In today’s workplace, to innovate or not to innovate is no longer the question. But what does innovation really mean in the context of the public sector and how can we go about it in a practical way?
Landgate Innovation Manager Tim Teather finds complex definitions counterproductive as they make the meaning inaccessible.
“Instead of drawing a box around what we mean by innovation, I prefer to describe it as any change that adds value.”
Tim heads up one of the most successful public sector innovation programs in Australia. Landgate was ranked the most innovative government agency and 19th most innovative company overall in Australia and New Zealand in 2018 by the Australian Financial Review.
The agency promotes and supports innovation across all sectors through its innovation portal SPUR, which presents a dedicated hub for start-ups location technology and start-ups.
Tim is relatively new to the role but as the former Chief Executive Officer of Earthmine Australia — a private public partnership with Landgate that had developed software to collect 3D street level imagery and extract spatially accurate data – he is well aware of SPUR’s role.
Earthmine was a booming business until the technology was made obsolete by a newer innovation. This is the reality of working in today’s fast-changing technology field.
Innovation is not as risky as it sounds
Innovation does bring with it particular ways of thinking and practical skills.
“Innovation is essentially about thinking outside the box,” Tim said. “A willingness to question, to do something different and be open to different views.”
“There are certain skills and methodologies that support creating new ideas. This includes design thinking which is a step-by-step process for solving complex problems that puts the needs of the people you are creating for at the centre of design.”
A common criticism of the public sector is that is too risk averse to do innovation well. Tim says the irony is that following design process actually minimises risk by experimenting with and testing ideas early, before they require major investment.
“An innovation approach to designing a service is to engage with the community early to understand their needs or problems, then generate ideas and solutions through collaborative thought, in-house experimentation and testing,” he said.
The next step is to go out to the community again and test your solution on a small scale to improve and refine. Only after this process would you invest in rolling it out more broadly.
“By using this prototype method you avoid the risk of continuing with a policy or service that doesn’t meet the community’s needs. It becomes more difficult to change direction when the level of initial investment is perceived as too high to be wasted,” Tim said.
You can’t innovate on your own
Collaboration is at the heart of Landgate’s innovation practice. Landgate offers opportunities for its employees to take on roles in the program for 12 to 18 month periods.
The agency is also an active member of the national public sector innovation network, and runs “hackathons” internally to encourage new approaches to solving a business problem.
“Teams assemble around a chosen problem and then, through a day-long event, develop a solution for it,” Tim said.
There is an emphasis on diversity. Employees are encouraged to get involved from any and all areas of the agency – Finance, Human Resources, Communications, Business Development, IT – and sessions are facilitated by design thinkers.
“Introducing that diversity of thinking to a problem offers a far greater chance to come up with genuinely new solutions that add value to the business or the workplace,” Tim said.
“And while it is not practical or even desirable to take a design process approach to every challenge in the workplace, getting the conversation started opens the door to new ideas or better ways of working.”
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