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4 Barriers to innovation in the APS

So, what stands in the way of a more innovative public sector? This chapter discusses barriers to innovation in the public service identified from the feedback received through consultations, focus groups and submissions, as well as the relevant literature.

The barriers or impediments to innovation listed here will not always apply in every agency and in relation to every innovation that happens in the public sector; however, it is important to have an understanding of the possible obstacles that may occur throughout the innovation process. Nor are all these issues necessarily unique to the public sphere, even though some public sector areas will have added complexity compared to the private sector. And some relate to accountability and legislative requirements of the APS or are tied to the democratic system. Such ‘barriers’ are necessary and appropriate constraints that the APS must consider rather than circumvent.

Subsequent chapters identify actions and reforms that the APS can consider to mitigate or reconcile unavoidable constraints on innovation, and those that could reduce, remove or eliminate the barriers that unnecessarily hinder the public sector’s ability to innovate.

Figure 4.1 lists a range of barriers and illustrates where they affect the various phases of the innovation process (outlined in Chapter 1). The barriers are discussed in more detail below.

Figure 4.1 Barriers to innovation at the different phases of the innovation process

Figure 4.1 is a table showing where each barrier can affect the innovation process. Risk, short-term focus, failure of leadership, policies and procedures, efficiency and resources, and external opposition can affect all phases. Skill sets and mobility, failed innovations, procurement requirements, recognition and feedback, measurement and impact can all affect generation with some impacting other phases as well. Divergent employment conditions can affect generation. Lack of champions and scrutiny can impact on all phases except generation. Policy, hierarchy, silos, and legislation can impact on the selection and implementation phases. Accountability and resistance can affect implementation and sustaining. Reluctance to let go impacts on implementation. Sustaining innovation affects sustaining. Identifying success factors affects sustaining and diffusion.

Barrier Generation Selection Implementation Sustaining Diffusion
Risk X X X X X
Short-term focus X X X X X
Failure of leadership X X X X X
Policies & procedures X X X X X
Efficiency and resources X X X X X
External opposition X X X X X
Skill sets & mobility X X X X
Failed innovations X X X
Procurement requirements X X
Recognition & feedback X X
Measurement & impact X X X
Divergent employment conditions X
Lack of champions X X X X
Scrutiny X X X X
Policy X X
Hierarchy X X
Silos X X
Legislation X X
Accountability X X
Resistance X X
Reluctance to let go X
Sustaining innovation X
Identifying success factors X X

Barriers impacting on all phases of the innovation cycle

1. Risk

Public servants are notoriously regarded as risk-averse. This is not surprising, given the potential for political and media criticism of the government if programs or policies are seen to fail. It is easier to avoid criticism by not taking risks, particularly as the consequences of risk-taking in the public sector can be severe and can include political damage to the government, public criticism, possible legal consequences, diminished career prospects, and damage to personal reputation. Thus, as the ANAO better practice guide (ANAO 2009) highlights, risk-taking must be well judged and carefully managed in the public sector.

As well as the obvious risk of failure, a range of other risks may be involved in introducing innovation:

  • The risk that the innovation may render the skills of the staff or service manager of the organization obsolete
  • The risk that the innovation will cost more than was intended
  • The risk that the innovation will have unintended consequences
  • The risk that the innovation may be pursued by external (political) stakeholders, irrespective of its actual impact on the efficiency and/or effectiveness of a public service
  • The risk that the innovation may be successful but not attract sufficient take-up to ensure its financial viability
  • The risk that the innovation might be successful but that the PSO [public sector organisation] could not cope with the subsequent increased level of demand for the service. (Osborne and Brown 2005, pp. 190–191)

The impact of risk can be amplified by public servants second-guessing the risk appetite of supervisors. While an individual may be willing to deal with a particular risk, they may assume that someone above them will not. This can extend to the ministerial level, as public servants make assumptions about the risk appetite of their ministers rather than consulting them on the risks and opportunities posed by particular new ideas or approaches.

