R4D (Part 4): Building a culture of innovation within the Australian government

Praneetha Vissapragada, Thomas Feeny (Results for Development)

[Editor’s Note: This is the final part of a series of four blogs sharing insights from the results of a review conducted by Results for Development of the first three years of the innovationXchange (iXc). This blog explores the theme of culture and communication change, while others in this series look at the themes of scaling innovation, the emerging concept of innovation ecosystems, and partnerships.] 

Innovation in government is a hot topic. In recent years, as policymakers struggle to keep up with the pace and breadth of social and technological change, a new movement has emerged both within and outside the public sector to reposition government as an engine of innovation, rather than an obstacle to it.

In this context, Australia provides an interesting case study — having been the test-bed for many innovations that have changed the world, including WIFI, Google Maps and cochlear implants. While most of these game-changers were admittedly developed outside government, the ambition to further embed this innovative DNA within the Australian public sector has been around for many years. This vision was also recently reiterated in the release of the Australia 2030 Plan which, among other goals, seeks to ensure that the Australian government becomes “a catalyst for innovation and recognized as a global leader in innovative service delivery.

A key milestone toward this goal occurred in 2015, when then-Foreign Minister Julie Bishop MP launched the InnovationXchange (iXc), a new initiative within the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) designed to help put innovation at the heart of all we do.

Research and interviews conducted by Results for Development (R4D) in 2018 revealed that during the first three years of the iXc, there was a positive impact on innovation culture. When asked to consider the three years since the iXc had been established, DFAT staff that had worked with the iXc noted improvements in both the culture of DFAT around innovative practice and the capability of DFAT staff to implement innovative programming.

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Average survey responses on culture and capability changes within DFAT

While the majority of respondents attributed the culture change to the iXc, other respondents pointed toward attitude changes within leadership and specifically, the mandate from the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

The iXc engaged in activities to support dialogue and learning about innovation within DFAT, its country posts around the world, and the broader APS. Just a sample of the promising examples of innovation being taken up within DFAT includes: i)  the development of a steady pipeline of direct requests to the iXc for innovation support/expertise, particularly through the Innovation Resource Facility, with approximately 50 requests received in 2017; and ii) following the DFAT Humanitarian, NGOs and Partnerships Division’s involvement in the iXc’s Pacific Humanitarian Challenge, the division decided to fund their own innovation work, the Humanitarian Supplies Challenge.

3 ways the iXc shifted the culture around innovation at DFAT

So, what did the iXc do that helped contribute to this change in culture, and how might the team build on these promising results to further spread and embed innovation across the department’s policies and practices? It appears from the research that among the many diverse initiatives undertaken by the iXc in its first three years, three key areas were especially influential: communication, demonstration and collaboration.

  • Communication

It is widely understood that building the foundations for culture change requires defining and communicating the broader vision and rationale for the change. To this end, the iXc implemented a DFAT-wide communications strategy to enhance staff awareness and understanding of innovation and its potential to help deliver development solutions that are “cheaper, faster and more effective”. The iXc carried out innovation training such as workshops across all the Trade Divisions on innovative tools and ways of working, and with the Office of the Pacific’s Labour Mobility Program on strategic program management. The iXc also leveraged powerful communication tools, such as storytelling, to help DFAT staff understand innovation “beyond the buzzword.”  It also took pains to document and share stories of individual innovators on the DFAT intranet and through cables to staff in country posts.

High visibility and engagement by the DFAT Minister Julie Bishop MP in promoting innovation across the department provided the senior leadership component of the bottom-up, top-down and outside-in pathways of influence that other development agencies have identified as essential for sustainable culture change. This ministerial support continued until Julie Bishop’s departure from DFAT when, in one of her final speeches as Foreign Minister, she challenged attendees gathered at the iXc for National Science Week to: “Think differently. Think creatively. Don’t do what you have always done because you have always done it. Come up with new ideas.” Now, with the creation of a new position of Chief Innovation Officer for DFAT, the department has an additional figurehead through which to champion new behaviours and attitudes and who has already expressed her commitment to encourage, reward and celebrate innovation across DFAT.

