Today’s problems, yesterday’s toolkit: new report pinpoints the public problem solving skills gap

This article was originally published on August 14, 2019 on The Mandarin by the Mandarin staff journalists.

A new report says public servants are being asked to solve today’s public problems with yesterday’s toolkit, and has proposed three focus areas to fix the skill gap and enable more public servants to become public entrepreneurs.

The report, published yesterday by the Australia and New Zealand School of Government and the Monash Sustainable Development Institute was authored by Beth Noveck, director of the Governance Lab at New York University and led President Obama’s Open Government initiative, and Rod Glover, MSDI’s interim director  and a former deputy secretary in the Victorian government.

The report includes the results of a survey of nearly 400 Australian public servants and dozens of interviews, that found officials are eager to join the world’s most informed and effective public administrations and adopt new ways of developing policy and services. The authors find that while Australia’s public sector is generally well-functioning, it faces a “creeping crisis” of effectiveness and legitimacy. Only 40% believe that senior management is willing to take risks to support new ideas. Middle management is also identified as a blocker to innovation.

The report argues that the struggle to deliver solutions to Australia’s crucial public challenges such as reducing emissions or Indigenous incarceration rates –the highest in the world – helps to explain why an Ipsos Social Research Survey conducted in 2018 found trust in Australian government to be at an all-time low. The report argues that the key to improving trust in government is to change the way people in government work.

The way forward

Noveck and Glover proposed three focus areas bring the public sector forward:

  1. Developing a 21st century toolkit for public problem solving, and a new pathway for problem solving that puts this toolkit to work. They proposed starting with the nine core innovation skills, and an approach that develops not only communities of practice around particular innovation skills, but also a wider expectation that all public servants will have a basic grasp of the full range of innovation skills, as well as an understanding of where and when they are best deployed.
  2. Designing more effective skills training, coaching and mentoring programs, informed by leading practices from around the world. They proposed adopting 10 global lessons in effective innovation skills training, as well as offering online learning and flexible, self-paced formats and timing, but also shifting from passive forms of training to more active hands-on coaching in problem-solving.
  3. Encouraging institutional experimentation, in a variety of forms, to enable innovation skills to be shared and deployed. They proposed bringing forging alternative environments to the risk-averse and silo-based cultures now entrenched in much of the public sector.

A panel discussion was held with the authors and Department of Foreign Affairs’ chief innovation office Sarah Pearson in Canberra to explore practical ways of implementing the recommendations and fostering public entrepreneurs. Mandarin Premium will be covering the lessons from that discussion later this week.