How governments around the world are encouraging civil servants to be more bold

When good ideas emerge, the public sector should seize on them, give them money – and publicise the civil servants who have dreamed them up. 

By Joshua Chambers

16 Feb 2016

In 1944, American Special Forces published a guide for undercover agents to bring down enemy organisations.

The Simple Sabotage Field Manual advises spies to “insist on doing everything through ‘channels’. Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.” They should also “advocate caution. Be ‘reasonable’…and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments.” 

These tips are sometimes followed by well-intentioned civil servants, which in turn can hamper government agencies’ attempts to tackle the biggest challenges of the day. In response, agencies around the world are experimenting with methods to encourage boldness. 

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Singapore, where I’m based, struggled in the 1990s because “the public service was running the risk of being a bit too rigid and set in its ways,” a senior official recently told me. They tried to encourage innovation in government through a new programme – PS21 – but it was not an immediate success.   

Civil servants had to come up with four ideas a month, with innovation hours set aside to brainstorm. This quickly became a process where employees simply met their quotas by suggesting flippant ideas, like moving the watercooler to a different corner of the office.

These days the approach has evolved, and departments are tasked with encouraging creativity. The centre, meanwhile, rewards it in three ways – money, recognition, and support. Innovation isn’t mandated, but when a good idea arises (and who really knows how some of the best ideas come up), it is quickly seized upon and given space to develop.

Australia takes this a step further, rewarding private sector innovators who solve public sector problems. For example, the Department of Foreign Affairs has set up an Innovation Xchange, which is running a global competition for ideas that could boost development in the Pacific. Public or private, Australian or otherwise, a good idea can get funding and be run as a pilot project.

The Prime Minister’s Office, meanwhile, incubates start-ups that use open data to tackle public sector challenges. Up to AU$200,000 is available, in partnership with a private sector investment organisation.

This approach isn’t just suitable for rich countries, though. Indonesia’s capital city, Jakarta, is riven with poverty, built on swamp land and – in the words of its governor – is “a ruined city, with traffic jams [and] corruption everywhere”.

Government officials there must innovate just to deliver basic services. Agencies have turned to the private sector in an interesting way: they piggy back on existing digital services to improve value for citizens. For example, they have partnered with a food review app to certify restaurants with good health and safety standards. They are also partnering with a transport app to run the buses, and another review app to generate complaints data and find which services are least efficient.

These start-ups are rewarded with free office space in the government’s state-of-the-art Smart City Unit with free WiFi and a high-tech environment. Hosting the burgeoning companies brings an innovative culture into the heart of government, and encourages civil servants to act like their private sector counterparts.

Singapore rewards useful start-ups in a more structured manner. It runs an accreditation programme that allows innovative start-ups to skip the usual stages of government procurement and compete against the multinationals for public sector contracts. A team of civil servants work with the start-up in advance of awarding it a contract, and then vouch for it when departments are tendering, ensuring that the city builds a stronger software eco-system. It’s bad news for some big name suppliers, but helps the government meet economic objectives – and bring in new ideas.

Hong Kong, meanwhile, offers a negative example of how to prevent good ideas growing. Civil service appraisals give no reward for innovation or risk-taking. They do, however, punish officials when schemes fail. It has created a culture where officials hire consultants just to get an outside view before starting a project, and then outsource project delivery to another set of consultants.

When good ideas do emerge, it’s best to ignore the CIA’s advice. Seize on them. Give them money. Publicise the civil servants who have dreamed them up. And get private sector start-ups on board too. This mix is proving beneficial in Asia, and could help these administrations leap ahead of their stodgy Western counterparts. 

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