Sparking innovation: how to build a more adventurous, inventive workforce

By on 23/11/2020 | Updated on 27/01/2022
Senior civil servants said that technical skills such as project management are essential to creating more innovative organisations. Credit: Pixabay.

At Innovation 2020, senior civil service leaders discussed how reforming recruitment, staff development and accountability systems gives officials the skills and tools to meet challenges. Elaine Knutt reports on their findings

In many civil services around the world, the gap between policy staff and technical and delivery professionals is rather like a class divide. “I’ve heard it described as almost like ‘blue collar’ versus ‘white collar’ workers, where the white collar are the policy people, and the blue collar are the delivery and the digital people,” said Fiona Deans, acting director general of the UK’s Government Digital Service.

Deans was speaking on 17 November at Innovation 2020, a two-day Global Government Forum event held online. Senior officials from around the world first chaired workshops for civil servants, then shared their findings in panel discussions with the goal of exploring how best to promote innovation in government. At this first panel, which focused on the skills and tools required by staff, speakers pointed out that technical skills in fields such as digital and project management are essential to creating more innovative organisations.

These disciplines have long been undervalued within many governments. As Hala Audi, director of strategy, performance and assurance at the UK’s Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), said: “We’ve portrayed working in the civil service as… the temple for high intellect and the ability to create really complex reports. That, to me, has been emphasised more than engineering skills or project delivery skills.”

But the enormous pressures created by coronavirus are accelerating existing reform programmes, forcing reluctant officials to embrace change, and demonstrating the value of specialists who can rapidly stand up a new service or pull together the data to inform policy design. The pandemic has acted much like a “chief innovation officer” in many organisations, pushing leaders to embrace service transformation and new ways of working, according to May Gee Lee, director of the Public Sector Transformation Cluster in Singapore’s Prime Minister’s Office.

Reporting findings from her workshop – which brought together workforce, workplace and property professionals ­– Lee also said that COVID-19 has silenced the home working sceptics who judge people’s contribution by the time they spend at their desks. Meanwhile, she argued, it has catalysed a “greater acceptance of agile methodologies” under which projects are pursued by experimentation and exploration rather than according to a fixed, detailed timetable.

Recruiting the innovative

Fiona Deans, acting director general of the UK’s Government Digital Service

In part, innovation depends on strengthening those technical skills – and Audi, whose workshop focused on programme and project management issues, pointed out the strength of civil services’ recruitment offer. “The centre, the heart of what we do, is to deliver these outcomes for citizens. There’s something very powerful in the way we communicate that when we recruit,” she said.

Deans, who joined the civil service in 2018 after a private sector digital career, agreed. “It’s about explaining to digital professionals what amazing problems you get to come in and solve in governments; problems on a population scale, [with] user numbers that are beyond many private sector companies’ wildest dreams.”

Raj Thuppal, chief technology officer at Shared Services Canada, had led a workshop on how to recruit, retain and train an innovative workforce. His group, he reported, had noted that by prompting a wholesale shift to remote working and disrupting labour markets, the pandemic has helped improve the public sector’s access to technical skills: “People can work from anywhere in the country. And that actually opened up a number of opportunities for people to bring the right set of people to the jobs.”

Thuppal suggested that civil service recruitment frameworks – which are rarely as flexible as the markets they serve – need updating to reflect today’s conditions, however. “Are changes required to those frameworks so that we can be faster in bringing people on board into government?” he asked.

One workshop participant, he added, had suggested adopting some of the techniques used by start-up firms – such as making conditional, on-the-spot job offers at recruitment fairs. Another had argued for the development of relationships with universities and, where they don’t already exist, the creation of structured staff development programmes that rotate recruits through a range of departments.

On equity and diversity

Hala Audi, director of strategy, performance and assurance at the UK’s Infrastructure and Projects Authority

But there were concerns that creating “in-groups” within recruitment and development systems would also inevitably create “out-groups”, Thuppal noted. “If we are giving these opportunities to the new recruits, what happens to all the people that are already there? How do we make sure that it is inclusive of people, and ensure that any new systems we put in place are applicable to everyone, not just the new talent that comes in?”

