Session Statement

by Dr Paul Crookall

The theme of the CAPAM 2016 Biennial Conference was “Innovation: A Public Service Imperative,” a message reinforced throughout the event as we looked at new ways to prepare ourselves, prepare our organisations, implement fresh ideas, and measure success.

The conference opening was powerful with delegates treated to addresses from the Honourable Tan Sri Dr Ali Hamsa, President of CAPAM and Chief Secretary to the Government of Malaysia; the Right Honourable Patricia Scotland, QC, Secretary General of the Commonwealth, and the Hon Dato’ Sri Mohd Najib Tun Abdul Razak, Prime Minister of Malaysia. They described a public service that is becoming more responsive and citizen-focused, ranging from big conceptual strategies at the 10,000-metre level to small projects focused on the granularity at ground level. Having a mix 
of viewpoints from politicians, policy makers, and implementers helped us focus on all aspects of innovation and implementation. 

Innovation in the public service is not always easy and delegates were cautioned to fan the spark of competitiveness, and to stimulate the appetite for innovation. We need to continue to celebrate the forward edge, while working to lead the trailing edge to greater innovation. Innovation requires the ability to see a challenge as an opportunity, not a threat.

We found in our networking and discussion sessions that some public servants still need their organisations to be more supportive of them, and of innovation. While our speakers described noble projects focused on better meeting citizen needs, many participants, in workshops and side conversations, noted the need for their organisation to focus on public servants at the same time. They want their organisations fixed so they can focus on fixing the world. Several delegates expressed that eradicating dysfunctional and overly-lengthy meetings would be one example of a positive organisational change. Perhaps we need a dual focus that includes creating healthy organisations better able to innovate to meet citizens’ needs.

Highlights of What We Learned

  1. Effective implementation of innovation was described, and the need for a conceptual model to follow, but there seemed to be no “one best model”. We learned that Malaysia, Australia, and others used broad conceptual models. Whereas agencies such as Singapore’s Central Provident Fund focused on fine tuning their policies and balancing enforcement with customer service. 
  2. Benchmarking, which is an old process of comparing oneself to how another used to be, should be replaced by leap-frogging ahead. In line with the first observation, there was no need to identify good practice and try to emulate it. Instead participants were encouraged to focus on continuous improvement, which sometimes came in small chunks, and sometimes in big chunks, so that they could leapfrog over the leaders to become leaders themselves.
  3. Hackathons and other ways to engage citizens in identifying problems and solutions are useful.
  4. Some of our problems can be solved once, and then require only a small amount of attention to remain solved, as for example, the eradication of polio. Other problems, such as reducing criminal behaviour, and reintegrating offenders into society, require ongoing innovations and constant attention.
  5. Many of the best innovations come from the middle, where public servants are connected to both the policy direction and the front lines. But good ideas can come from anywhere – the canal top solar panel project was suggested by a Prime Minister, TNT’s Diamond buzz draws on new staff ’s ideas, hackathons involve the public. At the same time, the clay layer that impedes innovation is also often at the middle, where public service mid-managers fear the personal effects of innovation, or fear the discomfort of innovating.
  6. Silos will be with us for the foreseeable future, but we can build better governance, and thus better implementation, through collaboration, cross-functional teams, and open leadership.
  7. Technology drove innovation in the past two decades, but innovation is much broader now, affecting all of what we do, including non-I.T. processes.
  8. As always, transforming the mindset to be innovative is more difficult than coming up with and implementing an innovation.
  9. As needs change, so must policies and practices. For example, with an aging population and increased demands on health care, Singapore adjusted its policy to provide universal health coverage. As well, single-focus hospitals, (e.g. specializing in eye surgery), have become more effective and efficient at their specialty than multi-purpose hospitals. Both styles are needed.
  10. Change is changing. Some of us talk about “going online” or using “digital cameras.” Others of us “live online” and use “cameras” – digital being the only kind. Before, a new “wave” could sweep out the old wave, and the public service “sea” would return to calm. Now we have public servants familiar with one wave of technology or one way of doing things, another group that “grew up” with a different way of doing things, and a third or fourth group who are familiar with yet another process. All must be considered an innovative environment.
  11. We should focus on innovations we can influence, rather than on innovations others should make. Having this internal locus of control allows us to be more productive, and more satisfied that we are contributing to better service.
  12. Focus on proper implementation. We saw examples of how the same program, in the same country, have widely different effects in different areas under different leadership.
  13. You do not change innovative behaviour by listening to lectures on innovation – though none of the several speakers who mentioned this noted the irony that they were lecturing us at the time. You change it by doing. Two quotes from Henry Mintzberg stand out:  “Thoughtful reflection on natural experience, in the light of conceptual ideas, is the most powerful tool we have for management learning.” and “The best organisations are communities of engaged human beings, not collections of detached human resources.”

