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Employee views on innovation in the APS

High-quality human capital is a fundamental component of an effective innovation system. A skilled and engaged workforce provides APS agencies with the capability to identify and apply relevant knowledge. In June 2011, the APS Innovation Action Plan was launched as a platform to build an innovative culture in the APS.24 The plan acknowledges that harnessing the innovative potential of the APS and the community is critical to successful delivery. It sets out the principles and structures for achieving this by focusing on four action areas:

  • developing an innovation consciousness in the APS
  • building innovation capacity
  • leveraging the power of co-creation
  • strengthening leadership so there is the courage to innovate at all levels.

This section examines the workplace climate for innovation in the APS. Research routinely cites workplace climate as important to organisational innovation.25 While there are many conflicting definitions of workplace climate, the most widely agreed tend to focus on climate as a set of shared perceptions regarding the policies, practices and procedures that an organisation rewards, supports and expects.26 Chapter 5 of this report demonstrates the positive relationship between two leadership behaviours and the four areas of organisational performance culture measured in the APS; significantly, the largest impact was on the innovation component of performance culture.

An employee posture toward openness, collaboration and innovation

Using data from the 2014 APS Employee Census (employee census), Figure 7.3 shows employees' personal attitudes towards innovation. Overall, 90% of employees felt it was their personal responsibility to improve the quality of their work.

Figure 7.3. Employee perceptions of innovation in the workplace by classification, 2014

Source: Employee census

In 2014, 46% of employees reported their work group had implemented some form of innovation in the previous 12 months. Table 7.1 shows that APS employees considered the most significant innovation implemented by their work group related to process. Another 50% of APS employees reported the most significant innovation implemented by their workgroup in the 12 months before the employee census affected their products or outcomes they produced.

Table 7.1. Employee perceptions of the most significant type of innovation implemented in the last 12 months, 2014
Parts of work affected by innovation Employees (%)
Source: Employee census
Process 75
Products/Outcomes 50
Communications 31
Policy 21

Fifty-one per cent of employees believed there were barriers to innovation in their agency. Interestingly, the perception that there are barriers to innovation is higher among Executive Level (EL) employees (60%) and Senior Executive Service (SES) employees (58%) than APS 1–6 employees (47%).

The majority of employees at all levels felt they receive support for innovation, however, positive perceptions of innovation increased with classification. While most employees perceive there is support for innovation in the workplace, less than half of non-SES employees felt they had the time to explore new ideas about how to do their job.

APS employees report feeling supported for being innovative. Overall, Figure 7.4 shows that the majority of employees across all classification groups make suggestions to improve how work is done. There is a tendency for employees at higher classifications to report making suggestions to improve how work is done more frequently. While employees are less likely to report they make suggestions about their work environment, the relationship with classification level is still apparent.

Figure 7.4. Suggestions to improve work and work environment by classification, 2014

Source: Employee census

A management posture toward openness, collaboration and innovation

Figure 7.5 shows that employees were positive regarding their supervisors' support for innovation, with EL employees slightly more likely than employees at other classifications to be satisfied with the encouragement for innovation provided by their immediate supervisors.

SES employees were the most likely to agree that their agency values employees for their contribution. Likewise, classification was correlated with how positive employees viewed their supervisors' openness to new ideas and their ability to voice a dissenting opinion, with SES the most positive cohort and APS 1–6 the least.

Figure 7.5. Employee perceptions of leadership support for innovation by classification, 2014

Source: Employee census

For employees outside the SES, less than half agreed that different aspects of their agency culture emphasised innovation ‘to a very great extent’ or ‘quite a lot’. SES employees were more positive, although less than half agreed that managers in their agency encouraged innovation.

Performance culture for innovation

Some businesses are renowned for their ability to create and commercialise innovative new products and services. Apple, 3M and Google are often cited examples with the key to their success being a unique culture that has innovation at its core. Chapter 5 of this report (and Appendix 4) outlines the APS Performance Culture Model and its four focus areas—task, innovation, process and people. The model shows that APS employees place high emphasis on the process and task areas of the model, while the people and innovation areas show slightly lower scores. Employees who agreed that their immediate supervisor provided regular feedback on performance, however, were more likely to also report that their agency emphasised people and innovation.

In the academic literature, an organisational culture that emphasises innovation has been positively related to organisational performance. Indeed, an innovation climate has been shown to lessen the negative effects of a demanding work environment by enabling employees to develop coping mechanisms or improving work-related processes. To an extent, a culture of innovation acts as a buffer against the negative consequences of high work demands.27

This section focuses on the innovation component of the APS Performance Culture Model to examine the extent to which the APS emphasises innovation as a feature of its culture.

Figure 7.6 lists the four questions from the employee census that cover the innovation component of the APS Performance Culture Model. It is clear there is a considerable difference in the extent to which SES and other employees believe their agency identifies innovation. Less than half of employees at classifications other than SES believe their agency emphasises finding new solutions and encourages employees to make suggestions. Similarly, less than half of APS 1–6 and EL employees see a career benefit in generating new ideas. Overall, less than half of employees at all classifications believe their manager encourages innovation.

These findings suggest that the climate for innovation in the APS is not strong. The difference in the perceptions of SES and other employees suggests that the most senior leaders may be disconnected from the experience of others. In particular, the perceptions of employees at EL classifications are more negative than others on the extent to which their agency encourages and manages innovation.

Given the finding in Chapter 5 in relation to the positive relationship between senior leader behaviour and employee perceptions of the extent to which their agency emphasises innovation, any disconnect is likely to be a considerable barrier to creating a culture of innovation in the APS. It is, however, also likely to be a relatively simple barrier to address.

Figure 7.6. APS performance culture—Innovation by classification, 2014

Source: Employee census

Department of Industry: Innovation Month

Innovation Month, facilitated by the Department of Industry, is a practical exploration of innovation for members of the public service and its partners. It is about sharing ideas, experiences, techniques and challenges.

In 2014, Innovation Month centred on the theme ‘Empower, Collaborate, Transform’ and included a wide range of events from the practical (such as ‘Learning About Design’) to discussions and workshops (such as the Innovation Summit and GovCamp) to presentations by senior leaders (including the launch of Innovation Month by the Secretary and the ‘Uncomfortable Ideas’ speaker series).

Sixteen Australian Government departments and agencies participated in Innovation Month with 11 non-government partners. There were approximately 78 events and some 4,000 attendees.

More information about Innovation Month can be found at: https://innovation.govspace.gov.au/tag/innovation-month-2014.

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24 Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research 2011, APS Innovation Action Plan, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, viewed 22 September 2014, http://www.industry.gov.au/innovation/publicsectorinnovation.

25 King, N & Anderson, N 1995, Innovation and Change in Organisations, Routledge, London; Rogers, E 1995, Diffusion of Innovations, (4th edn), Free Press, New York; Anderson, N & West, M 1998, ‘Measuring climate for work group innovation: development and validation of the team climate inventory’, Journal of Organizational Behavior, vol. 19, no. 3, pp. 235–258.

26 Schneider, B & Reichers, AE 1983, ‘On the etiology of climates’, Personnel Psychology, vol. 36, no. 1, pp. 19–39.

27 King, EB, de Chermont, K, West, M, Dawson, JF & Hebl, MR 2007, ‘How innovation can alleviate negative consequences of demanding work contexts: The influence of climate for innovation on organizational outcomes’, Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, vol. 80, no. 4, pp. 631–645.

Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018