Is agile Government an oxymoron?

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Times are changing – whether in government or private sector we need to act swiftly and respond to opportunities – and they are coming thick and fast.

Take the start up community – growing exponentially in every corner of the globe, they are driving innovation and are becoming a force to be reckoned with in terms of their financial contribution to the economy. In a 2013 report commissioned by Google, PWC found that “Australian startup sector has the capacity to deliver $109 billion to the economy and create 540,000 new jobs by 2033” and that Startups may be missing ‘bigger picture’ opportunities for growth in the Finance and Insurance, Manufacturing and Health Care and Social Assistance industries.”

This is mind blowing right ? So why is it that two years on from this report little has actually shifted from the side of Government apart from good narrative from state and federal ministers about the need for innovation and the resounding support of small business and start up? Is it enough that Ministers talk about responding to the burgeoning ecosystem without the ability of government, at all levels, to match the narrative with action?

It got me thinking is agile government an oxymoron? I think anyone who has had the privilege of working in, around and with government can tell you it’s a “process” driven beast. So despite the dutiful nods and the encouraging reports, strategies and plans there is still an enormous gap between rhetoric and reality.

In the last year we really have seen a plethora of great ideas and initiatives being announced by NSW Premier Mike Baird and his cabinet colleagues – Minister for Industry, Anthony Roberts Minister for Finance and Services, Dominic Perottet, Minister for Small Business, John Barilaro and Minister for Innovation, Victor Dominello.

Some ideas seeded included the Premiers Innovation Initiative launched in August 2014 promised to draw out innovative responses to some key pain points for the NSW Government, namely Social Housing, Congestion, Open data and Open ideas priority areas. A year down the track and those that didn’t make the cut received a nice letter saying they missed out but we still haven’t heard of who won the challenge and what they are doing. I suspect that because of the PROCESS – flick to the section on selection and negotiation and you see the tai chi in cement forming nicely – a process that has obviously taken more than 12 months of selecting the successful innovation initiative including a steering committee, has been less than innovative in itself.

So here we are a year later still waiting to hear about where this got to – I wonder if the selected innovation is still as enthusiastic as they were a year ago – will they be gob smacked if they get a call that this initiative was still on the table – anyone’s table?

What I see in our innovation community are people on the go, constantly moving to the beat of a different drum than the public sector. They are agile, adaptive and responsive to the constant changing environment and my very deep concern is the missed opportunities that could very well improve tipping point problems if we could help bureaucrats think differently?

Think for a moment how expensive it will be to buy into the game when the music stops and everyone has a seat? How close is that? Very.

This week ten Israeli startups in Tel Aviv pitched to a room of invite-only Australian investors sitting in Sydney at BlueChilli. . It was a terrific opportunity to build bridges and learn from one of the world’s largest innovation ecosystems. It is also a clear example of what will happen if we don’t innovate. Someone, somewhere else will, Australian capital will follow it and soon Australian jobs. This isn’t an isolated incident. Just the other day, we had a visit from the British Government, which is trying to lure fintech hubs to the UK , and to keep them, it has committed $431 million to fintech firms through the British Business Bank. Why? That’s a good question. Maybe it’s because in just 5 years London has become the FinTech capital of the world employing 44000 people.

A more recent announcement by Premier Mike Baird on the formation of new Fintech Stone & Chalk in March 2015, and the project is supported by the NSW Department of Industry through its Knowledge Hubs Initiative. Even better was the further announcement by the Premier of Jobs for NSW, an innovative body that will drive the creation of 150,000 jobs over four years, to be Chaired by former Telstra CEO – David Thodey augers well for the initiative. The Jobs for NSW fund is expected to deliver the NSW Government’s commitment of $190 million over four years to support business development. Jobs for NSW will target the jobs of the future and guide the NSW Government on how best to maximise the state’s resources, talent and potential. Minister for Small Business John Barilaro was exceptionally enthusiastic that 30 per cent of the Jobs for NSW fund will be dedicated to regional job creation, and regional businesses will have a guaranteed voice on the jobs for NSW board.

So we really have to think how can we support the many innovative bureaucrats who are trying to shift but are equally stifled by tai chi in cement processes?

After all, many bureaucrats are attending stellar conferences, design innovation workshops, even completing MBAs – yet how is this higher learning actually shifting the monolith of bureaucracy they inevitable must face? They are also spending millions of dollars on consultants – to what end? I think the use of consultants is a tad misaligned because what I have seen is a de-skilled public sector as a result and very costly reports that don’t really change much by way of process. So we really have to think, how can we support the many innovative bureaucrats who are trying to shift but are equally stifled by tai chi in cement processes?

So my next question is how are we building the capacity of the three levels of government entwined in job creation and really make this idea fly?

Stone & Chalk launch with stellar line up of Ministers  including Stuart Ayres, Anthony Roberts, and and Parliamentary Secretaries, Paul Fletcher and John Sidoti, pictured with Christine Forster (@resourcefultype) and Aex Scandurra from Stone and Chalk, and  ALP’s Jason Claire and Ed Husic.

How can government with its process laden structures respond to such swift changes ? Frankly – it can’t. To be responsive and agile requires a new way of thinking – outcomes focus rather than process driven and it requires outward facing government. We have a long way to go but it’s not impossible.

In NSW we have a dynamic cabinet led by Premier Mike Baird – he is responsive, agile and courageous – his Ministers are too, or at least they are trying to be. Sadly, there appears to be some resistance from the bureaucracy that pares everything back to a snail pace because of process.

Honestly how important is process in the face of opportunity – are the risks greater in being agile than in remaining the same? Personally I think there is a greater risk in staying the same – slow and sluggish is not in the narrative of futurism or the new millennium.

