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Empowering change - Fostering change in the APS

Please note - this is an archived publication.

Innovation is at the heart of good public administration. A high-performing public service is relentless in its commitment to continuous improvement. It never assumes that the current policies, processes and services are the best or only solution.

The opportunity for innovation attracts many to the public service. These Australians want to help make changes that benefit the wider community, and empower citizens to help themselves.

Without innovation, the public sector is destined to disappoint – both those it serves and those it employs. An effective public sector must be one that recognises, rewards and nurtures innovation.

The Australian Public Service has been the source and incubator of many significant innovations. These initiatives cross the spectrum of APS activities; and have ranged in scale from the development of the Higher Education Contribution Scheme to improvements in the breeding of detector dogs. But the need for innovation is increasing.

As the pace of economic and social change quickens, governments must be more responsive than ever. Complex policy challenges are arising that require swift but surefooted responses. The APS must ensure it provides Ministers with the evidence and options to make informed decisions

At the same time, new technologies are creating opportunities for government to improve the services it offers to citizens. The private sector is utilising these tools to deliver increasingly tailored services to consumers amplifying demand for public sector providers to follow suit. Without a culture of innovation underpinning the public sector’s activities it will struggle to deliver what is required within the resources available.

To this end, there is a very real need for the Australian Public Service to start making changes, both to how it thinks and how it operates. Barriers to innovation must be identified and overcome at all levels. The red tape and siloed thinking of the past have no place in the high performing APS our citizens expect and deserve. Many of the necessary steps are being taken. In June 2009, the Australian Government commissioned the Government 2.0 Taskforce to identify how the public sector can better use the tools available for online innovation. The Taskforce report, Engage: Getting on with Government 2.0, was delivered in December 2009.

Public sector innovation is similarly a central theme in Ahead of the Game: Blueprint for the Reform of Australian Government Administration. The Blueprint, released by the Prime Minister in March this year, outlines a new vision and agenda for the APS. It seeks to equip staff and leaders with the skills to develop innovative, high calibre policy advice and services, tailored to the needs of citizens.

These reports, and the respective Government responses, will better position the APS to respond to the shifting requirements and expectations facing it.

They will build on the success of initiatives already underway within APS agencies. The Australian National Audit Office, for example, recently developed a better practice guide for public sector innovation which will help those conducting innovative projects navigate many of the considerations involved.

Work undertaken to date highlights the significance of the present report. The Management Advisory Committee (MAC) recognised that tailored solutions are needed in order to foster the innovative spirit of the APS. The process of innovation is rarely an easy one. This report investigates the barriers faced in innovating in the public sector and considers how those barriers may be addressed or managed. It outlines what agencies can do to further encourage innovation in what they do. It looks at what individual public servants can do to promote innovation. It suggests options for how the APS can better enable agencies to develop, implement, deliver and disseminate innovative solutions.

This report is part of a broader agenda for rejuvenating the APS. The MAC Executive believes strongly that embedding a culture of innovation within the APS is a vital component of that rejuvenation. This dedicated review of innovation will help to create a solid foundation for tackling not only the challenges of today, but those that are yet to arise. The report’s recommendations will be addressed by agencies as part of their operations or, where appropriate, as part of the ongoing reform work.

The MAC Executive commends this report to the agencies and to the individual public servants who form the APS. And while this report specifically addresses the APS, it is increasingly clear that all levels of public administration, both in Australia and overseas, face similar challenges and a similar need to innovate in an ongoing and systematic fashion. In the spirit of the collaboration and knowledge sharing which this report recommends, the MAC Executive commends the report to all our colleagues throughout the public sector.

Terry Moran AO
Chair of the Management Advisory Committee

Executive summary

This report was commissioned by the Management Advisory Committee (MAC) to consider how to develop and strengthen a culture of innovation in the Australian Public Service (APS).

Increasingly, governments are recognising that innovation is not a tangential activity with limited relevance to their mainstream work, but an activity that is core to being able to achieve key public sector goals.

