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Public service innovation – No straight lines

To introduce this post on No straight lines I want to take you on a journey. That’s on the basis that to know where we are and where we are heading we actually need to know where we’ve been. Due to the nature of the work I’ve been involved in for the past nineteen years I’m well placed to take you on this journey.

For a long time I’ve expressed the view that the way in which the majority of Australian Public Service agencies manage innovation and change itself is based on two key assumptions:

  • Change is gradual
  • Change has to be managed within existing hierarchal structures

And from what I can see these assumptions are a feature of many jurisdictions outside Australia.

This is so wrong it beggars belief. Discontinuous change has been the norm for some time. The approach taken within most agencies – coupled with the behaviour of many managers and leaders – is out of step. In earlier times they would have been the people proclaiming that email would never take off, social media was a fad and the earth is flat.

Between 2000 and 2009 I guided the development of a piece of software within the Australian Taxation Office that, as we progressed, enabled a more bottom up, social if you were, approach to innovation and organisational culture. And the moment I started advocating just that? Out came the corporate drones.

The software and myself were clearly seen as a threat. What else do you consider statements like “You weren’t asked to innovate” and “You weren’t asked to take a leadership role”. Or more astounding, “We can’t trust people with this technology”. Mind you I was in good company and made good friends.

And let’s not go near the reactions to “my views and actions on social media”.

However, by far the major worry is that this unrealistic view of change has not shifted since the 90’s. How do I know? In the mid 90’s I (and quite a few others) were part of a Commissioners (Federal, States and Territories), Expert Group charged with scoping out and developing National Competency Standards for Public Administration.

I advocated the view that we needed to develop standards in relation to change to ensure we were prepared for the 21st Century. Who argued against that? The Australian Public Service Commission.

With support from Queensland, Tasmania, Western Australia, Victoria and some key trade union representatives we got the idea over the line. I was representing the Northern Territory Public Sector by the way.

Anyway, I got back to a warm and wonderfully humid Darwin. On my one page briefing I scribbled a note to our Commissioner stating “You’d think from the reaction that I’d committed some form of heresy”. I was elated when I got a note back saying ” In their eyes yes. In mine No”.

And who ended up researching and drafting the standards addressing the vexed issue of change? Yours truly.

Now what has this got to do with No straight lines you might ask. Well that leads me to the brilliant new read/write book from Alan Moore No Straight Lines. It says it all, says it well and you can read it free online – and join in.

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