GovCamp Australia 2013

For more thoughts on GovCamp Australia 2013 and innovation in government and the Australian Public Service, see my blog post over on acidlabs.

It’s been a big week in the public sector with GovHack last weekend, GovCamp camp today and GovJam over the last few days around the world.

GovCamp Australia 2013 was held at the Inspire Centre, University of Canberra. All the sessions in the main room were with speakers that had been invited by the organisers and included Minister Kate Lundy, AGIMO CTO John Sheridan, DesignGov CEO Jane Treadwell, Steve Baty of Meld Studios, and Justin Barrie and Mel Edwards of DMA.

Jane led off, talking about design and the work of DesignGov. She talked about the Five Why’s and how it can help us look past solutions through to what we are really trying to do, to make a difference in the lives of Australians.

However, ideas are useless if they’re not translated to action and the complement to the Five Why’s is asking how. How are we going to inspire innovation in the public sector? Even just prototyping an idea is a good start. Ask forgiveness, not permission. Do you want a stack of briefs on your desk or do you want insight into what works and what doesn’t?

She mentioned National Failure Day in Finland on 13 October, owned by successful people who attribute their success to learning from their many failures and want to ensure that other people have the opportunity to fail. How do we bring that to our space? How do we stop desktop perfectionism and make people feel comfortable sharing drafts and ideas?

Innovation is about people, not technology, not structures; it’s about choices and behaviours, listening and empathy. So, who are these citizens?

Jane quoted Ken Friedman of the faculty of design at Swinburne University, pointing out that you don’t actually solve wicked problems but you can make them better. Wicked problems are a construct of the fragmentation of the system. Design is a process that moves the current state to a future better state. Design can be good, or bad. But it is an active process. Design is a messy space, but exciting.

She talked about the importance of shared language so that the gaps between departments and agencies could be bridged.

Steve Baty opened with an anecdote about listening to people practising with the bells across the road from his workplace at St Andrews Cathedral “failing with massive bells takes on a new meaning”. Later during GovCamp someone mentioned the constraint of working with taxpayers money and our accountability to the public. It is certainly a big issue and a significant risk, but not one that should inhibit us from experimenting and learning.

Is it not better to learn to find out what doesn’t work, to look at the number of ideas, to seek to understand the root problem and not be afraid to tackle wicked problems then to continue with small incremental improvements, pushing on blindly with our first idea without understanding who we’re actually working for?

To get back to Steve’s presentation, he tried to get us to think of a future that’s very different from the present. Some scientists think that the first person will live to be 1,000 years old has already been born. How do you design for a society for people who are going to live 1,000 years?

Thinking about the same problem in the same way is going to produce the same result. We are not going to come up with these solutions by sitting in our office or in a conference room.

A surprising and sobering fact: half of all your medical costs in your life will be incurred in the last 18 months of your life and most of that in the last three days of your life. How might that knowledge help us plan our finances and insurance? One option might be that the Baby Bonus go to the kids instead of parents, that it be invested and with the interest it earns over 60 years could solve that end-of-life medical expenses issue. But that requires a radical change in how we think and how far ahead we plan.

Whilst ridiculous, Steve asked us to imagine how things might be different if Joe Hockey and Wayne Swan collaborated on the budget and co-presented it. Sure, it sounds silly but just imagine. If people in the room aren’t shaking their heads then you’re not pushing boundaries.

He gave an example of a workshop where a senior executive said “We need ideas”. Steve threw an idea out on the table, perhaps a slightly crazy one, and the senior executive clarified “Okay we need good ideas”. What followed was essentially three hours of awkward silence and no innovation was done.

Explore cheaply. Explore in an environment where it’s okay to throw out ideas and generate lots of ideas. Spend just a few minutes or a few hours or even a few days exploring possibilities in a low risk environment with a few props like a piece of paper and post-it notes. Keep it lo-fi.

John Sheridan, Australian Government CTO at AGIMO, talked about the number of Australians on Facebook and the misconception that the “Facebook generation” consists of young people. He talked about expectations of using your own device at work, having collectivity, having access to networks and impatience with slow software and technology.

His tips for encouraging workers to be engaged in the workplace as they are at home included making information available, making data available, allowing them to make their own technology choices, permitting applicability and encouraging networking. John talked about innovation being useless as a value; rather it needs to be realised through managers giving their staff have the freedom, communicating the intent, giving them the resources and stepping back. Some people thrive in this new environment and some won’t. It’s about choosing the right people and trusting them. Be the conductor, not the first violin. Use the reins not the spurs. Innovation requires risk. Innovation requires failure.

John highlighted the risk-averseness of the Australian Public Service and we will always be required to be responsible with public funds and taxes, but that should not deter us from innovation and experimentation.

James Dellow from the Ripple Effect highlighted how far we’ve come in the last four years since his presentation at Public Sphere 2009 and that we’ve made progress but were still just tinkering. He said that events like GovHack are nice but we need to move beyond people volunteering their weekends to come and build novelty applications. We need to take it to the next level so one side isn’t taking advantage of the other and solve real problems, citing Patchwork as one example. Paperwork is connecting professionals such as doctors and social service providers so they can share ideas and information pertaining to clients and patients. It’s making a real difference and we need to see more of that.

The presentations from Justin Barrie and Mel Edwards at DMA, from Darren Menachemson of ThinkPlace and others were also interesting with case studies from Australian governments and overseas. Ian Fitzgerald had some good examples of how the APS has adapted to change and technology over the years including telegraphs, typewriters, punch cards and personal computers.

So, did I learn anything from the GovCamp Australia 2013? As a designer, I strongly believe in the power and potential of design and design thinking but I do have to consider whether design was pushed too much. Is design central to innovation? Does everyone who innovates also practice design?

I also think we need to do a better job of illustrating current trends and just how quickly the APS needs to adapt. Indeed not just the APS but the entire structure of our democracy and how the public contribute to and participate in it. We need to make it abundantly clear to public servants why change is essential and the risks of perpetuating the status quo.

And what are these risks? What happens when we try to do more with less with the same processes and frameworks and structures and hierarchy we have today? People will burn out. The quality of service delivery will suffer. Policy will become increasingly misdirected. But how do we show that? We don’t want to fabricate a burning platform, but there are risks and I believe we need to do a far better job of telling that story. The gap between the work we do and the expectations of the public is increasing. Is an annual GovCamp event attended by no more than 100 public servants in Canberra going to create the momentum to bring about that change is quick enough?

This blog post was authored using voice recognition and transcription software Nuance Dragon – please excuse any grammatical errors.

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    Disclosure statement: Transportation and lodging were provided by Westt – Jet for this event.

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