However, innovations in working methods could make civil service roles much more accessible – allowing a more diverse range of people to contribute. For Audi, a Lebanese national, the ability to share screens across almost any geo-political border could be transformative. In many fields, she said, travel or visa limitations mean that “you end up having the same people meeting all the time between themselves, and no diversity at all. I’m hopeful that the move to digital thanks to COVID will democratise… who participates in the debate.”

It could also support better learning between the staff from different countries, said Audi, providing a powerful tool for learning. Her workshop participants came from several countries, she noted, but they shared common experiences such as the constraints presented by legacy IT systems and the tendency for major projects to operate in the shadow of previous high-profile failures. And if the problems are common, then some of the solutions may also be relevant across borders. Nonetheless, “even though we in different countries go through the same things, there isn’t a database, there isn’t the ease of access to the data and the learning that we would want to see,” she said. “And this is how is it in 2020.”

Developing staff

May Gee Lee, director of the Public Sector Transformation Cluster in Singapore’s Prime Minister’s Office

At root, suggested Audi, providing the right skills and tools for staff is more perspiration than inspiration: organisations must invest in their workforces, she said, with key functions creating a “professionalised group of practitioners in government”. At the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, she added, “we partner with leading universities: we have master level classes, we also have lower level programmes. We think that’s a high-value, ‘bang for your buck’ way of investing in your people.”

In Singapore, commented Lee, the government is “consolidating many of our digital training programs into a digital academy that would put in place the infrastructure for us to… systematically build up digital capabilities across our entire workforce”.

Meanwhile, Deans – whose workshop had served those with an interest in digital, statistics and knowledge management issues – suggested that staff development work should focus on fostering a “problem-solving” mindset and an improved awareness of how people think. One workshop participant, she added, had highlighted organisational thinker Simon Sinek’s approach “as a way to really get under the skin of the problems they’re working on”.

Taking risks on risk

Boosting innovation, though, demands more than changing the workforce: civil servants’ default setting of risk-minimisation mitigates against trying new ways of doing things. The experimental “agile” approach and the need to respond rapidly to coronavirus sit awkwardly with government expectations on compliance and accountability, noted Deans. 

“With COVID-19, people took a lot more risks because they had to. That was one of the ways that innovation has happened,” she said. “But now we’re getting to the stage where the National Audit Office is looking at what happened; it’s coming before [Parliament’s] Public Accounts Committee. When you’re about to take a risk, you think of how you are going to explain it later.”

Raj Thuppal, chief technology officer at Shared Services Canada

So just as project delivery teams have evolved to adopt agile methodologies, she argued, systems of scrutiny and accountability need to recognise the value of taking well-judged risks. “Government has to become more comfortable with failures, and just accept them and move on, rather than constantly try and get in a cycle where you’re trying to fix it,” she said.

Similarly, Lee said that “leaders need to create psychological safety for people to innovate”, including open discussions on “autonomy and [the] risk appetite that goes with experimentation”. Aspects of that process could be uncomfortable, she acknowledged. “It’s very hard for people to celebrate failure, or to be very open about failure; more often than not, we are sharing success stories. But people need to know that it’s okay to try and to try again, if things don’t work out.” There’s just as much to learn from errors and imperfect errors as from stories of success, the panel agreed.

Don’t slip backwards

Though obstacles remain, progress is being made on all these fronts – much of it accelerated by the urgent need to tackle COVID-19. Now, said Lee, civil servants must work to secure and build on the advances made over the last year. “Even as we continue to fight the pandemic, it’s also about how do we prepare for the future, so that when we emerge from the crisis, we will emerge stronger and [can] transform public service,” she said.

Huge steps have been taken, she added, in fields such as data science and technology, cross-agency collaboration and agile working. “The question going forward is: how do we lock in these gains? What policies or structures must change in order for us to entrench the gains that were made during this period, so that we remain responsive as a public service to the fast-changing operating environment?”

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. This report covers the first panel; we’ll publish reports on the other panels soon.

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