Go to top of page

Section 3: The state of play

How innovative is the current APS and what are its prevailing attitudes to innovation? It is important to understand the state of innovation in the public service so that any action taken can be based on evidence and so that the impacts of any reforms can be measured.

Measuring the state of innovation in the APS

The annual State of the Service Report, produced by the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC), measures a range of employee views on innovation.

In 2007-08, the report showed that:

  • 94 per cent of employees were keen to learn about new ideas at work
  • 90 per cent of employees always look for better ways to do things
  • less than 40 per cent felt that they wanted to try new ideas but that the public service discouraged risk taking.

These figures did not change significantly in the recently released 2008-09 report (see Figure 3.1).

Figure 3.1 Employees’ views on innovation at work, 2007-08 and 2008-09

Figure 3.1 is a diagram showing the percentage of employees who agreed with the following statements in 2007-08 compared to 2008-09. I generally like to try new ideas at work; I am always looking for better ways to do things; I want to learn about new things and ideas; I want to try new ideas but the public service discourages risk taking; I receive support from my manager when I suggest new ideas; My agency encourages employees to examine what they do and find ways to do it better; and My current agency encourages innovation and the development of new ideas. The levels are broadly consistent across the two years with high levels of agreement to the first three statements, low levels of agreement to the fourth statement, and middle levels of agreement to the three last statements.


Source: APSC (2009b).

Figure 3.1 also identifies an increase in the percentage of employees who believe that their agency encourages innovation, from 46 per cent in 2007-08 to 52 per cent in 2008-09.

These results suggest that APS employees both want, and feel encouraged, to participate in innovative activity. However, a comparison of the 2006-07 and 2007-08 reports shows a significant decrease in the proportion of APS employees who were satisfied with their opportunity to be creative and innovative at work, from 70 per cent in 2006-07 to 54 per cent in 2007-08 (Figure 3.2).

Figure 3.2 Chance to be creative and innovative, 2006-07 and 2007-08

Figure 3.2 compares the levels of satisfaction with the statement "chance to be creative and innovative" between the financial years of 2006-07 and 2007-08 with a decrease in the percentage of satisfied.


Source: APSC (2008).

While a similar figure was not included in the 2008-09 State of the Service Report, an analysis of employee survey results shows that satisfaction levels bounced back to some extent in 2008-09, to 62 per cent.

Many APS employees consulted in the preparation of this report emphasised that innovation in the public sector can be a difficult and arduous process, taking a significant amount of personal commitment, time and energy. Many felt that they did not have the tools or other support that they needed to help them through the process of innovation and that they often lacked agency support in pursuing new ideas and approaches.

Consultations identified barriers that public servants can face when they try to innovate, including risk aversion, unsupportive processes, lack of access to new technologies, lack of an innovation focus in setting strategic directions, lack of feedback on ideas, a silo mentality, politicisation of issues, and a fear of failure. While the frequency and impact of each barrier vary across agencies and programs, when viewed collectively they raise concerns about the disincentives public servants can face in trying to innovate. Barriers are discussed further in Chapter 4.

The State of the Service Report provides a generally positive outlook: individuals want to learn about and try new ways to do things. However, the significant proportion of APS staff who perceive that they have limited real chances to be innovative and creative and the drop in that figure between 2006-07 and 2008-09, notwithstanding the rebound from the low of 2007-08, is of some concern. Conversely, more than half of the APS employees surveyed felt that they did have opportunities to be innovative and creative in their day-to-day work. However, that leaves significant room for improvement.

The State of the Service Report provides a useful barometer of the grassroots view of how innovative the APS is. While individual agency results are not focussed on in the State of the Service report, it would be useful from the perspectives of recognition and learning from success to publish the top five innovative agencies as identified by the survey.

Examples of innovation in the APS

The State of the Service Report measures the perceptions of staff about how innovative the APS is, but it does not measure the innovative outcomes of public service agencies. While we do not have an objective measure of the level of innovative outcomes across the APS, there are many examples of the APS having introduced major innovations with far‑reaching implications for citizens. Examples are scattered throughout this report, and four are provided in this section to illustrate the range of innovative activity undertaken. They encompass the introduction of flexible service delivery ‘on the ground’ to people in rural and remote areas, support for innovative policy development, and the use of new web tools to increase engagement with citizens on services and their delivery.

