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Public Sector Innovation: The View from Torquay


Thursday, 1st March 2012 at 2:49 pm
Staff Reporter
Last week CISCO and CSI partnered to host the second Australian New Zealand Public Sector Summit. We were supported by Telstra. The Summit is held at Torquay in Victoria. Fifty of Australia’s most senior and forward-looking public servants are selected, from all jurisdictions, to engage in a two-day strategic conversation on the pursuit of public benefit and social innovation

Thursday, 1st March 2012
at 2:49 pm
Staff Reporter


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Public Sector Innovation: The View from Torquay
Thursday, 1st March 2012 at 2:49 pm

Professor Peter Shergold is the Macquarie Group Foundation Professor at the Centre for Social Impact (CSI) at UNSW and Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney. He was the founding CEO of CSI from 2008 – 2011. This article is from the CSI blog

Last week CISCO and CSI partnered to host the second Australian New Zealand Public Sector Summit. We were supported by Telstra.

The Summit is held at Torquay in Victoria. Fifty of Australia’s most senior and forward-looking public servants are selected, from all jurisdictions, to engage in a two-day strategic conversation on the pursuit of public benefit and social innovation – and, in particular, to imagine how the public sector might facilitate more effectively the creation of social impact.

My goal, quite simply, is to ensure that the symposium doesn’t feel like any of the many other public sector conferences held in Australia. It’s intended to be out on the edge of what’s new. CISCO and CSI share a view that the new technology of information and communications, and the application of social media, has transformative power to enhance the participatory aspects of democratic governance and to revitalise civic engagement.

We also agree that technology is simply an enabler. It can be used for good or bad. It’s potential can be harnessed or ignored. It will take visionary leaders (intrapreneurs inside public services and social entrepreneurs on the outside) to work collaboratively to create change.

To stimulate that process we bring together the most exciting thinkers from around the world. This year that included Rohan Silva (Senior Policy Advisory to Prime Minister Cameron on ‘The Big Society’), Geoff Mulgan (Chief Executive of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts and social innovator extraordinaire), Jocelyne Bourgon (who was Clerk of the Privy Council in Canada), David Halpern (now in the UK Cabinet Office as Head of the ‘Nudge Office’) and Chris Vein (Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Government Innovation at the Obama White House). Another couple of free-spirited visitors from the UK hosted conversation sessions – Jonty Oliff-Cooper from A4E and Richard Wilson from Izwe.

A highlight was hearing Tarik Youssef, who is the CEO of the innovative social enterprise, Silatech, the mission of which is to create jobs and economic opportunities in the Arab world. Dr Youssef talked about the long history and potential futures of the Arab Spring with great authority and insight.

Each of the speakers was persuasive not just because of the power of their ideas but because they are all involved in walking the talk. They are thinkers who are doers. They can convince public servants, often struggling for influence in hierarchical, inflexible and risk-averse work environments, that system change is possible.

The problem is not rhetoric. Every Australian government genuflects before the ambition of having results-focussed, citizen-centric, customer service oriented, best practice, world class public administrations which deliver evidence-based policy in a cost-effective manner. The challenge, as so often, is to establish the leadership culture able to turn these tired and well-worn clichés into innovative practice.

The bad news for public servants is that sometimes the barriers seem overwhelming. I remember the problems all too well. Even those in situational authority find themselves, most days, having to react to large and small political crises, ensuring that the machinery of government keeps running smoothly, and focussed on Parliamentary accountability and the relentless scrutiny of the media. The default position is to avoid risk that might bring adverse political consequences for the governments that they serve. It’s the classic juggler’s dilemma: how to make the existing system work as well as possible whilst seeking to transform it so that it can do things far better.

The good news is that Australia’s public servants don’t have to do it alone. They are part of a global conversation in western democracies, informed by a growing recognition that the relationship between states and citizens (upon which trust in government authority is based) is becoming frayed.

Below is a handful of positive things that are happening in response, here and overseas. Public services are:

  • finding ways in which they can facilitate new forms of cross-sectoral collaboration, in order to stimulate more innovative ways of developing and delivering public policy;
  • embracing open government, actively encouraging people to access publicly-funded data and to develop new applications to use it – often creating social impact in ways that governments had neither expected nor anticipated;
  • using wiki-based approaches to employ a crowd-sourcing approach to the improvement of public programs and drafting of legislation;
  • experimenting in new forms of deliberative democracy, on-line or in-person;
  • empowering citizens to ‘co-manage’ and ‘co-produce’ the services they need to live a full life, rather than being treated as powerless recipients of government benefits;
  • exploring ways to persuade people to embrace more pro-social individual behaviours rather than intervening in their lives through tax and regulation;
  • catalysing the creation of additional finance from the private sector to create social impact and public benefit; and
  • auditing and measuring the full social, environmental and civic returns on public investment in human services.

These, and much more besides, were discussed at the Summit. How, I often heard it asked, can we create the political will for change? Where’s the burning platform? My view is that societies are increasingly aware that many of the wicked problems of public policy – such as social exclusion – are still no closer to being satisfactorily addressed than a generation ago. Policy failures, combined with the need for fiscal austerity and the financial consequences of demographic change, helps to focus governments on doing things differently.

Pursuing innovation necessarily involves risk. But, as I’ve said before, in a world in which the old ways are clearly not working effectively, and are unlikely to meet future needs, taking a risk on public and social innovation may be portrayed as the most conservative of options.

I welcome your views. If, as I hope, I’ve conveyed the excitement of the CISCO-CSI Summit, and you think it would be fun to attend the next one, do let me know. They are the hottest tickets in town!



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