Importantly, the days of the meek, head-down file clerk civil servant are behind us; the days of the courageous, collaborative, engaged, citizen-focused, innovative public servant are ahead.

The International Innovation Awards presentations were, as always, a highlight. They are described in a separate article, but the learning from them is incorporated into the above highlights.

Call to Action

In the closing session, we looked at the challenges that lie before us, especially in the two years before the next biennial conference. We are on an exciting and invigorating journey. These challenges apply to all public servants, not just conference participants.
  1. We should all connect with and learn more about CAPAM’s SmartGov.online project. During the conference, a pilot was demonstrated that highlighted the potential this initiative has to help all in the public service be much more effective. Those not comfortable with this type of technology, who in the past ignored it, or asked a member of their staff to get connected, were challenged to learn to deal with their unfamiliarity and discomfort. Failure to use tools like this is like someone who needs it refusing cataract surgery. You can see so much better afterwards. Those not comfortable or familiar with the technology were urged to seek the help of a colleague more familiar with technology, if needed, to become familiar with it. Tech savvy may be beyond some of us, but we don’t need to be experts. One speaker had a beautiful picture of a turtle, suggesting some of us “turtled” when faced with change. The Prime Minister used the words of the television show, Yes Minister, where “it is under consideration” meant “we’ve lost the file” and won’t be doing anything about it. We need to stop being turtles and Sir Humphreys.
  2. Continue Networking. Some of our most productive times were in workshops and networking sessions. We can continue this style of learning and sharing, locally with our own organisations and public services, and globally across the Commonwealth with those we have met at this conference, and those we will connect with through using SmartGov. Public servants who were not at the conference can build networks and cross-functional teams.
  3. Practice Innovation. Participants were urged to take a practical idea or two with them to put into action. We can all practice innovation. This will require courageous conviction by some of us who are less comfortable with being innovators. Not all of us will be innovators, but those of us who aren’t need to understand innovation and stop blocking it in others. In discussions and workshops, delegates often gave examples of poor innovation leadership, rather than good examples. We need to become better at doing innovation. We cannot, like in the good old days of our parents, rely on the public service to be risk averse, implementing only what has been tried and true in other sectors.
  4. Continue to Learn. Sources of innovation can be as close to home as our own team. We do better with conscious, reflective thought.  We do better when we participate in regional CAPAM events. We do better when we are networked (e.g. following deliberations of the United Nations Committee of Experts on Public Administration). Read the Commonwealth Innovations Review. Find other sources of learning.
  5. Celebrate Innovation, and nominate good innovations for next conference’s Awards. Make innovation a part of your organisation’s DNA. Celebrate it. Think about projects on which you work or about which you know for submission to the next International Innovations Awards process, so that they can be celebrated and shared.

CAPAM is at a turning point. We have been facilitating the exchange of information and knowledge about public administration among Commonwealth countries for 22 years. Just as public services need to become more agile, responsive and anticipatory, CAPAM needs to do the same. During this conference we focused on leading innovation, the new normal; preparing the organisation and creating a culture of innovation; and implementing innovation and measuring the impact. We will continue and expand these areas of emphasis.

Ice hockey legend Wayne Gretsky changed the game by his approach. He had the ability to see where the play was headed, so skated to where he thought the puck was going to be rather than to where the puck was. His ability to forecast and anticipate, to constantly learn more about the game, contributed to his being a star.

What we have to do, as CAPAM, as public service organisations, as individual public servants, is to skate to where the puck is going to be. To anticipate where innovations are needed.

Our challenge as public servants is to build healthy organisations, where we have joy in our jobs, while innovating to better serve our citizens. Our challenge as CAPAM is to innovate to better meet the needs of public servants within the Commonwealth and beyond. That is the public service imperative.

Download this report originally published in the October 2016 Commonwealth Innovations Review

Download the conference highlights originally published in the October 2016 Commonwealth Innovations Review