Monday, July 11, 2011

Building an innovation framework in a government agency

I founded a number of innovative companies during the 1990 and 2000s (and even at school in the 1980s), so have a deep and abiding interest in inspiring and promoting innovation in public sector workplaces.

As such, with the release of the Public Sector Innovation Toolkit, I thought I'd share an approach to managing innovation in a government agency.

While I developed it a couple of years ago and have pushed it up through 'suggestions' channels in a number of workplaces, I have yet to receive any feedback from senior management in any agency or have the system see the light of day.

Maybe it's that bad :)

However, I thought someone might be able to use aspects of it, so here it is.

Innovation framework for public sector agencies

The 'secret' of innovation
The secret to innovation is that there is no secret. Virtually every individual is innovative and engages in innovation on a regular basis.

What is a challenge, however, is effectively distributing innovations - communicating them beyond an individual, small team, branch or agency.

While government agencies have well-developed channels for communicating official matters, many are still developing system for the formal exchange and normalisation of new ideas (such as change management networks).

This lack of rigorous systems is also often reflected in the level of sharing of research, policies, templates and best practice approaches within (and between) agencies - all of which often happen informally where formal channels are weak.

To strengthen the practice of innovation in government agencies, it is necessary to strengthen the formal structures for assessing, distributing, reporting and rewarding innovation. This aids a cultural shift towards the support of innovative thinking as it becomes thinking that is valued, measured and rewarded by the organisation.

A formal framework for innovation assessment and advocacy
Most organisations require senior support to move innovation from being a clandestine pursuit by teams on the outer edges of agency systems to being part of the systems themselves.

This starts with executive sponsorship, supported by a review and recommendation framework (to qualify and promote good innovations) and a network designed to funnel innovations into the formal system for review, acceptance and propagation.

I see the following bodies and appointments as critical:
  • Executive Innovation Champion (Dep Sec/FAS level), empowered to support, advocate for and resource appropriate innovations across the Department.
  • Innovation Review Committee (EL2/AS/FAS level), able to review innovations from the perspectives of areas of the business (Finance, HR, Procurement, Communications, IT, Policy, etc) and to recommend to the Executive which innovations should receive support and sponsorship.
  • Innovation Mentors (EL1/EL2/AS level), equipped to support and empower junior staff to develop their innovative ideas to a level where they are pilotable/executable. This group will require some training in change management and approaches to innovation. Organisations such as ASIX ( can support this type of requirement.
  • Innovation Network (all levels) of people interested in innovative practice – can be an informal network, but requires a convenor with the support and resourcing to organise speakers and regular events for discussing and evaluating different innovative ideas from across the public sector, private sector and corporate world. Can link as an affiliate to the Public Sector Innovation Network. The Convenor should be on the Innovation Review Committee to link the network back to the formal process.
Tools for innovation
Agencies should devise and adopt some form of innovation process which acts as a funnel to encourage staff to:
  • conceptualise (ideation) new ways of working,
  • develop innovations in a structured manner, identifying the benefits and savings, 
  • review them thoughtfully with peer support (identifying and mitigating risks), 
  • develop a pilot implementation to test them, and 
  • work through a formal review process which may lead to adoption.
This process needs to be clearly articulated, flexible, easy to use and provide for innovation to originate from any level of an agency.

This process could be based on similar processes adopted elsewhere, and on suggestions from the MAC Innovation products, using a template system for each stage from ideation, development, risk assessment, business case, peer review, pilot test, implementation and change management.

Agencies should also prepare innovation toolkits to provide innovators with the support necessary to critically review their innovative ideas – and discard all that are unworkable before significant resourcing is spent on them. Again this can be based on similar processes adopted elsewhere, and on the Public Sector Innovation Toolkit.

An ideation review and prioritisation system should also be developed or adopted that provides significant transparency through the process.

It should supports a visible progression of ideas and the capability for all staff to access, suggest ideas and contribute to existing ideas (supporting a peer review process). The system should then allow reporting back as ideas are rejected, reformed, implemented or partially implemented.

Several US Departments have developed these types of systems for staff and some information is available on them, although they are not publicly visible, such as the Department of Homeland Security’s IdeaFactory ( and the Department of Health and Human Services’ IdeaLab (

The most visible ideation systems are public-facing, such as IdeaStorm from Dell ( and Starbucks’ My Starbucks Idea (

DAFF’s i-Gen system is an example of an agency system designed to manage this process. While it is quite manual (and there's lots of potential to automate parts of the system), it has achieved the most important goal. It works.

Of course, it would be even more beneficial if an agency developing an automated ideation system would share it with other agencies - leveraging the knowledge and experience and supporting cross-agency innovation.

Innovation flourishes in cultures which commensurately reward success and counsel (but do not ‘criminalise’) failures.

Given government departments already have governance processes to manage and mitigate potential failures (risks), agencies should investigate appropriate rewards for innovations based on their effective impact on agency costs and activities.

As cash rewards are difficult to issue in the APS, and demonstrably are not the most valued reward approach for many staff, alternatives such as recognition and training opportunities should be explored.

Concepts such as personal notes, innovations awards, opportunities to spend time with senior personnel (i.e. lunch with the CEO/Secretary or presenting the innovation to the executive) and similar recognition approaches have been used effectively in other organisations.

An appropriate selection of these could be adopted in any government agency through the innovation bodies suggested above - after consulting with staff to gain a view on the reward approaches which would most motivate them.

In fact, carrying out this staff consultation could be done using the same ideation system the agency intends to use (which breeds familiarity and comfort with the system and is a good example of 'eating one’s own dog food').

My view is that there needs to be a team allocated to managing the innovation system and encouraging cultural behaviour changes, just as there’s specific teams tasked with Procurement, Legal, FOI or other matters which impact on most staff.

The DAFF i-Gen system requires 1.5 full-time equivalent staff to manage. Note this is a partially manual process with a significant level of active internal advocacy.

I would contend that an agency would need to employ one full-time staff member (EL1 level), within a supportive team with a broad innovation objective. The individual would need to have strong experience in advocacy and change management.

There would also need to be appropriate funding and support to put the ideation system in place and manage the secretariat of the committees. With all of this in place I believe an agency can ramp up an effective innovation agenda in 1-2 years.

Agencies that adopted a more fragmented approach - asking existing staff to set aside time to design/manage and maintain an innovation agenda and system - would take much longer to achieve buy-in, embed in an organisation and see positive outcomes.

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