Embracing the ‘What If?’: Where Innovation is Working in the VPS

18 Sep 2019

After investigating several new practices and products in the Victorian Public Service, Jo Clancy and Fiona Grinwald say it is incumbent on all public servants to personally push for greater support for innovation.

Ever had a risk become an obstinate roadblock for an innovative idea? Or too many meetings, with too many people in them, slow your innovation to a snail’s pace?

How about cracking on with an inspired customer solution – only to find that approval gets bogged down in internal governance forums?

It’s often said that our public sector is conservative and risk averse, with obvious solutions thwarted by bureaucracy, budgetary constraints, and an overarching reluctance to change. But recent developments in the Victorian Public Service suggest that our governments may be pursuing the real possibilities of innovation.

Over the past few months, we’ve been speaking to a number of change-makers across the public service who are experimenting with new ways of working to address some of the common ‘blockers’ to innovation impact.

During these discussions, we’ve discovered that individual public servants are not – contrary to stereotype – unable or unwilling to embrace the ‘what if?’. Indeed, it is far more likely to be the system that can create a barrier to ‘why not?’ Breaking down these barriers requires change at all levels of the public service.

“Innovative methods are now common practice in many organisations and departments,” says Sam Hannah-Rankin, Acting Executive Director of Public Sector Reform in the Department of Premier and Cabinet. “But in the end, it is the different attitudes being adopted by our people that are really changing the way we work.”

When we embrace empathy, find comfort in ambiguity, unearth biases and creatively challenge the status quo, we are more likely to deliver solutions that create the outcomes our citizens expect.

Changing our mindset

Innovation that delivers tangible results is really hard work. Collaborative problem solving, co-designing, prototyping, testing and iterating to deliver value to end users takes a level of perseverance that would test the most resilient public servant.

The reality goes beyond the hype of the ‘hack’, the ‘jam’, the labs and the ideation – which all speak to the methods rather than the outcomes of innovation.

“If there is one thing we have learned from our innovation efforts and reforms to date, it’s that mindset is the critical enabler for change,” says Hannah-Rankin.

The uncertainty and complexity of work is not just the new norm within government. It’s the new norm in every sector of every industry. 

Supporting our advisors and executives to let go of the certainty that legacy processes and systems feel like they provide is the first step, because it creates legitimacy for our people to take ownership of their roles in delivering innovation in government.

In the public sector, we talk a lot about risk – and rightly so. We are responsible for important services that simply cannot fail. We don’t have the luxury of ‘failing fast’ on things as important as child protection.

But what about the risks of continuing the status quo? This is the conversation that can be heard across the public sector. More people are questioning and challenging traditional ways of working and building momentum to share, learn and connect to drive positive change.

Signing up to the challenge

There is no longer any doubt about it. People are signing up in droves to network and learn more about innovation.

Almost a quarter of the entire Victorian Public Service (VPS), representing more than 10,000 people, have registered on the VPS Innovation Network.

The Network provides a digital platform for public servants to share innovation tools and resources with each other, alongside news of successes and discussions of challenges. There is active engagement in more than 45 groups which connect staff across departments who share functional areas or interests. Attendance at innovation-related training has skyrocketed over the past year.

This kind of engagement speaks to the demand that exists in the public service. It makes sense when you think about it. Although there’s the stereotype of the lazy bureaucrat who’s in their role for job security, the truth for the majority of us is that we’ve joined government because we wanted to give back to society.

We have what the Secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC), Chris Eccles, calls “a shared moral purpose” – a commitment to the generation of public value, of doing the right things to support and build our social and economic wellbeing.

This is a powerful force for good, but it can be subdued by the bureaucratic decision-making and culture that pervades our work.

The hard work is paying off

One of the flagship innovation investments of the Victorian Government has been the Public Sector Innovation Fund, which is administered by the DPC Public Sector Innovation branch.

Using a ‘funding plus collaboration and support’ model, the Fund provides grants of up to $500,000 to help teams develop, test and implement innovative approaches to solving complex policy and service delivery challenges. 

Good policy design and service implementation require a deep understanding of the issues that face workers on the ground who deliver the services. The following case study is an illustration of how a collaborative design process prioritised the views of frontline staff in the design of an online tool to support women and children experiencing family violence.


Safety in Seconds: The Family Violence Accommodation Register

In 2017, the rollout of the Family Violence Accommodation Register to Victoria’s 31 family violence refuges represented the successful conclusion of a public-private collaboration to help women and children find the nearest and most appropriate place of safety.

