What does policy innovation (need to) look like?

What does policy innovation (need to) look like?


All government agencies want to innovate. Most are doing so, whether through the introduction of new internal systems, the redesign of their services, or the adoption of new technologies. But in many respects these are the low-hanging fruit.

I suspect that when political leaders and senior officials call on the public service to embrace innovation they are looking for a bigger step-change, beyond ‘continuous improvement’ at the margins. The big challenge is the incorporation of innovation into the daily routine of policy advisers and program managers.

As a client recently said to us: “You don’t need to tell us how to set up an innovation hub – that’s easy. What’s hard is how to introduce innovation into our day-to-day work.”

This is the right challenge on which to focus. Those of us who have worked in government know how hard it is to break out of the hierarchical structures, the timeworn clearance processes and the rituals of consultation that constrain thinking and collaboration. It is hard to overcome the inertia that comes with a strong culture of ‘the way we do things around here’ – but it is vital to do so to achieve genuine innovation. Without change at the core – to the lived experience of the public servant – ‘innovation’ risks becoming just another passing fad.

Innovation is not something done ‘over there’

We in Nous regularly come across a large number of hardworking and highly capable public servants who feel that they are victims of their in-tray. They do not feel that they have the time or space to innovate, and look longingly at their colleagues who have been taken offline to do something that has been branded as ‘an innovation’.

What worries me is the sense that innovation can only happen in a controlled, specially-designed environment. It is as if everyone is working in the empty room upstairs, except for those lucky few who walk through the wardrobe and end up in the magical world of Narnia. Don’t get me wrong: there is most definitely a place for policy labs or innovation hubs. But I – and I suspect many of the public servants with whom I have worked – would like to see innovation in the daily work of ministerial briefing, visit planning, program management and stakeholder engagement.

Before you say “but we can’t do that in our risk-averse environment,” let’s just think about what might be involved in injecting innovation into the practice and craft of public servants. Here are some ideas:

  1. Use expert input upfront to clarify purpose and agree approach
    Instead of asking the new graduate to scour files on an issue and write the first draft of a ministerial submission, convene a short meeting. Work through the problem from first principles and pose questions about the government’s role, the available levers and current performance. Involve one or two colleagues who you would normally consult later and allow all voices to be heard – then charge the graduate with capturing key points and recommendations. This enables a clearer line of sight to strategic objectives, energises the team (as the work feels more proactive than reactive) and creates efficiency by including expert input when it’s needed rather than after the fact.
  2. Drive efficiency through co-authoring
    Instead of producing drafts that are edited sequentially by people up the line, invest in co‑authoring functionality. Two or more authors can work on different sections but provide real-time feedback on what their colleagues are doing, tag-teaming to build a cohesive report. Since Nous introduced co-authoring several years ago our productivity has increased by some 20 per cent.
  3. Experiment with different approaches to stakeholder engagement
    Don’t default to standard stakeholder engagement approaches like providing an issues paper (or not) and then consulting representative bodies via a structured forum with a set agenda. Instead, experiment with different vehicles or formats for engagement. For example, Nous has had tremendous success using ‘open space’ forums that allow participants to determine the agenda. They are much more inclusive and engaging. More importantly, they produce genuinely useful and fresh insights on an issue because they free up thinking, and allow for an exchange of ideas instead of positions.

Innovation is not inherently a risky business

There is unquestionably a need for proper process, quality assurance and risk management – particularly when dealing with sensitive public policy issues. But too often we see maintenance of the status quo as the best guarantee of minimising such risks. What about the risk of letting down the Minister by not producing an imaginative proposal, or of not engaging the people who really have a valuable perspective on a problem? These are particularly important considerations in an environment of increasing policy contestability.

Public sector leaders are making it clear that their expectations are changing; there should be no need to seek a special license to think differently and experiment – as long as sensible judgement is applied.

The above examples are relatively small and low-risk changes that are easy to implement. Only one relies on having the right technology.

And they are just the beginning. With a bit more imagination and courage, policy teams in government can inject innovation into their daily practice by incorporating elements of design thinking and agile project management methodologies. For example; team sprints to develop a Cabinet submission, or the incorporation of ethnographic research into a task force’s work.

When we see the end of hard copy drafts with red circles and post-it notes arriving back on the author’s desk two weeks after they have been completed, then I believe we will have truly witnessed the innovation revolution in government policy-making.

In my mind I can see a few Narnian snowflakes scattered on the floor of that empty room upstairs – evidence of a different world of possibilities. It’s time to open the wardrobe, bring out the hot chocolate and Turkish delight, and get working on that snowman!

Nous offers combined strength in policy, innovation and design thinking. Get in touch if you’d like to find out how this can be applied to your challenges.