Parliamentary processes for scrutiny, such as the Senate Estimates process or the reports of the Auditor-General, tend to focus on risks, shortcomings and failures. It is not the vast majority of agency activities being performed successfully that claim attention, but the small minority experiencing problems. A disproportionate focus on those activities can lead to broad claims and perceptions of public sector incompetence and ineptitude. Such exposure to parliamentary and public criticism can act as a powerful disincentive for experiment or risk taking and again emphasises the need to carefully manage public sector innovation.

Legal frameworks also emphasise risk. Legal advice will detail risks, many of which will not have equal weight but must still be considered. Poor legal advice will often set out all possible risks without advising on likelihood, consequences or ways of minimising the risks. As one public servant put it, ‘my lawyers always give me multiple reasons why I can’t do what I am seeking to, they never seem to give me helpful advice on how I can do what I want to.’

Clearly, it is sensible to get relevant legal advice when considering new approaches or ways of doing things, however it is important to frame the request appropriately so as to get a useful and balanced response and to remember that legal advice is only one input into decision making. The risk of not changing, of not trying new ideas and potentially not moving forward, also needs to be considered.

In some cases APS attitudes or processes tend to punish innovators by shifting all of the risk involved in the innovation onto them. Agencies or units within agencies seeking to introduce an innovation that requires funding may be told that they can go ahead but need to fund the initiative internally. Thus, if the innovation fails or does not prove to be cost effective, the innovative unit or agency bears all the loss.

An example is the development of VANguard, a technical innovation to allow online validation, authentication and notary services and thus provide a basis for secure online transactions between government and businesses (as well as the public). A proposal to develop and implement this whole-of-government service was put to government by the (then) Department of Industry, Tourism and Resources and was initially funded. However, while the agency was required to continue to develop and implement the new system, funding for the project was withdrawn as part of a savings exercise. Such experiences lead agencies to the view that any innovative efforts are fraught with risk.

Budget and funding processes can also make innovators secretive about what they are doing. If an innovative idea produces savings for example these could be deducted from an agency’s budget going forward. This can pose particular risks if an assessment is made of the projected savings over future budget years and deducted from an agency’s budget in advance.

While these practices may be consistent with disciplined budget management, if applied bluntly and without broader consideration, they can clearly constitute barriers to experimentation and innovation.

The ANAO better practice guide on innovation (2009) identifies risk management as a fundamental feature of the innovation process and notes a tendency towards risk avoidance.

While the United States has a different system of public administration, the situation in that country appears similar:

Above all, however, the problem is that most elected chief executives perceive bureaucratic innovation as very risky. Challengers, legislators, and the media concentrate almost exclusively on failure. Failure is news. It generates controversy, particularly about who was responsible, and can be portrayed as scandalous. (Altshuler 1997, p. 48)

2. Short-term focus

The most competitive and internationally successful companies ensure that time is dedicated to analysing and solving the problems of the future—for example, large multinational companies dedicate time and resources to research with a view to providing the solutions that will maintain their competitiveness in years to come.

The best public sector agencies do the same, but arguably there has been a decline over recent decades in APS agencies investing in longer term capability development and innovation for the future.

Australia’s short three-year political cycle and pressure to be more responsive to the needs of the government of the day contribute to a focus on short-term delivery goals and urgent tasks while important and longer term issues can be ignored.

Innovation in the public service, particularly innovation of a substantial or transformative nature, requires a work environment in which resources are given not only to the immediate issues but also to the longer term challenges. Such resources tend to build up the intellectual capital on which inventive new ideas and approaches are based. Acceleration of the policy development process can also make it hard for innovation (which can have a long development period) to be possible in the timeframe and can stifle engagement with relevant stakeholders and citizens.

3. Failure of leadership

Leaders play a pivotal role in enabling innovation by demonstrating willingness to accept risk and supporting and rewarding innovative ideas and approaches. Often the default response to a risk situation by a supervisor can be ‘No’. Innovators then have to do significantly more work to get a ‘Yes’, and risk getting another ‘No’ one step further in the process. In consultations, public servants referred to this as ‘death through frustration’, which leads to a loss of enthusiasm for innovating.

