Finance and governance are not the gatekeepers of innovation

By on 18/12/2020
Team work and collaboration is the key to unlocking innovation. Credit: George Becker/Pexels

At a recent event, senior leaders discussed how governance and processes can support new thinking. While siloes can be problematic, COVID has shown that collaboration is key. Adam Branson reports

“Finance and governance are sometimes seen as the enemy, the gatekeeper or the judge of people who are just trying to get something solved,” said Matthew Rees, director of regulation and economics at the Single Source Regulations Office in the UK.

“The procurement and the commercial team need the help, they need their colleagues to work with them to get the right solution,” he added. “That needs to be capable of being inspected – and scrutiny is important – but it’s the teamwork that brings it all together rather than an adversarial relationship, which doesn’t work very well.”

Rees was speaking at Innovation 2020, a two-day event hosted online by Global Government Forum. The previous day, senior officials from around the world had chaired workshops for different groups of civil servants, exploring how governance and processes can best support innovation.

At this panel discussion on day two, several workshop chairs came together to share their groups’ views and provide their own perspectives. While COVID-19 has proved how collaborative and agile civil services can be, it hasn’t completely transformed processes: departmental silos and fear of change can still hamper innovative thinking and projects.

Disruptive forces

The COVID-19 pandemic pushed people to find innovative solutions more quickly, says Vesa Lipponen, chief information officer at the Ministry of Finance in Finland. “We have been more agile; we have been faster than normal,” he said, adding that usually politicians ask officials to be “risk oriented”. “We have had to co-work more than normal,” he noted.

Lipponen pointed to his government’s track and trace app to illustrate his point. It took just three months to launch, whereas in normal times such a project would take a year or two. For this to happen, different parts of government needed to work together, solving multiple problems at the same time.  

“There was legislation we had to change and then there’s the technical part, of course, and there is a security problem,” said Lipponen. “The results were done fast because there was simultaneous working with lawyers, technicians and engineers. This is something that I think we really, really enjoyed and are going to probably see more in the future.” 

Looking outwards

Other workshops focused on international collaboration during the pandemic. Kevin Cunnington, director general of the International Government Service in the UK, said his group discussed several areas in which the UK government had worked closely with international partners. This included supporting civil servants to collaborate effectively when working remotely.  

“We’ve had quite a lot of interest from other countries on best practice for video conferencing – how to make them more interactive,” said Cunnington. “I think what most of us found, particularly at the start [of mass working from home], is that it tended to be quite ‘broadcasty’. So we spent a lot of time and energy in the UK trying to introduce polling, trying to choose questions, trying to introduce more interaction, mix it up a bit by using different speakers to keep it interesting.” 

There are still challenges however, conceded Cunnington. “The workshop found that people find it much more difficult to build new teams and I’ve experienced that myself,” he said. “I think we all find it just a little bit harder to disagree with people virtually, because it doesn’t come across quite in the same way. And it’s quite difficult to read people’s body language virtually as well, which I think doesn’t help our situation.” 

The new normal

Even before the pandemic, officials in New Zealand were being challenged to think differently. In 2019, the country’s political leaders announced that officials should consider the impact on citizens’ wellbeing when formulating policy and making budgetary decisions, rather than GDP.

The move encouraged both innovation and collaboration, said Paul O’Neil, deputy chief executive of operations and general counsel at the Serious Fraud Office in New Zealand. Firstly, it promoted a “different language”, he said: officials were considering outcomes like civic engagement and governance, cultural identity, the environment, health and housing.

“It put people in a position where they are formulating what the achievements of the programme might be in a different language. They had to be more creative around the targets they were going to set and how they were going to achieve them,” he noted. It also made collaboration “essential because you had to connect your outcomes and the way your programme was running with other outcomes,” he added.

It’s about perspectives

But if the pandemic and other approaches have ushered in new ways of working, some habits are proving harder to break. If government looks at things at a portfolio it can take more risk because it’s got more opportunity, according to Rees.

It is harder to cope with failure in the public sector, he added. “That’s often because things are a little bit siloed: either at the project level, people aren’t looking at the programme portfolio; or at a government level, they are not looking at it across departments – they’re looking at each department individually,” he said.

It’s unfair to criticise individual departments and teams, he added, because they’re doing the best with what they know. “But I think what’s missing sometimes is the ability to talk across departments, across disciplines, across organisations and across the public-private boundaries – and that’s really where we see success coming from portfolios.” 

Managing unknowns

Another challenge to innovation is “fear of the new”, according to Lipponen. “Change is something that we are very scared of at a government level. I don’t mean this individually – we do have great people here and I know [that’s true] globally – but basically, change isn’t the normal thing to do for a government,” he said.

The unknown outcomes can add to the difficulty, noted Lipponen. When trying something new, no one knows what the outcomes will be and if it will work. This, combined with change, brings risk.  “There is the idea that this might be a risk to my career, to this organisation or there is some political risk,” said Lipponen. 

“Everybody wants those quick wins; nobody wants those losses. And I think we should understand the risks that we are taking, then put it down, accept it and try to move on.”

Innovation 2020 comprised over 20 workshops for civil servants from around the world, each addressing different aspects of innovation; those workshops’ chairs then sat on five panel discussions on the second day of the event.

The first panel discussion covered the skills and tools required to innovate; the second covered better use of data; and the third focused on commissioning and deploying new technologies. This report covers the fourth panel, which focused on how programme approval, management and governance processes can best be adapted to support innovation across government.

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