A substantial and growing body of innovation already takes place in the Australian public sector, as evidenced by the examples set out in this report. The public sector has been and continues to be home to many talented people who have come up with significant innovations, either on their own or in collaboration with others.

However, the research and consultation undertaken for this report suggest that the innovation potential of the public sector is much greater than currently realised.

While there is a wide range of research and scholarship on innovation, until recently it has tended to focus on innovation in the private sector. Now a broader recognition that innovation is essential to a productive, high performing public sector is prompting useful new research and literature focusing on public sector innovation.

The United Kingdom has been a leader both on new thinking and on action to seek to embed innovation in the public sector. A great deal of useful recent work has been published, in particular by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts in the United Kingdom.

The 2009 publication of The public innovator’s playbook: nurturing bold ideas in government by Deloitte and the Harvard Kennedy School and of Innovation in the public sector: enabling better performance, driving new directions by the Australian National Audit Office are important contributions that indicate the growing interest and importance of the topic. The bibliography to this report provides a useful resource for those looking for new ideas and inspiration.

All of these sources acknowledge that innovation can present particular challenges to the public sector. It is inherently experimental and anti-hierarchical. It can easily be perceived as risky or disruptive and may seem contrary to notions of good public administration. However, as evidenced in this report, that is far from the case.

Drivers of innovation

At its most effective, innovation is a continuous process that can lead to new services or service delivery modes, the development of new concepts, new policy or administrative approaches, and new systems. In this report, we have considered the innovation cycle to comprise five stages: idea generation, idea selection, idea implementation, sustaining new approaches and diffusing new approaches.

The public sector is diverse and the work it undertakes is wide-ranging, so the innovation process will vary depending on the context in which it is taking place. An agency’s purpose, capabilities and culture will all have impacts on how innovation occurs, as will the nature of the project to which it is being applied and the presence of external influences.

Innovation competes for attention with many other organisational priorities, such as accountability and efficiency, but there is an increasing number of reasons why innovation needs to be given greater priority than it has previously received.

Public expectations of government service delivery are increasing. This is largely being driven by private sector service improvements, but also by comparative improvements in public services nationally and internationally and by demographic shifts in society.

Ongoing financial pressures require the public sector to deliver productivity gains and improved services with minimal long-term funding growth. Incremental gains through continuous improvement can only achieve so much in this respect. Larger and more intractable social and economic challenges, in particular, may require new and radical approaches. We need a public sector with the capacity to develop those approaches.

The pace and scale of change and the global and local challenges facing governments require an increasingly nimble and innovative public sector to develop effective responses. Increasingly complex policy challenges also make it unlikely that any one agency or, in some cases, any one government will have all the answers required. Collaboration with the public, industry, academia and other governments will be needed to identify the best solutions. Such collaboration is a mainstay of innovation.

The current state of innovation

A desire to work for the public benefit, rather than incentives or rewards, has been identified as a core ethic of public servants and is a key driver for innovation in the public sector (Bourgon 2008, p. 400). The Australian Government’s annual State of the Service Report has repeatedly indicated significant enthusiasm among APS employees for new ideas and a positive attitude towards finding better ways of doing their job. Among staff, however, there is a perceived lack of opportunity and support for creativity and innovation within the APS.

To date, there has been an ad hoc, rather than an ongoing, approach to innovation in the APS. There has been no systemic approach to recording and evaluating innovative methods or to sharing relevant knowledge and learning across the APS.

Recent statements (and, indeed, the commissioning of this report) indicate support for developing the innovative potential of the APS at the highest levels of government and the service. A number of current reviews will provide momentum for this process, including the report of the Government 2.0 Taskforce and the report of the Review of Australian Government Administration.

Barriers to innovation

Some powerful barriers, in particular political risk and public scrutiny, have a specific impact on public sector innovation. Governments and ministers are judged on their success and, in seeking to avoid criticism or failure, they can be conservative or resistant to innovative approaches. Political risk also contributes to risk-averse attitudes among public servants, and innovation is inherently risky. In the public sector, failures tend to happen in the full glare of public scrutiny, with consequent risks for the reputations and careers of public servants. It can be easier to avoid criticism by not taking risks.