Leaders, especially agency heads and SES staff, set the tone—they have a big influence on the culture and attitudes within an organisation. Through their actions, leaders can make clear that innovation is an issue of some priority and is valued and rewarded within an agency. If agency leaders show no interest in innovation, that also sends a clear message to staff. If we want a more innovative public sector, it is incumbent on public sector leaders to encourage the generation, adoption and implementation of new ideas.

Leaders are also vital because of the requirement for efficient decision making. A central issue with innovation in large organisations, including the APS as a whole, are the joint problems of groupthink and consensus decision making. There are usually strong messages running through agencies about their goals and directions, and also about what various senior people are looking for—if left unchecked, this can degenerate into groupthink.

There is also a stronger desire in the public sector to deliver outcomes that do not disadvantage or upset anybody, and significant effort is often expended to ensure ‘buy-in’ with a decision. The drive for buy-in or consensus can both slow down decision making and make doing new things incredibly hard.

These are issues that need strong and considered leadership to manage. Leadership needs to encourage debate and consideration of problems on their merits and ensure that participants in decision making feel they have been listened to. However, leaders must ‘take sides’, make things happen and implement change even against some resistance when necessary. The importance of leadership will only increase as the adoption of Government 2.0 tools increases and the range of voices involved in policy development and implementation grows.

4. Policies and procedures

Bureaucracies, task forces, org charts, and formal [administrative] processes do not breed innovation. They kill it. (Jarvis 2009, p. 113)

In consultations, public servants pointed to frustration with approval processes, which can be so embedded and cumbersome that they can stifle creativity and flexibility in the workplace. One submission said:

I think this is the major barrier/impediment to more innovation and creativity in the workplace. We will be skirting around the edges with innovative projects here and there, but we need to get to the core of the issue. We have the modern technology, but we do not have the modern work practises and work culture to go with this. We need to have the full package. Until we look at this it is going to impede any progress in the development of innovative programs that government introduces for business and the community.

Public sector policies and rules (and how they are interpreted) can be used to block innovative options. For example, concerns about the legal and operational issues with innovative platforms and communication tools—such as Web 2.0 toolsets—can prevent or delay agencies accessing potential service delivery options. These tools, predominantly software and web-based, can dramatically open up innovative possibilities, but the process for gaining access to them (if such a process exists) is frequently arduous and time-consuming.

In particular, the creation of secure networks and control frameworks to ensure the confidentiality of, for example, Cabinet or security information held by an agency creates technical barriers to more open models of web-based interaction with the public. The focus of ICT management tends to be on why such control frameworks make a more open approach impractical, rather than on ways to address the hurdles they create:

I shouldn’t have to ‘go around’ my IT Security section and, I suppose, blatantly disregard departmental policies, in order to be innovative … they should be saying ‘here are the risks, how can we help you deal with them?’ (Submission)

However, the attitude of ICT management is understandable. The risks and punishments for a breach of security or a leak of confidential government information are high and can outweigh the rewards from establishing improved interaction or service delivery through the use of Web 2.0 tools.

Similarly, inflexible security or confidentiality policies can constrain innovation. They can impact on access to information, whereas freeing up information and actively encouraging exchange and collaboration across an agency will promote innovation.

In order to free up access to information, the Australian Government announced reforms to the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (FOI Act) as part of its 2007 election policies in order to promote an open, pro-disclosure culture across the government. The reforms are being implemented in two stages. The first stage, the Freedom of Information (Removal of Conclusive Certificates and Other Measures) Act 2009, commenced on 7 October 2009. The Information Commissioner Bill 2009 and the Freedom of Information Amendment (Reform) Bill 2009 were introduced into the parliament on 26 November 2009 and referred to the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee for inquiry and report. The government has also announced proposed reforms to FOI fees and charges to reduce the costs associated with access requests.