The Drought Bus

The continuing drought in south-eastern Australia in 2006 was having a major impact on rural communities, and (then) Minister Hockey asked Centrelink to take action within seven days to alleviate stress on citizens in affected areas. Centrelink leased two vans and a third vehicle shortly afterwards—dubbed ‘Drought Buses’—and fitted them out to operate as mobile offices.

In delivering an Exceptional Circumstances Payment for Drought Relief, Centrelink sought to reverse the usual process of providing its services—instead of citizens coming to a Centrelink office for help, the Centrelink office would go to them.

Because many people have reservations about seeking assistance from any government institution, particularly in rural farming areas, farming associations were engaged to invite people to social and professional occasions built around the visit of a Drought Bus. Seventy per cent of the farmers who received the drought payment were new customers for Centrelink.

The speed of Centrelink’s response meant that there were risks. For example, the leasing process was not ideal and the speedy fit‑out design resulted in cramped spaces. The leases were for two years, in line with program funding, so that meant a wait of two years for the procurement, vehicle design and other processes to be reviewed.

However, the response time to meet what was considered an urgent need and the level of service improvement to the client group were seen as outstanding.

The Drought Bus team has built on its mobile services to remote citizens. A new, purpose-built ‘bus’ has been designed with a superior fit-out. In addition, it provides access to services not normally available in remote areas, such as services from the Child Support Agency and hearing tests from Hearing Australia. A high-speed satellite connection gives the service full contact with Centrelink’s databases. There are now two ‘buses’ in operation under the formal name of ‘Centrelink Mobile Offices’.

Policy Innovation and Research Unit

A dedicated centralised unit, the Policy Innovation and Research Unit, was established in June 2008 by the Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship to drive greater research and innovation in policy development, programs and service delivery and to foster a culture of ideas and strategic planning across the department.

The Unit conducts in-house research, commissions external research and works to promote innovative approaches to policy development, including with other government agencies. It also works with research organisations across Australia, fostering engagement with the community sector on research and policy development.

Initiatives to promote innovation in policy development include collaborative partnerships with research organisations and other agencies, academic roundtables to focus on long-term and future-oriented policy issues, and web‑based tools to enable community groups and individuals to contribute to policy development.

The Unit, headed by a First Assistant Secretary, comprises 12 research and policy officers who champion innovation and forward thinking across the department. The unit reports directly to the Secretary.

Golden Gurus Program

The Golden Gurus Program emerged from the Australia 2020 Summit and was taken up by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. The program seeks volunteers with business skills and expertise who no longer work full time and who are willing to provide their skills and knowledge to eligible small businesses transitioning from the government’s New Enterprise Incentive Scheme to independence.

The Australian Government has committed $400 000 to this program to help ensure knowledge retention within the small business community and also provide networking and mentoring opportunities for skilled retirees.

Australian Broadband Guarantee

The Australian Broadband Guarantee program gives effect to the policy of successive Australian governments to support equitable broadband access for rural, regional and remote Australians. It represents a sophisticated response to a complex policy challenge for government: how best to intervene to address a market ‘failure’ (the lack of access to broadband services in regional, rural and remote Australia on a comparable basis in terms of quality and price to those available in metropolitan areas) without impacting negatively on legitimate commercial interests or picking technology ‘winners’.

The program delivers a cost-effective solution to this policy challenge. Internet service providers are able to apply for registration under the Australian Broadband Guarantee to provide subsidised broadband services to eligible Australian residential and small business premises, those without access to broadband services that reasonably compare to broadband services available in metropolitan areas (metro-comparable). The program is technology neutral, enabling providers to utilise any broadband technology that provides a cost-effective solution.

All stages of the program—customer enquiries, provider registration and management processes, incentive claim verification and payment processes and compliance processes are supported by innovative online systems developed specifically for the program, but which potentially have wider application.

The Australian Government has allocated $250.8 million to fund the program to 2011-12, complementing the commercial networks and the government’s National Broadband Network rollout by supporting access to otherwise underserved premises.

While incremental innovation happens across the APS, it was difficult to find documented examples of smaller incremental innovation for this report because there is no coordination or recording of innovative effort in most agencies or for the APS as a whole.

