Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s innovation strategy, released last year, in which he declared that “we have to have an ideas boom, not just a resources boom”, was somewhat light on detail when it comes to promoting innovation where it is most sorely needed – in government itself.
There were at least some broad strokes: government should become innovative in delivering services, innovative in the way it uses big data, and making it easier for business to work with government. But there was very little detail as to how government would act “as an exemplar”.
There is a popular perception that public sector innovation is an oxymoron. It is no wonder that Judith Sloan mocked it:
Is this some kind of joke? Have you been down to a Centrelink office recently? And did you notice that the ride-sharing service Uber was declared illegal in Victoria last week?
There may be a serious spin-off from this innovation statement, by providing more than enough material for a second series of the ABC television program Utopia, a satirical take on lofty-sounding government policies that founder on the rocks of unattainable objects, poor design and incompetent managers. But as long as the vibe is right, the politicians don’t seem to mind.
This week, the Victorian Government appeared to be taking up the challenge by announcing a new award for bureaucrats.
Premier Daniel Andrews announced that Public sector innovation will be recognised by a new award category at the Australian Information Industry Association iAwards. The state government explained that previous award winning projects in the public sector categories include Daisy App that connects women around Australia to services providing support for the impacts of sexual assault family violence and domestic violence, and the Retrieval and Critical Health (REACH) information system that gives a real time, web based bed occupancy reporting tool for use by health services developed by Adult Retrieval Victoria (ARV) and the Victorian Department of Health.
This type of award is not a new idea. The best-known around the world is the Ford Foundation’s Innovations in American Government. These awards have been studied by academics as a way of identifying how public sector organisations can be made more innovative compared to the private sector. One explanation for a lack of public sector has to do with the structure and culture that is typical of public sector bodies: heavily bureaucratic structures, an overly conservative approach to risk management, matched with a lack of financial incentives and rewards. The standard approach to public sector innovation is trying to fix these symptoms.
My explanation takes a more systematic approach. Fixed regulation and governance structures constrain the forces of creative destruction inherent in innovation. Often governments are the sole funder, the sole regulator and the sole provider of public sector services. Breaking up this cartel of government bodies is certain to foster innovation. One way to do this is by implementing user choice reforms.
There are some green shoots on this front.
In aged care, the Federal government introduced a pilot program of consumer choice in aged care in 2011. Successive governments have continued down this track to the point that from February 2017, Australians receiving home care packages will be able to choose their service provider, and will be given the flexibility to change their provider. Providing consumers with greater choice and competition has sparked an increase in activity across the sector. The reforms have also allowed innovative start-ups in the private sector to add value to public services in new ways – such as Care Guidance which provides aged care brokerage services, matching residents and aged care facilities.
In public education, WA has implemented its Independent Public Schools program, loosely modelled on the idea of charter schools in the United States or academies in the United Kingdom. Launched in 2009, the IPS initiative gives local communities more control, autonomy and flexibility over their school’s resources allowing them to be more responsive to the needs of local students. Among other things, an evaluation by the University of Melbourne found that principals felt that with greater autonomy came a stronger sense of entrepreneurship.
While awards and other gimmick policies might get headlines, the real public sector innovation agenda should be continuing down the path of implementing reforms which are consumer-focussed, increase competition, and reduce regulation and red tape for service providers.
Innovation in the public sector is crucial in order to improve in the quality of public services, especially when public finances are tight. What the above examples show is that government can be an exemplar not by increasing funding for public services or coming up with new products and services, but by shifting its philosophy of service delivery.