5. Efficiency and resources

Making the business case for an innovative solution can be difficult. Business case evaluation is typically ROI [return on investment] driven. An innovative solution carries inherent risk of a new approach. An innovative solution can be more difficult to cost than a tried-and-true solution. (Submission)

Availability of resources can be a significant barrier to innovation. In many ways, this sits in constant tension with the necessary push for efficiency in government.

The public service has an obligation to use resources efficiently. In Australia, each federal agency has to deliver a yearly ‘efficiency dividend’, which has operated in some form since 1987-88. This provides a continuing pressure on agencies to ensure that productivity improves, and can act as a spur to innovation.

Yet many innovative ideas require time and funding for their development, testing and implementation. As shown by the S curve in Figure A3.2 (Appendix 3), an extended period will often be needed before an innovation achieves better outcomes than the current solution. However, public servants can be reluctant to incorporate such elements into budget planning for fear that those elements will be seen as too big a risk and that resources would be better allocated elsewhere.

A similar problem can arise when the staff member who puts forward an idea is tasked with investigating it, taking it to implementation, or both. While many proponents are keen to carry their idea forward and to help implement it, their keenness is blunted when they are expected to do this on top of existing responsibilities. In addition, they might not have the skills to investigate or deliver on the idea by themselves. Thus while the individual may be given an opportunity to pursue their idea, they are given no corporate support to do so. In such circumstances, managers can be confronted with a difficult situation: the same tasks have to be done, and they may not have the resources available to offer the proponent spare time or assistance to investigate the idea.

6. External opposition

Just as external public pressure can serve as a source and driver of innovation, it can also constitute a barrier. Inherent resistance to change can mean that the innovation process may barely be underway before opposition is expressed and mobilised. Existing stakeholders who feel they have a stake in the current system may resist change despite its inherent benefits. In some quarters, a suspicion that government-sponsored changes are usually aimed at saving money and cutting services will provoke resistance—innovation can be perceived as code for ‘removing something we like’.

Some issues may be seen as inappropriate for government involvement, or the exploration of an idea may be misinterpreted as a government endorsement of a controversial position. Also, the process may be at fault. The innovation might not have been well explained beforehand or the transition might have been poorly managed, becoming an unwelcome and/or misunderstood surprise. In addition, support for an innovation may be rattled by early problems or setbacks during the implementation phase.

In each of these circumstances, negative public or stakeholder reaction can cause an innovation to be scrapped. This is not to say that responding to external feedback is bad—there is always the possibility that the new idea or system may be an inferior solution—but overreaction to limited or poorly informed feedback can stop a new idea dead in its tracks. It can also stifle the desire to innovate by giving support to the perception that good ideas will not be defended from unfair criticism.

External reaction needs to be considered and carefully balanced against the strength of the case for innovation. Unless the pressure for innovation is very strong, the risk side highlighted by external criticism often seems weightier than an uncertain innovative outcome.

Barriers to the generation and implementation of ideas

7. Skill sets and mobility

There is a strong emphasis in public sector recruitment on experienced administrators and regulators. While understandable, such an emphasis can lead to a narrower than desirable skills base. There is an argument for more skills-based recruitment, with a focus on creative and lateral thinking, problem solving and collaborative abilities to ensure the range of skills required by a 21st century public service.

To achieve this, the public sector should aim to recruit a more diverse range of people (with diverse backgrounds, experiences, skills and ways of thinking) and to draw on that diversity when forming project teams or developing new proposals. Frequently, private firms seek out individuals with aptitude and creativity as a mechanism to bring new ideas into the company. They see that acquisition of more traditional work skills can be done ‘on the job’. Current public sector recruitment practices often seem based on seeking to recruit in its own image and arguably much of the current use of consultants is aimed at addressing the resulting deficits in public sector skills.

A range of factors has operated in Australia to discourage movement between the private, public and academic sectors. The traditional view of the public service, as a ‘career service’ that people enter as school leavers or graduates and remain in until retirement, has contributed to a lack of public sector mobility. Staff conditions, such as superannuation systems, have been based on this view and have proved powerful disincentives to mobility (however, this is now less of an issue with more recent changes in public sector superannuation).

