public sector, Kay’s study found that there were some attempts at innovation that involved no uncertainty at all, and that fear of scrutiny meant that they were not implemented.

Instances of pro-active vs reactive innovation in the public sector are in stark contrast with the private sector. These differences are a result of complex contextual sensitivities like the political environment, the different players involved (i.e. ministerial vs departmental directives), the media and public expectations.

The success of innovation relies on much more than methodology. When it comes to innovation and its success, there is an element of ‘gut feel’ to the process that relies fundamentally on the experience of individual leaders. In many ways, this experience allows them to predict expectations, reactions and outcomes.

In the public sector there is a view that content knowledge does not matter in management. Despite this trend, it has been found that those with extensive experience “have the confidence to take bigger risks, make better bets in a reactive context to take some of the uncertainty out of the idea.”

We need to protect and promote our organisations’ capacity to ‘explore’

For innovation to occur, organisations of all types are faced with having to strike a balance between two fundamental conflicting processes: to exploit (to emphasise efficiencies, place importance on business operations and have a low appetite for risk and change) or to explore (have an appetite for change, ad hoc opportunities and to accept risk).

In Australia, the vast majority of organisations are devoted to the process of ‘exploitation’. “But you can have too much of a good thing,” says Kay.

‘Exploit’ and ‘explore’ are not merely processes, but are ways of thinking about how an organisation should operate and play an important part in innovation’s implementation and success.


Lessons for better cross-sector collaboration

Panellists: Elizabeth Montano FAICD, Non-executive director
Lucia Cade FAICD, Chair of South East Water Ltd
Andrew Balmaks MAICD, Chairman and Co-founder of Noetic Group
Moderator: Phil Butler, NFP Sector Leader, Australian Institute of Company Directors

Now more than ever before, there is appetite for the public sector to collaborate with both the private and not-for-profit sectors to develop well-thought-out, sustainable and effective products and services with direct benefit to the wider community.

While case studies of successful partnerships between government, the private sector and NFP organisations are few and far between, there are lessons to be learnt from collaboration failures and the challenges that both sides of the partnership confront when they have sought to work together.

Be clear on what it is you want to achieve and why

Before looking outside of your organisation to partner or collaborate on a specific project, a clear purpose is critical. Without it, expectations cannot be set and true success can never be measured.

Ensure your ‘customer’ is at the centre of your decisions

Just like innovation, collaboration should look to address a customer need. It is important to identify who is the customer, ‘whose stakeholder are we’ and what is the intended impact of the project and partnership on the customer.

Be honest about your organisation’s capability and capacity to contribute to the partnership

There is no point in signing a deal to work with an organisation, whether it is another public sector entity or otherwise, if there is no clear commitment, capacity and capability to deliver on the agreed to terms by both sides.

Agree on how you will monitor and measure the success of the collaboration

Completing a project is one thing, but assessing whether it was in fact successful is another. Both parties should agree on what success looks like and the lengths that will be taken to achieve it.

Build a relationship of mutual respect

This is as much an issue for public sector organisations as it is for the NFP sector and business. Building a relationship of respect requires a willingness to understand how the other party does business. It is the acknowledgement of each other’s strengths and weaknesses which ultimately helps to minimize risk and deliver a better outcome.

Establish your organisation’s risk appetite

Think about how your organisations will change as a result of the partnership and what impact this will have on your stakeholders and your day-to-day operations.


Big data in the public sector: the next frontier

Panellists: Narelle Devine, Chief Information Security Officer at the Department of Human Services
Ajay Satyan, Acting Chief Information Officer at the Department of the Environment and Energy
Dr Phillip Gould, Director of Methodology Data Management Division at the Australian Bureau of Statistics
Moderator: Nigel Phair GAICD, Managing Director of the Centre for Internet Security, University of Canberra

Technology is changing and enhancing the way that we work. It is disrupting entire industries and the public sector is no exception. Each new innovation poses a set of new risks and opportunities in security, technology, data use and data management. The scale of the data collected, stored, shared and used by government is immense and emerging technologies have the potential to use that data in a meaningful, tangible way for better and more insightful policy creation.

In this frank and open discussion, panellists explored the challenges the sector faces with big data, the hard lessons learned from recent public relations crises like #censusfail and what the government is doing next.

Communication needs to get better

One of the key lessons from recent incidents involving technology – the 2016 Census, for example – is that communication and fostering a basic understanding of issues relating to technology is essential. Without it, the integrity of the organisations implicated and the technology used, can be severely compromised or damaged, regardless of how prepared or secure they are. A direct result of this incident has not only been the heightened security posture of government organisations, but also the increase and improvement in the level of sophistication of discussions on the issue.

Cross-departmental collaboration is a priority

Tied closely to the lesson of communication is the need for government organisations to collaborate and share more. For many of the larger federal government departments, sharing data across organisations happens routinely. Their information security policies are aligned and there is a standard approach to collecting, managing, storing and using data. Data sharing and cross-collaboration is what contributes to effective policy making, but more importantly, it provides a path to a common and robust solution because ‘if it is happening to us it is happening to someone else’.

Cloud computing, automation, machine learning and AI on the way

Technology already exists that has the capability to enhance the way data is collected, stored and used. The key challenge for the public sector is managing security risks that these technologies pose because of data ownership and control. While AI in the public sector is a little way off, advanced machine learning is fast becoming a useful tool to help link data sets together and engage policy experts in conversations about future government initiatives. The good news is that discussions around technology are starting to change and the public are becoming more comfortable with the idea of the intersection of technology and big data. There are endless opportunities and scalable IT infrastructure, like cloud technology is here to stay.

But people are still the weakest link

Behind security threats are individuals and more often than not, it is individuals who will compromise the security of an organisation by ‘clicking on a link in an email’. Effective and successful security of our data requires equal investment in both technology and people. Organisations need to look to blending and layering both the people solution with the technology solution.