Innovation in Govt must be a tool: Not the end goal


This article is by Craig Thomler, digital specialist and Government 2.0 advocate. Thomler is one of Australia’s foremost experts on eGovernment and Government 2.0 issues. It first appeared on Thomler’s popular blog, eGov AU, and is replicated here with his permission.

opinion/analysis Over the last year in Australian government there’s been increasing rhetoric around transformation (primarily digital) and innovation.

This has come both from the political level, particularly since Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister, and from the administrative level, as the Secretary’s Board and an increasing number of senior public servants have internalised these terms within their approach to gain funding and support for their activities.

I’m a big support of innovation within government. Where government seeks to improve internal efficiency and external effectiveness, innovation – as a technique for exploring, testing and trialing new approaches – is a key strategy for achieving improvement.

In my view digital transformation is part of this innovation track, with a particular focus on using digital technologies, and the strategies and tactics they enable, to help improve governance and operations across the public sector.

As such both innovation and digital transformation are important techniques that should form part of the ‘toolkit’ of every public sector employee.

However, in all this rush to secure innovation rushing and transform service delivery via digital tools, public servants and politicians alike must ensure they focus on the goals they are seeking to achieve, not simply the (shiny new) tools they are using to achieve them.

The goal – as it has been for hundreds of years – is to improve the operations of government and ensure that, within the budgets available, governments deliver the best possible experience and, particularly, outcomes, for their ‘owners’ – citizens.

Innovation is not the goal, it is a method used to achieve the goal, whatever that might be.

Similarly digital transformation is a technique for shifting services between delivery or processing channels in order to deliver more convenient and effective outcomes for the service recipient, potentially with the secondary goal of a more cost-effective, reduced-error service delivery approach for the provider.

Within all the rhetoric abut innovation and digital transformation we’ve heard from governments, and with the large amount I expect we’ll continue to hear this year, keep in mind the end goal – improving government efficiency and effectiveness.

Innovation and transformations do not, by themselves, improve government. They are simply techniques and can be implemented both well and badly, depending on the people, culture and environment they are employed within.

Indeed in certain cases innovation can make things worse – harder, slower, less reliable – or have unforeseen consequences that end up costing government more, and reducing its effectiveness overall.

So look for the outcomes of innovation and digital transformation.

Does an agency’s innovation approach reduce costs, reduce error rates, increase satisfaction or improve outcomes for the services and systems to which it is applied?

Last year we heard the talk about innovation and digital transformation. This year we’ll start seeing the first outcomes from some of the most highly funded agencies and offices tasked with these techniques.

This year, 2016, will be the test of whether government agencies in Australia are effectively implementing innovation, shifting their culture and administrative biases to facilitate successful innovation and resulting in real improvements in citizen welfare and government operations.

I hope we hear the successes shouted from the rooftops.

Silence can only mean that this has been a failed experiment, with senior public servants using innovation as a way to buffer declining budgets rather than make measureable improvements in how Australian government operations.