Baird, Roberts, Barilaro, Perottet and Dominello are among the Ministers changing things, they are coming out with a more enthusiastic narrative about what they want to see in their respective patches, I feel for them and their advisers on the optimism trail – delving into different spaces and connecting new paradigms to their departments but there is still work to do, a lot of hard work to change the direction of the public service ship – its suck in an iceberg of process and requires agile and responsive thinking to flip the model to a new place where we are more concerned with outcomes rather than outputs. Even great initiatives like @ALP4Innovation supported by Jason Claire and Ed Husic won’t go far without systemic change in the way bureaucracy works.

Ministers Dominello and Barilaro at the Sydney GovHack awards at Fishburners.

In fact Gavin Heaton (@ServantofChaos) speaks a lot about the need for a recalibration of efforts to an outcomes focus. Gavin’s Disruptor’s Handbookprovides numerous insights and ideas of how to shift and a more recent free e-book by Joanne Jacobs provides tools and tips on How to innovate like a startup. These resources are freely available and are well used by start-ups and small business but haven’t quite reached the consciousness of government, yet!

A recent blog by Tony Featherstone from the Sydney Morning Herald  asked Why aren’t councils supporting start ups? I loved the article and felt myself nodding throughout except that I know that there are efforts to shift State and local government to be more amenable and integrated in start up, even more importantly Minister for Small Business, John Barilaro is deeply committed to innovating the way NSW supports the transformation of Small and Medium enterprises and start ups.

Another article by legendary Pete Cooper (@pc0) from Start up Society today said it even louder, he says “Government At All Levels Has Failed The Tech Startup Ecosystem”  and again I found myself in agreement with his frustration at the lag between rhetoric and action because that means we are losing. The Start Up Society has a grand vision “Our vision is for 2 to 5 thousand tech startups around every major population centre and major university. Today it is less than one tenth of that even in the major cities.”

So how do we get there? Pete suggests consolidating our efforts and holding a Start Up Summit – what a splendid and overdue idea – personally I’d like to see the Summit held in NSW where I see the Premier and NSW ministers for Innovation, Small Business and Industry becoming a more visible part of start up events and ecosystem.

As an Associate of the Centre for Local Government  at UTS,  I am working with Roberta Ryan to design a Master Class on Innovation for local government. Roberta is a key innovator globally, around transforming local government to better leverage research, design and innovation to meet growing challenges and very complex communities. Roberta is cognizant of the pressures on local government and the need to support their pivotal role in being more than they have before with fewer resources, this is only possible by leveraging the social capital in the community.

I think what is needed is more opportunities for government to immerse themselves in parallel paradigms outside government. Bureaucrats who aren’t on board yet need to see the world they may be missing out on. They need to know they are welcome to collaborate with the start up community – I’d hate for them to miss out on the growing numbers of starts up that are supporting government in some way – take Alan Mont’s blog @MuniRent showcasing 40 start ups that are helping government in the US – they range from legal platforms to make litigation on minor offences simpler right through to sharing government resources through procurement platforms.

I’d like to see a Government Innovation BootCamp – a day of reckoning with a virtual reality experience of their process and their data. I would love to see each head of department in a the UTS Data Arena surrounded by their data – I would show them two scenarios – 1 with their pain points and current responses and one with agile response – I imagine seeing their behaviour in this way will be more impactful than seeing a bunch of numbers on a spreadsheet. In the new world, data is your friend and it represents people, communities, and people’s lives – not just a bunch of numbers. And those wondering do we have the technology for that – YEP, we’ve had it for a while in many universities and at the National ICT Association (NICTA).

UTS Data Arena

Perhaps in this space they will see the very real consequences of loading up process and that life is no longer predictive and ordered in fact we know that our world is more complex and we understand that solutions to job creation and economic growth is no longer the domain of government alone – they require cross sector collaboration to shift something.

That’s why we are seeing more private sector involvement in the establishing NFP entities like Google and Optus funding Fishburners. Like Telstra funding muru-D and CodeClub they aren’t waiting for government – they’ve gone and done it anyway – so how is government going to leverage this extraordinary talent and connect with them in a meaningful way? Well we have clue with the not-for-profit Stone&Chalk launched last month. This a fabulous new model that brings together government, big business and think tanks to develop the Fintech ecosystem in Sydney. With over 50 startups co-located, many well along the way, they haven’t had to wait long to trumpet success. AMP has already taken equity stakes in Macrovue and MoneyBrilliant.

And it’s not all at the big end of town. Firms like Swaab Attorneys  are connecting the high net worth individuals and small-to-medium enterprises that include some of Australia’s most successful family businesses to startups both as customers and as potential investors both here and overseas.

The biggest flaw at present remains the process of government that is so jarred that little gets done and responses are in time delay – long after that ship has sailed, we are all wondering what really happened?

Government process happened and we need to reach out to our fellow disrupters in government and help them see what we see – help them readjust to face outward and see all the opportunities around them, take away the fear of failure because failure is getting closer to success and there’s a whole ecosystem out there willing to collaborate to get NSW cracking as the innovation, start up State. The conditions are right, the stars are aligning so there are no excuses left.

The Ministers are talking it up so now we (every one of us who are disrupters, innovators and alchemists) have to help the public sector deliver on the promises – otherwise we are well and truly behind the eight ball.

Anne-Marie Elias is a consultant in innovation for social change. She is an honorary Associate of the Design Innovation Research Centre and the Centre for Local Government at UTS.

Follow my journey of disruptive social innovation on Twitter @ChiefDisrupter

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