The Register allows instant access to real-time data about the availability of refuge accommodation across the state – bypassing the need for time-consuming phone calls, and enabling frontline staff to arrange referrals in an instant.

The Register was developed by the Safe Steps Family Violence Response Centre in conjunction with the Department of Health and Human Services and the design company, Conduct HQ, with a $300,000 grant from the Public Sector Innovation Fund.

The project began with an extensive period of research, including interviews and shadowing of refuge staff, together with a series of collaborative design workshops. The fin dings of this research informed a period of iterative design – with draft designs tested and refined with input from Safe Steps and individual refuges.

This ‘human-centred’ design approach ensured that all stakeholders felt a sense of shared ownership, while the step-by-step check-ins meant the project had very few change requests, simpler user adoption and acceptance testing, and high confidence in the output.

The Register also adopted the latest online security and encryption technology, enabling refuges to safely send documents and ensure client confidentiality in their referral services.

The Register has now been rolled-out statewide, and its value was recognised with gold awards at the Good Design Awards and the Melbourne Design Awards in 2018.

A/Public Sector Reform Director Sam Hannah-Rankin (right), working with Simon Krambousanos (left) and Paul Bonacci (centre) from Conduct HQ on the development of the Family Violence Accommodation Register.

A/Public Sector Reform Director Sam Hannah-Rankin (right), working with Simon Krambousanos (left) and Paul Bonacci (centre) from Conduct HQ on the development of the Family Violence Accommodation Register.


Lean and Meaning Business: Service Victoria

“Redesigning government services makes you think big, start small and learn quickly” – Jo de Morton, CEO, Service Victoria

Jo de Morton is the CEO of Service Victoria, one of the Victorian public sector’s newest ‘start-ups’, which was set up to remove the roadblocks to online services.

In a relatively short time Service Victoria, as a digital-first organisation, has brought together 62 of the most popular transactions to a single-entry point and delivered an enterprise-scale technology platform for faster and easier online services. We spoke to Jo de Morton about the drivers behind this successful delivery.

“We’re living in a world where most Victorians want things online,” says de Morton. “People are used to a frictionless digital experience with their bank, airline or retailer. And now they’re expecting the same ease when dealing with government.”

Service Victoria was set up using the lean startup approach favoured by new IT ventures to create and manage greenfield organisations or deliver new, disruptive initiatives designed around the needs of the customer. The methodology focuses on the rapid development of new services through iterative product releases and ‘validated learning’ – or testing their viability with potential customers.

“We’re taking a leaf out of the ‘lean startup’ playbook,” she explained. “Rather than the traditional ‘big bang’ approach, we’re using human-centred design and agile techniques to get things done and better manage IT development risks.”

The first stage of Service Victoria was delivered on time and under budget – which demonstrated several compelling advantages from the lean startup approach, including:

  • Speed to market: IT risk profiles are changing due to plummeting costs and faster obsolescence. They are no longer mitigated by the heavy governance, planning and specifications designed for large capital procurements.

  • Cloud-first: Modern technologies allow for the incremental delivery of small working components better suited to changing needs.

  • Customer-centricity: Building skills in design thinking and product development helps design intuitive services which fit to how people do things, rather than the traditional change management approach focussed on getting people to do things differently.

  • Rapid results: Using repeatable processes, re-usable IT components and agile design sprints to find solutions helps to quickly create and test new ideas with real people. 

Agencies such as the Victorian Fisheries Authority, Working with Children Check Victoria, WorkSafe, VicRoads, Ambulance Victoria and the government’s new Solar Homes program have already moved some or all of their customer interactions to Service Victoria.

Although early days, the online platform is attracting a 95% customer satisfaction rating and has cut the time for customers to finish their tasks by more than one-quarter. More than half a million people have used Service Victoria to do a range of things from renewing their car rego to buying new fishing licences.

By and for the people

At the end of the day, systems are made up of people. As public servants, we are complicit in those aspects of our systems and culture that hold us back – and we have an obligation to evolve and meet the demands of the broader public.

Let’s shift our focus away from fear and risk to how government can better explore, test and learn, to give the public the effective and contemporary policy and services it deserves.

The Service Victoria portal.

The Service Victoria portal.

Jo Clancy is a strategy and futures consultant with a particular interest in disruptive innovation. In recent years, she has provided strategic advice to a number of public sector agencies, including working for nearly four years as the Senior Strategy and Innovation Lead at Victoria's Transport Accident Commission.

Fiona Grinwald is currently the Acting Director of Public Sector Innovation within Victoria's Department of Premier and Cabinet. Fiona has previously held policy roles within the justice, health and treasury portfolios of the Victorian Government.