This report acknowledges and examines a diverse range of barriers to innovation in the public sector. They include risk aversion; failure of leadership; resource constraints; lack of direction and measurement; policy conflicts; hierarchical attitudes; silo mentality; legislative limitations; accountability concerns; and resistance to change. Some are a function of necessary public sector requirements for accountability, probity, impartiality and transparency and cannot be easily swept away. There is no panacea. Finding ways to overcome such barriers will take creativity and determination.

This report makes a number of recommendations that could assist in addressing such barriers (for example, mechanisms of review and specific programs for experimentation) and also provides an Innovation Toolkit (Appendix 4) designed to assist agencies and individual public servants to increase the extent and effectiveness of their innovation efforts and to overcome obstacles. While the range of barriers to innovation may seem extensive, there is an array of things that agencies can do to address obstacles and drive organisational innovation.

Sources of innovation

Innovation, at its most effective, draws new ideas and perspectives from a wide range of internal and external sources and from all levels of authority.

Staff, especially frontline staff, can be a rich source of innovation, basing their ideas on a wealth of knowledge about the practical side of existing policy and service implementation. Innovative agencies need to find ways to tap into that knowledge and build on it.

External sources including the general public, experts, the business sector and the academic community can provide new perspectives and new approaches that an agency could never generate within its own walls. External input facilitates innovation at all levels, from future policy directions to the specifics of a new service delivery mechanism. Partnering can not only be a source of new ideas, but can also potentially assist with resource constraints and the management of risk.

Citizens and businesses are especially important external sources of ideas. Not only are they outside the public sector, but they also directly feel the impact of new policies and services. Governments cannot effectively address needs and concerns that they do not fully understand, and consultations for this report suggested that the APS could do much to improve its ability to capture public perspectives and lift the quality of its external interactions.

It is also important that agencies collaborate with one another (and also with agencies in other tiers of government) to maximise the sharing of best practice and other effective approaches throughout the public sector. Dissemination of innovative ideas and approaches can help governments to avoid ‘reinventing the wheel’ and maximise the value of investments in innovative activity.

Innovation is becoming a focus not only for governments across Australia but globally. A range of other national governments are investigating the possibilities and developing their own approaches to public sector innovation. Many of these warrant consideration by the APS and concerted action is required if Australia is to be at the forefront of these developments.


In accordance with its terms of reference (see Appendix 1), this report makes 12 recommendations designed to support and drive an innovation culture within the APS.

Strategy and culture

Recommendation 1

Innovation needs to be part of an agency’s strategic thinking and planning. To implement a culture of innovation across the APS, Agency strategic plans should include strategies to identify and pursue innovative options and solutions. A process such as the three horizons approach (see Appendix 6) is an example of how this might be approached.

Recommendation 2

Flow of information facilitates innovation and is a key to greater innovation in Government. While there will always be some constraints on information sharing in the public sector, the APS should adopt a culture of openness in the development and implementation of government policy. This will require a paradigm shift in the approach of many agencies where much development of new ideas is done in a climate of secrecy. In particular, the APS should adopt innovative practices and increased openness in the development of new policy proposals through reforms such as:

  • introducing outside experts into the policy development process (e.g. as participants in inter-departmental committee processes)
  • transparent consultation processes
  • reviewing the rationale for data restrictions (including by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Australian Taxation Office and other key public data collections) as greater availability of data will drive innovation
  • undertaking detailed design and implementation post the announcement of an initiative, in consultation with users and stakeholders
  • identifying the risk associated with an innovative project or initiative upfront and how it will be managed
  • including analysis of the new policy development process in the evaluation of program and delivery outcomes.
Recommendation 3

A specific feature of the public sector environment is political risk and its management. To facilitate innovation, particularly where the innovation is radical or large-scale and where risks are high, Agencies should consult with Ministers to identify and agree on a risk environment to enable innovative approaches. This could include a stage gate approach, such as the two stage approval process used for defence procurement to manage risk.


