The well-publicized scrap between Canada’s Auditor General and the Clerk of the Privy Council questioning if the climate of the public sector is broken got my interest. Research shows that a culture that supports new thinking is crucial for innovation. I do not know if the culture is broken, but there are weaknesses.
While Canada’s CIO (and now Deputy Minister) Alex Benay is a great cheerleader for digital change, I still can’t renew my passport online (CBC Report). In 2014, I renewed my Kiwi passport while living in Melbourne. I only needed a digital photo from Australia Post. I input my details, uploaded my photo, and pressed “enter.” Two days later it left New Zealand by courier to arrive in Melbourne overnight. Last year, I met Darryl Carpenter who led this transformation as part of New Zealand Shared Services. His said the goal is to renew passports within 36 hours.
Having lived and worked in public service in New Zealand, I can confirm it has a culture of ideas.
Creating a culture open to new ideas starts with a foundation of trust. This is the strongest predictor for innovation as trust is the lubricant for ideas to flow freely through an organization to solve its challenges. To nurture trust, many Governments have embraced innovation strategies.
Having worked on strategies in various countries, it is important to translate vision statements into objectives which cascade to staff and manager programs. I was privy to several strategies in Singapore when it launched a national public service innovation skills program. I wrote an innovation guide that went to 20,000 staff and managers. There are lessons from this work; innovation does not happen without effective internal communication strategies to make it meaningful to staff.
Australia spent a year developing, “Empowering Change: Fostering Innovation in the Australia Public Sector.” This 130-page strategy started in 2009. Canada’s effort was more modest in its, “Blueprint 2020”. So modest in fact, the OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (OPSI) called it “relatively immature” (draft 2017). It was not critical of current actions (mostly innovation labs); it was critical of the lack of other initiatives. Its conclusions, based on interviews with 100 public servants involved with innovation, are insightful (quoting the report):
- “There is no overall picture of the innovation system, what it includes, what it involves, what is happening, or how it is performing.
- There is no overriding sense of what the intent driving the system is.
- The behaviours and norms for supporting innovation are not well established or explicit.
- There is no shared sense across the system of what needs to happen next.”
As a strategist, I see two problems in these comments:
1.The vision of innovation was not translated into clear and compelling strategies and programs.
2.There is too little communication to give staff and managers a personal understanding of innovation and what it means to be innovative on the job.
I will expand on other issues in this article.
Innovation: translating vision into programs
Innovation always has two challenges:
1.Public service innovation: creating innovative solutions to innovate systems, practices and service delivery.
2.Building capacity and skills to innovate: the capacity of staff to invent solutions for challenges in terms of innovation skills training, models, and tools.
For the first, it is worth reflecting on different “products” that public servants must invent, manage, or deliver. To start, we can simplify this to four core deliverables:
- Innovating new services: the product is new or improved public services.
- Innovating policy development: the product is policy reflective of where society is heading.
- Innovating technical solutions: the product is highly technical solutions from Canada’s 16,000 scientists, engineers, architects, and researchers.
- Innovating management programs to improve effectiveness: internal programs to build the skills of staff to collaborate and solve the challenges of their jobs, and to modernize management processes.
Most of the focus today is on service and policy products. Personal observations suggest too little focus on innovating management programs. No government seems to include scientists in their innovation strategies.
For the second challenge of building skills and capacity, I see too little focus on establishing learning frameworks for innovation skills across the public service. All departments should create a high-quality capacity to educate their own staff and managers.
For example, I worked on an innovation team at New Zealand Post to improve internal and external services. We saw that we could never create the volume of ideas needed to solve the diverse challenges of a big organization. Staff and managers needed the skills to create their own solutions, and opportunities to use these skills.
I wrote a guide for managers to understand our programs and how to engage their staff to improve services. For example, we suggested managers turn some meetings into “idea meetings.” These could be 30 minutes and focused on two issues:
“New ideas this week.” People introduce a problem they solved or an idea they implemented. Discussions can extend to insights and lessons learned in the process.
“I face a problem; I need your ideas.” People could explain a problem they face. Others then offer ideas, insights or observations. Often this discussion leads to a stronger definition of the original problem.
I was part of many idea meetings. With experience, these meetings were a valuable source of ideas at the team level.
Communication: what do staff need to know?
A senior executive recently asked me, “How is being innovative different to what I am doing now?” This is a good question that must be answered by the internal communication strategies.
I learned a useful insight in Singapore about the cliché “walking your talk.” A government minister said that innovation will fail if managers fail to “walk the innovation talk.” He then said before you can “walk the talk,” you must understand the “innovation talk” and how to “talk the talk.”
At the most basic level, all staff should understand the “talk”:
1.What does it means to be innovative on the job?
2.How is this different to what I am doing now?
3.How can I make a difference?
Internal staff communication is always a foundation for building culture for change and innovation. Key messages can start with “what are six things all staff need to know?” This gives content writers themes for articles, blogs, guides, team briefs, posters, and events. In Canada, there is simply not enough high quality content focused on staff at all levels of the public sector.
Culture for innovation – or not
Research on problem-solving shows that we often ignore a problem until it becomes a crisis or it is “established” as a problem worth solving. The notion of “establishing” a problem recognizes that a problem is important to solve.
OECD OPSI research clearly shows that communication is poor. As a strategist, these two observations “establish” that a lack of communication is truly a problem worth solving:
- There is no overall picture of the innovation system, what it includes, what it involves, what is happening, nor how it is performing.
- The expected role to be played by individuals and organisations is not clear.
These statements provide the ideal starting place to shape solutions.
New Zealand, South Africa and Singapore gave staff innovation guides and toolkits. Australian public servants can join a Community of Practice and learn from a website. The innovation guide I wrote in Singapore went to 20,000 staff. I later wrote innovation guides for Singapore Ministry of Defence, Bank of Canada Currency, and contributed to others in New Zealand.
All governments face a growing number of diverse challenges. The shift to digital services and the need to continually improve internal services demand a growing capacity to solve these challenges. Digital change is not a single problem. A solution such as passport renewal results from solutions to hundreds of problems. Communication is a key to shape a culture based on trust that can harness the expertise of public servants to meet these challenges.