Coordination and monitoring of innovation across the APS might not be seen as critical, but the absence of mechanisms to share learning across the service raises concerns about the opportunity for the diffusion of new ideas (including an understanding of episodes in which they have not worked). Such diffusion could have a positive impact on a range of APS activities and services and more broadly on productivity. Furthermore, sharing information about innovation across the APS could help to build a culture of innovation.

Mechanisms that could be employed to achieve this include a high-profile annual conference on innovation supported by senior APS leadership. Such a conference would publicise and share key APS innovation outputs and signal the value that the APS places on innovative activity. APS innovation awards, perhaps associated with the conference, could be established, as could a website highlighting APS innovation activities and providing access to relevant information and materials.

The current low levels of visibility of innovation across the public service means that many new ideas and innovative approaches are not widely recognised and their potential for broader use is not realised. As a result, the diffusion step in the innovation cycle is not being undertaken effectively. In essence, this means that the APS is failing to marshal its existing innovative resources to full effect.

Calls for a more innovative public service

There is now a widespread and high-level recognition of the imperative to seek to create a more innovative APS. Calls for a more innovative public service are being made from the highest levels of the Australian Government and the APS:

We are facing challenges so complex in their causes, so shifting in their natures, so contentious in the arguments they provoke and so radical in the solutions they demand that they cannot be addressed with business-as-usual thinking.
Prime Minister Rudd, 2009

We need to provide the public service with access to the tools to deliver greater access to information, innovation and collaboration … We need to reward innovation in the public service as much as we do in other areas of society.
Finance Minister Tanner, 2009

[Public servants] …must think in terms of outcomes, rather than processes. They must get out of their silos, abandon turf wars, and work collaboratively across departments, with State and Territory governments and with the private sector …
[T]he public service gives good advice on incremental policy improvement. Where we fall down is in long-term, transformational thinking; the big picture stuff.
Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Terry Moran, 2009

This thinking has led to specific actions. Indeed, the conduct of this project is one such action, i.e. prompted by relevant recommendations in the 2008 Review of the National Innovation System, the MAC established a cross-agency steering committee and project team to examine the issue of innovation in the APS.

Other positive actions taken in the past 12 months that herald a strong Australian Government commitment to building the skills of the APS, and its propensity for delivering innovative policy and services, include the following:

  • Reform of Australian Government Administration. In September 2009, the Prime Minister announced the formation of the Advisory Group on the Reform of Australian Government Administration, to be chaired by the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C). It is charged with delivering a blueprint to outline steps to rejuvenate the APS and enable it to serve the government of the day in addressing the challenges facing Australia in the 21st century. It will consider reforms so that the service can deliver a values-driven culture that retains public trust; high-quality, forward looking and creative policy advice; high-quality, effective programs and services focused on the needs of citizens; flexibility and agility; and efficiency in all aspects of government operations.
  • Government 2.0 Taskforce. The Government 2.0 Taskforce, announced in June 2009, examined the use of Web 2.0 tools and technologies to provide improved options for engagement between government and citizens. It was tasked to ‘build a culture of online innovation within government—to ensure that government is receptive to the possibilities created by new collaborative technologies and uses them to advance its ambition to continually improve the way it operates’ (Government 2.0 Taskforce 2009, p. 87).
  • ANAO better practice guide. The new better practice guide developed by the ANAO provides support to managers of innovation operating within existing public sector managerial practices (ANAO 2009). It recognises the value of innovation and is the first step towards an integrated approach to the development and exploitation of public sector innovative capacity.

In addition, APS service delivery mechanisms are being reviewed to identify ways to deliver better services to citizens more efficiently.

Innovation in the public sector at state and territory level

Actions are also being taken by local governments and state and territory governments around Australia. For example, Queensland and Victoria have established mechanisms to build innovation in their public services:

  • The Queensland Government has set out a broad program of reform to modernise its public service, and to deliver better services and meet rising community expectations. The program aims to increase accountability and efficiency and supports innovation. It has articulated a vision for the future in Queensland through Toward Q2: Tomorrow’s Queensland, and has 10 targets under five broad ambitions—strong, green, smart, healthy and fair—to tackle challenges such as climate change, population growth, preventable diseases and entrenched disadvantage.
  • The Victorian Public Service has released an Innovation Action Plan focusing on increasing collaboration, building capability, generating ideas and sharing information and data to embed innovation across the public service. The plan promotes mobilising resources around challenges.