Recommendation 4

Leadership is a critical factor in creating a more innovative public sector. Building a culture of innovation in the public sector will require leadership from agency heads and the SES. This should be facilitated by:

  • equipping APS leaders with the requisite tools and training
  • explicitly adding innovation to the APS Values and in the Integrated Leadership System
  • using innovation as a criterion in leadership, recruitment and performance management systems
  • identification of agency objectives for innovation performance
  • annual reporting of innovation performance by agencies
  • supporting communities of practice within agencies and across agencies—groups of professionals exploring common issues
  • encouraging team approaches to solve problems creatively—across agencies and including external stakeholders, customers and suppliers
  • facilitating openness to new ideas and influences through formal secondment or exchange programs for staff
  • identifying innovation champions for particular projects or issues.
Recommendation 5

The public sector does not have the competitive drivers of innovation evident in the private sector. Public sector agencies therefore need to take a more proactive approach to incorporating innovation into their operations. To facilitate the adoption of innovative practices in the APS, agencies should use the Innovation Toolkit (set out in Appendix 4 of this report) to engage staff and build knowledge and experience of the innovation process. The Innovation Toolkit sets out approaches that agencies can adopt to capitalise on opportunities for innovation and, over time, embed a culture of innovation within their organisation.

Systemic/structural issues

Recommendation 6

To identify and address systemic barriers to innovation across the APS a mechanism (or mechanisms) should be established to challenge innovation barriers in a transparent manner. There are models which could be adopted and which are used within government and the private sector (these are discussed more in Appendix 7). The Band 3 team proposed under Recommendation 11 could be charged with establishing and reporting on the effectiveness of such a mechanism.

Recommendation 7

Funding processes can act as a disincentive to innovation by transferring all the risks to the innovating agency. It is recommended that central agencies should review funding mechanisms with a view to removing disincentives to APS innovation and report findings to the Band 3 SES team (Recommendation 11).

Recommendation 8

Collaboration and experimentation are two key inputs to realising innovation. To embed these into the public sector, the APS should establish a collaborative experimentation program, modelled on the Danish MindLab, to develop and trial solutions to significant and cross agency problems in areas including policy and service delivery. A key activity under this program would be the development and implementation of collaborative pilots and trials.

Resourcing and managing innovation in the APS

Recommendation 9

Technology is re-shaping public interactions with business and government and increasing public expectations of engagement and service delivery. To realise these expectations and to capture the value of engagement, agencies should be timely and smart adopters of:

  • Web 2.0 tools and approaches
  • Ideas Management Systems

The work of the Government 2.0 Taskforce provides key directions and recommendations on Web 2.0 issues.

Recommendation 10

Procurement can foster innovative solutions for public sector challenges. It is recommended that agencies facilitate innovative solutions by focusing on outcomes, rather than specifications, through:

  • being open with potential suppliers about what the agency is trying to achieve and why.
  • engaging with the market prior to commencing the procurement process to identify the problem to be solved and gauge what the market can deliver.
  • establishing a secure portal for the receipt of unsolicited innovative proposals where potential suppliers can suggest innovative proposals without risking loss of intellectual property or competitive advantage. [1]
  • using a stage-gating approach to invite and filter proposals for larger procurement processes (Recommendation 3) and so maximise opportunities to develop innovative ideas.
Recommendation 11

To champion thought leadership, training, coordination of action, and to maintain up-to-date expertise on innovation in the public sector, the APS establish a team of SES Band 3 officers. This team would report to the MAC on priority areas for action on an ongoing basis and would be supported by a secretariat drawn from the APSC, PM&C and DIISR. Priority areas for action to include:

  • establishment and maintenance of an Innovation Toolkit website to support innovative agencies and public servants
  • formalisation and support for innovative public sector communities of practice.