In an ideal system, there would be no penalties for moving in and out of the system and the public sector would be able to attract highly skilled people from the business and academic sectors. However, barriers remain, and it may require a proactive effort to attract a more diverse range of recruits.

Consultations also referred to the ineffective use of graduates recruited into the public sector and the lack of mentoring and supportive environments for innovation. Graduates are often taught and encouraged to be innovative in universities but are then required to conform to the system when they join the public service. Placing greater value on retaining and utilising their innovative abilities could help to better develop internal capabilities for innovation in the public sector.

8. Failed innovations

Public sector agencies are justifiably wary of discussing failed innovations, which could be held up as examples of waste and inept government, but it is through evaluation, learning from mistakes and iteration that ideas can be improved and mistakes avoided in the future. If failure is not discussed and analysed, the lessons of failure are unlikely to be learned and the innovation process will remain riskier than it need be. Indeed, in the private sector, a failure is a badge of honour for the entrepreneur because of the lessons learned through the innovative journey.

9. Procurement requirements

Procurement can foster or stifle innovation. The expenditure of public funds is a serious responsibility and is subject to a range of legal obligations. At the federal level, the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997 (FMA Act) makes agency chief executives directly responsible for the ‘efficient, effective and ethical use’ of public funds in a way consistent with government policies. It also provides authority for the FMA Regulations, which in turn provide the framework for the Commonwealth Procurement Guidelines (CPG s). At the agency level, the particular agency requirements that capture and reflect the obligations of the FMA Act and Regulations and the CPG s are set out in an agency’s Chief Executive’s Instructions. While necessary, the overall framework of rules can appear daunting and it is clear why public servants may be risk averse when procuring.

The standard procurement approach in the public sector is to ask the market to respond to a specific set of requirements, on the basis of either internal knowledge or external scoping. While this simplifies assessment, it also commonly locks out innovative solutions.

Innovative technologies are often outside the scope of large tenders, because the specifications for government tenders take time to develop and finalise and new or experimental elements present unwanted risks and complications to the procurement process. In addition, while ‘value for money’ is the accepted basis of government purchasing, there is a strong (both perceived and actual) emphasis on achieving the lowest price. In part, this reflects the skills of the procurers—the lowest price is clear, but it is harder to assess value for money. When bidders are competing largely on price, they are reluctant to include features that are not mandatory. Innovations can end up in a ‘nice to have’ appendix, if included at all.

Inflexible standard contracts and mandatory terms and conditions can also serve to discourage innovative solutions to public sector requirements. However it should be noted that notwithstanding the rigidities of procurement rules, current Australian Government procurement regulations (see below) do allow, under specific circumstances, for public sector organisations to procure innovative goods and services obtained through the receipt of unsolicited innovative proposals (direct sourcing[4]).

The Commonwealth Procurement Guidelines (Division 2, Clause 8.33 (c)) states that an agency may conduct a procurement through direct sourcing ‘for purchases made under exceptionally advantageous conditions that only arise in the very short term, such as from unusual disposals, unsolicited innovative proposals [emphasis added], liquidation, bankruptcy, or receivership and which are not routine purchases from regular suppliers’ (DoFD 2008, p. 31)

10. Recognition and feedback

Everyone is too busy trying to cope with things as they work now … They don’t have the energy or time to devote to innovation. And why would you, if your effectiveness, success and career is judged by BAU [business as usual] deliverables? (Submission)

A common complaint in consultations was that, while staff may be interested in being creative and innovative, there is rarely feedback on ideas, fostering of innovative initiatives or recognition of those who do innovate. Without that feedback, people putting forward ideas quickly feel frustrated, disengaged and cynical. Ideas may be dismissed for good reasons, but that information is often not conveyed back to the proponents and there is no way for them to respond or iterate their ideas. The ideas are seen as going into a black hole.

For those that do innovate, there is not always the reward and recognition that they might expect. New ideas are sometimes accepted almost grudgingly by agencies. The time between concept and successful implementation is often years, and those involved in proposing the innovation may have moved on, unrecognised, to other things long before innovative success is achieved.