Innovation in the public sector overseas

For many of the reasons outlined in Chapter 2, public sector innovation is receiving attention from governments around the world. Some governments are establishing specific units to build innovative policy options and to take forward smart ideas. Others are strengthening the innovative capacity of their public sectors through awards and other mechanisms of promotion. Many governments are adopting plans or structured approaches to building innovative capacity and culture:

  • In Singapore, the PS21 policy framework places emphasis on continual engagement, empowerment and individual responsibility for seeking opportunities for innovation and improvement. Its Enterprise Challenge identifies ideas with promise—that is, ideas deemed to have the potential of being radically unique and untried with potential to provide significant value creation to the public service. The ideas are carefully selected, groomed and matched to appropriate testbeds in the public service. See Annex A for further detail.
  • South Africa has a Centre for Public Sector Innovation to identify, support and nurture innovation in the public sector to improve service delivery. Its mission is to unlock innovation in the public sector and create an enabling environment for improved and innovative service delivery (CPSI 2009). The Centre aims to:
    • research and develop sustainable models for innovative service delivery
    • facilitate the creation, adaptation, piloting and mainstreaming of innovative solutions
    • create and sustain an enabling environment which entrenches a culture of innovation in the public sector through innovative platforms and products
    • ensure systematic and effective program coordination and administration.
  • The United States Government has created the Open Government Innovations Gallery (US Government 2009a). President Obama has also launched the SAVE Award (for ideas to save taxpayer dollars and make government more effective and efficient) and has released A Strategy for American Innovation (US Government 2009b), committing to increasing the innovation capability of the government by:
    • making it more transparent, participatory and collaborative
    • promoting open government
    • using innovation to improve government programs
    • committing White House resources to scaling and promoting community innovations.

    Innovation must occur within all levels of society, including the government and civil society. The Obama Administration is committed to increasing the ability of government to promote and harness innovation. The Administration is encouraging departments and agencies to experiment with new technologies that have the potential to increase efficiency and reduce expenditures, such as cloud computing. The Federal government should take advantage of the expertise and insight of people both inside and outside the Federal government, use high-risk, high-reward policy tools such as prizes and challenges to solve tough problems, support the broad adoption of community solutions that work, and form high-impact collaborations with researchers, the private sector, and civil society. (US Government 2009b, pp. 16–17)

  • In the United Kingdom, the government has been very active over recent years in seeking to promote and embed innovation in its civil service. It has taken a systematic and structured approach to fostering innovation in the public sector, as set out in Figure 3.3.

Figure 3.3 United Kingdom public sector innovation

Figure 3.3 looks at the various components of the United Kingdom public sector innovation system. This includes the Cabinet Office and the Treasury who make up the DIUS Steering Group, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills or DIUS, the Office of Government Commerce, the Whitehall Innovators Group, Government Departments which include sector-specific innovation units and centres, and DIUS delivery partners including NESTA, the Design Council and the National School of Government and Sunningdale Institute.


Source: National Audit Office, UK (2009).

Annex 1 provides a detailed report on innovation activities by a number of governments, including those of Canada and the Netherlands.

Developed nations around the world are focusing on the benefits that can be reaped through a more innovative and productive public sector, and they are taking action to achieve them. Australia must be active in this area if we are to remain among the leading nations in terms of the quality, effectiveness and efficiency of our public administration.

Key points

  • The APSC State of the Service Report provides a longitudinal measure of the innovative capacity of the APS, as perceived by its employees.
  • Public servants rate their willingness to engage in innovative activity highly but believe that the APS limits their opportunities for creativity and innovation.
  • There is a wide range of examples of public sector innovation both major and minor, but no systematic approach to spreading relevant knowledge and learning across the APS.
  • There is support at the highest levels of the Australian Government and the APS for developing a more innovative public service. A number of current reviews will provide momentum for that process.
  • Many developed countries are focusing on policies and actions to develop a more innovative and productive public sector. Australia needs to take action to ensure that we are at the forefront of that process.
Last reviewed: 
16 May 2018