Reinventing how the public service works

This article was written by Maria Katsonis, Research Editor, The Mandarin. It was originally published on The Mandarin on August 20, 2019.


There is a pervasive sense that governments are not doing as well as they should to solve our biggest policy problems. This failure to meet our most pressing challenges with yesterday’s public sector toolkit is undermining trust in government. The complexity of today’s public problems demand a 21st century toolkit and institutions which enable, support and reward innovation.

At a glance

A new report from ANZSOG, the Monash Sustainable Development Institute and the NYU Governance Lab argues tackling today’s policy challenges need public entrepreneurs and organisations that use data driven, participatory practices.

Public entrepreneurs:

  • must know how to define actionable and specific problems.
  • be able to use participatory and human-centred practices.
  • be able to use data analytical methods to understand complex problems quantitatively.
  • learn to design solutions together with those they are trying to help.
  • implement measurable solutions by building collaborative teams and partnerships that span multiple disciplines and sectors.

The public problem solving pathway

Public problems are compelling challenges where:

  • neither the problem nor the solution are well-understood
  • both have to be defined in a contested political environment.

Ill-defined challenges such as income inequality, social exclusion or climate change are examples of public problems.

A public problem solving process with the following five steps can open thinking to different ways of working. It also allows public entrepreneurs to be more goal-oriented and anticipate the end result.

At each step, new methods and tools can help propel the process forward.

  1. Define actionable and specific problems. Skills: problem-definition.
  2. Use participatory and human centric practices to refine the problem that is important to people in real life. Skills:human-centred ethnography and systems thinking.
  3. Use data analytical methods to quantify complex problems. Skills: data science and evidence-synthesis.
  4. Design solutions together by leveraging collective intelligence. Skills: open innovation and behavioural insights.
  5. Implement measurable solutions. Skills: impact evaluation and building collaborative teams and partnerships.

The public entrepreneur’s skill set

To accelerate progress from idea to measurable solution requires five core skills. These are designed to foster more effectiveness and legitimacy in how a public servant works.

  1. Problem definition. Public entrepreneurs must know how to define actionable and specific problems. This cannot be done behind closed doors but must be undertaken in collaboration with stakeholders, experts and participants on different sides of an issue
  2. Participatory design skills. Public entrepreneurship demands the ability to use participatory and human-centred practices to further discover and refine the problem. Human-centred design asks: “Who are we creating the service for?” and “What are their needs?” rather than “What are we building?”
  3. Data-driven and evidence-based skills. Public entrepreneurs must be able to use data analytical methods to understand complex problems quantitatively.
  4. Open innovation skills. Solutions need to be designed together with those being helped and through leveraging the collective intelligence of communities.
  5. Implementation and collaboration skills. Public entrepreneurs must learn how to implement solutions by building collaborative teams and partnerships that span multiple disciplines and sectors.

The research

The report was informed by a survey of public servants from Australia and New Zealand. Just under 400 responses were received with the following respondent profile:

  • 90% are Australian
  • 10% are from New Zealand.
  • 55% work in a federal agency
  • 80% are mid or senior level managers.

The survey asked public servants about:

  • what they know
  • how they learn and would like to learn
  • how innovation skills are used in their agencies.

The survey focused on nine specific skills: problem definition, human-centred design, data analytical thinking, open innovation, behavioural insights, lean-agile, impact evaluation, evidence synthesis and systems thinking.

The findings showed a lack of knowledge about these skills and absence of their use. Respondents were most familiar with behavioural insights (65%) and human centred design (62%). Problem definition (60%), data analytical thinking (59%) and evidence synthesis (56%) were the most used skills.

Survey results  also highlighted a need for more blended forms of training and training that is hands on and problem-based.

Training for public service innovation skills

Public sector training needs to be overhauled to include the skills of public problem solving. It also needs to take advantage of new technology to deliver training and coaching at scale.

A review of global public sector innovation skills training programs revealed ten better practices:

  1. Go hybrid: create face-to-face and online training.
  2. Teach quantitative and qualitative skills: the best training programs teach digital, data and design rather than exclusively one or the other.
  3. Turn students into teachers: leverage alumni as experienced mentors.
  4. Survey people: assess what people want to know and how they want to learn.
  5. Strive for scale: build innovative agencies by training more people in different roles.
  6. Focus on sector-specific innovation: teach public problem solving in a specific domain.
  7. Coach, don’t just train: enable people to take a project from idea to implementation.
  8. Train citizens and civil servants together: create more public problem solvers.
  9. Use citizens as trainers: leverage public know-how to strengthen innovation.
  10. Teach the skills to solve problems: strengthen public entrepreneurship.

The bottom line

Public servants are being asked to solve today’s public problems with yesterday’s toolkit. Although new innovation skills are gathering momentum, they are not part of mainstream government practice.

The public sector needs to enable public servants to become public entrepreneurs by:

  • developing a 21st century toolkit for public problem solving and a new pathway for problem solving that puts this toolkit to work.
  • designing more effective skills training, coaching and mentoring programs, informed by leading practices from around the world.
  • encouraging institutional experimentation so innovation skills can be shared and deployed.