In the private sector, the use of reward mechanisms such as ‘gainsharing’ (in which innovators share in some of the gains or savings arising from their innovations) and performance bonuses is a common way to boost rates of innovation. In the public sector, this is often not appropriate or feasible.

Too often, agencies and management are not trained or encouraged to provide feedback or recognition. Because innovation is not measured or reported against, they have little incentive to focus on it when there are many other competing demands against which their own performance is measured.

Barriers impacting on generation of ideas

11. Measurement and impact

If innovation is not a strategic priority, public sector agencies are unlikely to focus on and measure their innovative practices. Innovation rarely features in an agency’s performance measurement system, and what is not measured (or measurable) is usually not seen as important.

This is not a problem unique to the public sector. Consultations identified that a number of private sector organisations had abandoned innovation activities specifically because they had not measured their efforts and impacts and thus could not demonstrate any return on investment or otherwise justify the commitment of resources.

While the resources invested in innovative effort can be easily quantified, the impact of the innovative activity can be much more difficult to quantify, and it can take a significant time for that impact to become clear. In addition to quantitative data, this can also require the measurement of qualitative data, which is more difficult to capture. Timing is also a problem. In many areas of public sector activity it can take a considerable time to demonstrate the impact of new policies or approaches. Early attempts at measurement or evaluation will not capture the longer term impacts.

This issue is compounded by the fact that there are no simple measurements that can be readily adapted to measure innovation or its outcomes in the public sector (Arundel and O’Brien 2009). This is an issue facing various governments around the world. Work to develop relevant measures is being undertaken by a number of bodies overseas, including the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

12. Divergent employment conditions

Consultations indicated that differences in employment conditions between agencies can be a disincentive to moving between agencies. Those people in agencies with better conditions and remuneration faced a disincentive to move to agencies with lesser conditions. This is a significant issue, as openness to new ideas and practices is an important factor in fostering innovation, and increased mobility within the public service assists both that openness and the building of links between agencies and projects. (However, we also note that inflexibility in employment conditions could prevent public sector agencies from attracting and recruiting the best staff, including from the private sector.)

Barriers to selecting ideas

13. Lack of champions

Clearly, the course of innovation does not always run smoothly: there will always be barriers to overcome, particularly in the public sector. Often what is required is someone who really believes in an idea, ideally someone of some seniority or influence, to champion the idea and help overcome the hurdles. In the public sector, perhaps because of a lack of incentives and rewards, there seem to be few champions with the willingness, capabilities, influence and resources to sponsor or drive innovation through the layers of management or across boundaries within and between agencies. Yet, a champion with influence and new ideas can transform organisations—for example, Steve Jobs at Apple and Al Gore regarding climate change.

14. Scrutiny

Public scrutiny and media cynicism make it dangerous for public employees to launch any sort of new initiative except the kind that is virtually guaranteed to succeed. (Eggers and Singh 2009, p. 39)

A defining characteristic of the public sector is that it is (rightly) subject to broad scrutiny—public, parliamentary and from the media. When a public sector innovation fails or is less than a total success, there is always the prospect of political consequences. Our political system is based on a parliamentary opposition convincing the public that it can do a better job than the elected government, so highlighting any failure in a government initiative is almost irresistible. The media tends to report on this basis—a scandalous or inept failure makes a good story. Scrutiny of these issues is usually based on a premise of fault. This provides a strong disincentive to innovate unless the proponent is almost certain that the initiative will succeed. No‑one wants to embarrass their agency or their minister or be responsible for negative media attention.

15. Policy

The public sector supports the government of the day by implementing its policies. While this does not prevent agencies from putting forward innovative ideas that may be divergent (to either a small or a large degree) from existing government policy, it makes it harder to sell the merits of those ideas. Senior executives and ministers may recognise the value of a proposal, but if it would force the government to recant an established policy position it is much less likely to be accepted.

Innovations can also occur at the wrong time in a political cycle and be caught up in a change of priorities. Innovations that feed into the government’s priorities, particularly those that hold the promise of addressing problems facing the government, will have a good prospect of support. In some instances, an innovative idea will need to wait for the right time and climate to attract the support it may deserve.