  • Demonstration

For many, the value of innovation needs to be seen to be believed. As a next step in building culture and capability, the iXc worked to demonstrate innovation “in action,” using different techniques to build a portfolio of promising innovative initiatives. While the majority of these focused on finding new solutions to development challenges DFAT were addressing in their broader sectoral programming, some were specifically internally-focused.

For example, the iXc co-led three DFAT-wide “Ideas Challenges” — open calls to engage staff and generate innovative ideas for the department to implement.  The three challenges sourced over 400 ideas, and beyond stimulating conversations and ideas about potential cutting-edge practices (and importantly, demonstrating that innovation can come from anywhere), these challenges led to the implementation of successful innovative approaches. One challenge winner was the Australia Awards: Women Trading Globally program, put forward by the Office of Trade Negotiation’s Aid for Trade team and the Australia Awards team. The program supports small businesses built by women from the Pacific and includes training on entrepreneurial knowledge, skills, and network building. Another winner led to research and new programming to break the “Last Taboo,” of improving menstrual hygiene in the Pacific, and a third set up a wide-ranging program to re-design and improve the administrative support DFAT provides its overseas posts.

  • Collaboration

Partnership has been a key pillar of the iXc’s approach from the beginning. In addition to developing new relationships with innovative external actors, such as Bloomberg Philanthropies, GSMA and the Atlassian Foundation (explored in this accompanying blog), the iXc also collaborated with other teams within DFAT. This support was typically expressed through the iXc helping to co-design and implement programming, amongst other mechanisms. Some examples included:

– Acting as a convener across internal divisions, such as working with DFAT’s Development Policy Division and Investment and Economic Division on the MIKTA Challenge.

– Finding complementarities and connections between iXc programs, such as creating learning opportunities for DFAT to improve its performance in nutrition by bringing together representatives from LAUNCH Food and Hamutuk, a program aiming to reduce stunting in children under two years of age.

– Contributing to the development of Australia’s first International Cyber Engagement Strategy with the Ambassador for Cyber Security. 

The road ahead

The successes highlighted here were also accompanied, as expected, by challenges, which enabled the iXc team to recognize and examine a range of barriers that hampered the culture of innovation at DFAT, and to find ways to address them. As a large department within a complex government structure, bureaucracy unsurprisingly remains a persistent barrier to thinking and acting in an agile way, although the team has now identified key partners in the wider organization to work with in the generation of new approaches. The size of the iXc team (just 12 full-time employees, which is below the average core staffing for a Government-based innovation unit in Australia and New Zealand) has also been a challenging factor in its ability to make a big impression on DFAT. This recognition highlighted the need for the team to build an extensive internal network of innovation champions, that is now in place. Finally, as some others around the world have noted, the relationship between a government innovation lab such as the iXc and the rest of the “mothership” is very difficult to negotiate, and results in a “radical’s dilemma,” where, if you operate too much as part of the system, you risk losing your edge; but if you operate too separately from the system, you risk having little impact.

There is clear appetite across DFAT for advice and capability building on innovation tools and skillsets — it is important that the iXc responds to this need while continuing to grow demand through improved communication of successes and learning.  Innovation should also be built into core operational processes, such as aid development tests, quality assurance tools and reporting — not  only to emphasize innovation as a core funding and evaluation criteria but also to enable the iXc to identify and direct support towards those areas which require greater support to embed innovation into their activities.

Being open to continually learning and adapting its approach is a critical capacity for the iXc, as it continues on its journey. Culture and capability are now explicitly enshrined as one of the four key objectives of the new 2018-2021 DFAT Innovation Strategy, and R4D is continuing to work with the iXc team in helping DFAT staff deepen their awareness, incentives, capability and adoption of innovation within their work.

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