Recognition, sharing, learning

Recommendation 12

Because long term value is captured through dissemination and diffusion of innovations, the APS and its agencies should institute mechanisms to recognise, celebrate and share innovation efforts, including:

  • supporting and developing the nascent Public Sector Innovation Network (formed through the development of this report) to create a knowledge exchange and innovation resource for the APS
  • an annual public sector innovation conference, bringing together public sector innovation practitioners to share experiences of innovation processes and outcomes
  • awards (possibly in conjunction with the conference) for innovation in the public sector, recognising the efforts of innovative individuals, teams and agencies
  • prominent reporting of APS innovation activity—through mechanisms such as agency annual reports, a potential innovation section of the APSC State of the Service Report and proceedings of the annual conference
  • partnering with academia to study and share innovative learnings about public sector innovation, through mechanisms such as the strategic relationship with the Australian National University (announced by the Prime Minister on 27 August 2009).


This report looks at how to embed innovation in the Australian Public Service (APS). It looks at how agencies, teams, individuals and those external to the public service can play a role in fostering innovation and at what in the current framework needs to change so that the innovative potential of the APS can be realised.

Report context

In 2008, the Australian Government commissioned the Review of the National Innovation System. The review reported back to government in Venturous Australia: building strength in innovation and made a series of recommendations about innovation in the public sector. In Powering ideas: an innovation agenda for the 21st century, the government agreed that public sector innovation was an area for improvement and noted that the APS Management Advisory Committee (MAC) would further examine the issue.

This report to the MAC looks at the issue of public service innovation against the terms of reference laid out in Appendix 1.

The development of the report has been concurrent with a number of other projects touching on this or related issues, including:

  • the development of a better practice guide for public sector innovation by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO 2009)
  • the Government 2.0 Taskforce, which looked at how to build a culture of online innovation within government
  • the Reform of Australian Government Administration process, which aims to rejuvenate the APS and enable it to serve the government of the day in addressing the challenges facing Australia in the 21st century.

In the development of this report, attention was paid to these developments to ensure cohesion and minimise duplication.

Reading this report

Innovation in the public sector is a relatively new area of study. It is an issue being looked at by governments around the world, and it is not an area that has revealed straightforward answers. The answer to the question of how to engender a spirit and culture of innovation will be context specific.

Some agencies, and areas within agencies, will be more advanced on the innovation journey than others and will have already developed some or many of the skills outlined in this report. Agencies face a range of different pressures, and some will be able to apply the tools presented here to a greater extent than others. Importantly, each organisation will have a distinct culture, and the different cultures will have different ways of integrating innovation.

This report is directed at all levels of the APS, recognising that innovation can and does happen at all levels. Agencies, individuals and teams may be able to apply this material and its insights to their own work. The report may also have relevance for other public sector organisations and for those who interact with the public sector.

This report is not exhaustive—innovation in the public sector is often not widely catalogued and reported and the lessons can go unrecorded. Governments, agencies and individuals around the globe are tackling this issue, and there are many lessons to be learned beyond those identified here.

Consultations have emphasised that innovation is something that stirs passions—there are and will always be differing views about what should be done, in what order, where it should happen and who should be involved.

The report shows that innovation in the APS can face a considerable number of hurdles. Engendering a culture of innovation in a changing APS will not be a short-term effort—it is not a short-term problem.

To effectively integrate innovation into a single organisation can take a number of years and, for the APS more broadly, it can be expected to take longer. It will not be possible, or even desirable, to tackle all the issues at once. Because concepts of public sector innovation are still young and many lessons are still being learned, and because different agencies will have different capabilities and states of readiness, the process of advancing public sector innovation must be iterative.

Therefore, and in the spirit of the project topic, the material in this report can be seen as a beta version—something that should not be regarded as complete until it has been used, worked through and tested.

The research and consultations undertaken for this report suggest that the tools and initiatives outlined here can assist the APS to realise its innovative potential. However, investigation and trialling of proposals and strategies will need to continue, and lessons or insights built upon through both experience and theory. This report and the actions it presents are a step in an ongoing journey towards achieving a public sector where innovation is seen as a core component of our strategy for ongoing effectiveness.

Last reviewed: 
12 June 2018