16. Hierarchy

… innovation often faces higher hurdles in a hierarchical organization—particularly a government bureaucracy—than within networks, because a host of internal horizontal constraints tend to restrict the interaction necessary to develop good ideas and vertical barriers prevent the developed ideas from bubbling up to decision. (Goldsmith and Eggers 2004, p. 30)

Innovation tends not to thrive in highly hierarchical organisations and can pose challenges to existing hierarchies. Within agencies, rank or level has traditionally determined whose ideas are listened to or considered. If an agency solicits and filters ideas on the basis of expertise and ability instead, that may challenge the position or authority of some. Hierarchical structures also mean that any new ideas need to go through a number of layers of approval processes. It is easier to take forward an innovative idea in organisations with flatter structures and more open, interactive processes.

There is a perception amongst many public servants that getting ideas in front of the right people is much harder than coming up with the ideas in the first place. As one commentator put it, ‘the layers of managerial clay are a major barrier—nothing gets through.’

17. Silos

The public sector tends to operate in silos—each tier of government has different responsibilities, agencies are given distinct areas of those responsibilities to manage, and so on. Different cultures, procedures and norms are established at each level and in each agency, thus reinforcing the divisions. To maximise their efficiency and effectiveness, agencies seek to minimise staff turnover and encourage their staff to remain with them for long periods, thereby further entrenching distinct agency cultures and values.

Traditionally, there has been significant competition between APS agencies, particularly where their responsibilities intersect. While this generally appears to be diminishing, antagonism between central and line agencies, for example, continues to feature. The 2007-08 State of the Service Report (APSC 2008, p. 91) indicated that 58 per cent of respondents saw themselves as employees of their agency versus 42 per cent who saw themselves as employees of the APS.

These divisions can be a significant barrier to sharing knowledge and to collaborative action. Cross-agency projects are becoming more common, but they face a number of obstacles. The first is that there must be both an appreciation that collaboration can lead to a better result and a will to work together. Once this decision is taken (often at a high level, by ministers or Cabinet), public servants tend to work across boundaries quite effectively (and even come to appreciate and enjoy the experience!).

These exercises do however face logistical hurdles. They must often conform to many (possibly conflicting) sets of requirements, and that can be a significant administrative burden. It is also cumbersome to allocate and manage funding across agency boundaries, and this often causes interagency conflict. Roles and responsibilities must be clearly specified, possibly requiring the development of a new operational model for each project and new interagency agreements.

Cross-agency innovations tend to originate from the political level or high up in the organisational hierarchies. This is where there is greater interaction between agencies and more power to broker agreements. Without suitable mechanisms to support interaction at lower levels, smaller opportunities to work together and be innovative will be lost.

APS agencies often operate with a divide between policy development and program delivery. Unless there is good communication between those elements, this can impede the innovation process by removing those developing the policy from the actual experience of delivering the program and the interaction with those receiving the service. The split can even be across portfolios, if those responsible for delivery are in a different agency from the policy developers. These divisions can be negated by using collaborative processes to develop solutions using the insights of all parties.

The major barriers to innovation result not from failures of individual genius but from failures of collaboration—the inability to exploit existing capabilities in revolutionary ways. (Cross and Thomas 2009, p. 66)

18. Legislation

Legislation is written in the context of the present day and the knowable future–it is not possible for laws to be drafted in a way that effectively accounts for every possible future scenario. Thus, legislation may inadvertently become a barrier to innovation by preventing a future approach or behaviour that was never contemplated during drafting (but, had it been contemplated at the time, would have been deemed acceptable).

Barriers to implementing ideas

19. Accountability

The public service must be accountable for its actions. The public needs to be able to trust that resources are being used effectively in line with government policy and that there is no bias or inequity in how they are used.

Yet, in some ways, innovation conflicts with basic accountability frameworks. Being an innovator is about dealing with uncertainty and unpredictability that make accountability difficult. Innovation requires flexibility and variety, rather than standardisation. Accountability arrangements can reduce flexibility and thus inhibit opportunities for innovation.

