In this fast-paced digital era, the only strategy guaranteed to fail is not to take any risks at all. This means that the biggest risk many public service organisations take is to keep doing the same things over and over to advance social outcomes.

Public service organisations may feel like they’re in a catch-22. They are expected to innovate to create enduring value through their services. And yet, the public and political process have low tolerance for failure. This paradox of innovation is one that government agencies around the world face as they seek to harness the full power of digital to deliver better outcomes.

What can leaders do to overcome this challenge and cultivate an environment for enduring innovation?

Risk is good, use it for good

We kicked off our “Leading with high-impact outcomes” blog series by stressing the importance of tackling the “big rocks” for enduring innovation – the hard issues that move governments forward in transforming policy and service delivery. These “big-rocks” are the ones that will have the greatest impact on improving outcomes.

To begin unlocking these opportunities for high-impact outcomes, public service leaders have to raise their capabilities in managing risk. Managing risk is part and parcel of the innovation process, particularly when dealing with personal digital data. The innovation mantra of ‘fail fast’ and ‘don’t penalise risk takers’ is not absolute. Given the expectations citizens have of government, public service leaders must set boundaries for risk appetite and risk tolerance and ensure appropriate checks and balances. Understanding risks and how to mitigate them, in addition to cultivating the right risk appetite, may well inspire innovation.

Build a culture based around ethics

Another key factor is ensuring the ethical use of data and embedding this principle into the workplace culture. This aspect alone is crucial to creating the safeguards that maintain citizen trust which, in turn, are essential for successful innovation activities.   A default position of avoiding risk at all costs when it comes to managing personal data is contra to advancing social outcomes.

It requires more than just setting in place an ethics framework to guide leadership in project decision-making. It also involves cultural adjustments across the agency to ensure that ethical considerations are foremost in daily actions, particularly when it concerns personal data.

From ethics boards through to frontline decision-making, it is the leadership role that prevents innovation from being used as a tool for improving service delivery to the most vulnerable – those people already experiencing negative outcomes arising from the power imbalance between government and individuals. And it will be the leaders who remove those barriers by addressing data-sharing and methods for innovation head-on.  And the risks, that are real and ever present, need to be understood and mitigated in the spirit of doing things differently to get a different result.

Innovation for good

Rather than look for efficiency gains or be an adopter of the latest technology, leading public service organisations create structures for innovation. Accenture research found that organisations which consistently use business case and return on investment analyses to assess each innovation project were more successful. These governance structures and processes allow them to monitor progress and quickly discontinue non-performing programmes. It also frees them to reinvest “innovation dividends” – time, talent and cost savings – for other purposes.

The next blog in this series will delve deeper into why government use of digital data is often perceived with mistrust and how agencies can address the ambiguities in such requests.


Let’s continue the conversation! Connect with me on Twitter and LinkedInWhen the world moves, move ahead.

Brian Lee-Archer

Managing Director – Consulting, Health & Public Service, ANZ

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