These issues can be exacerbated when the innovation extends across agencies or to external groups to deliver solutions. Reporting lines become even more complex and respective responsibilities can blur.

Experience in Australia and internationally points to an inherent balancing act or trade-off between accountability and flexibility and innovation. (APSC 2009c, p. 24)

Accountability has been thoroughly explored by the APSC, which has recently recommended the adoption of a ‘fit-for-purpose’ approach to government accountability frameworks (APSC 2009d). The ANAO better practice guide on innovation also provides advice on balancing risk with the demands of accountability (ANAO 2009).

20. Staff resistance

Sometimes the barrier to innovation can be the staff within an agency. They may see innovation as a euphemism for something unpleasant because it may lead to changes to their jobs or their work, leaving them feeling uncomfortable or underskilled. It may change how they interact with clients and stakeholders and put them in what they feel is a difficult or unpleasant situation.

Staff may see the innovation as actually reducing service standards. It may be seen as something requiring substantial extra effort from them, but with little recognition or recompense. In some circumstances, this resistance may be entirely justified and the innovation should be reassessed, but in many cases it is a barrier that will need to be addressed by a change management process directed at, and involving, the agency staff.

21. Reluctance to let go

Program delivery has its own inertia. Some of those consulted said that the public service is not good at stopping programs or re-evaluating the impact of programs that may be outdated. The public service is readily able to implement new programs and services, but getting rid of outdated or unneeded programs appears to be harder. The agency and its staff have a stake in the existing program, and the suggestion that it is no longer needed can pose a challenge to their importance and relevance.

There is often a justification that the service is essential and still required by stakeholders or clients. However, consultations identified that at other times this reluctance has more to do with an agency being unwilling to risk giving up the resources involved or not wanting to let go of a program for which it has perfected the administration over many years. A long-running service is more likely to be operating smoothly and performing well, but it might also no longer be necessary. Even if the service is still necessary, there may be better ways to achieve the same outcome that the agency may not be considering.

Barriers to sustaining ideas

22. Sustaining innovation

Public policy needs to ensure that the appropriate architecture is in place not just to create multiple innovations but to ensure the sustainability of successful ones. (Osborne and Brown 2009)

Without a simple indicator of success, such as profit or return on investment, it is important not to assume that innovations in the public sector will automatically spread or continue once implemented. In some cases, there is a tendency to return to previous models if an innovation does not prove itself over an unrealistically short period. If an innovation has met with resistance, a change of policy or government may provide an excuse or opportunity to revert to previous practice without any rigorous evaluation of the change.

Even clear success does not necessarily mean that the innovation will sustain itself. For example, it took 240 years from the time it was known that lemon juice prevents scurvy before its use was standard practice in all British ships (Osborne and Brown 2005, p. 196). In the public sector, we have no organised approach to identifying and disseminating successful innovations; instead, it is an ad hoc process. Consideration and effort has to be dedicated to embedding the innovation, but post-implementation support is often neglected.

23. Identifying success factors

One of the significant barriers to innovations being scaled up, diffused or widely replicated is that it can be difficult to know what led to the successful outcomes. Sometimes this is due to poor design or poor key performance indicators. While the innovation can be pointed to, the context in which it was introduced, the skill of the people who led and supported it and the supporting infrastructure all need to be considered. It may have been only one small part of the innovation that led to success, or it may have been some other factor that coincided with the innovation’s implementation. Without evidence, analysis and evaluation, as well as support for sharing and codifying the lessons of the innovation, the task of identifying what made an innovation work can be extremely difficult.

Key points

  • There is a diverse range of barriers to innovation in the APS.
  • Some of those barriers impact on all phases of the innovation cycle; others affect specific parts of the cycle, such as the generation, the selection and the implementation of ideas.
  • The impact of the barriers is heavily dependent on organisational context. Similar organisations may face widely different barriers, depending on their culture, structure, practices and leadership.
Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018