Strategic Innovation and Local Government National Roundtable 8 May 2012

Is there a difference in how you innovate at the Australian Government level as opposed to in local government?

I was preoccupied with this question when I recently attended the Strategic Innovation and Local Government National Roundtable organised by the Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government and the ANZSOG Institute for Governance at the University of Canberra.

The purpose of the Roundtable was to provide insights and recommendations for growing a culture of innovation within the Australian Local Government sector. The day began with some interesting discussion about the factors requiring innovation in local government, the practice of innovation from the perspective of Adelaide’s Lord Mayor, Stephen Yarwood, and what can be learnt from the private sector about the practice of innovation.

Part of the discussion was around the issue of what language should be used when talking about ‘innovation’ and the prospect that innovation has become a negative word in local government and thus should be avoided. There was the suggestion that it would be better to focus on the language of ‘problem solving’ and ‘ingenuity’ which are better understood and less contentious.

This is a perspective with which I have some sympathy  – after a while as a practitioner the word ‘innovation’ can seem like it is used too often, for too many things and is seen as too vague and nebulous a term.

But personally I agree with Christian Bason (MindLab’s Innovation Director) when he said that “if ‘innovation’ wasn’t part of our vocabulary, we’d have to invent it. Innovation is the only term we have that captures the notion of creating something new that works.”[1. This quote is not covered by the Creative Commons licence or Commonwealth Copyright. From Christian Bason “Why is innovation a terrible word?” 12 July 2010 accessed at http://mindblog.dk/en/2010/07/12/why-is-innovation-a-terrible-word/]. It may not be the best word, but I don’t think we should step back from it, and I worry that if other language is adopted, the same issues will be faced over time with any ‘new’ words.

The Roundtable’s afternoon discussion covered many issues that are familiar to us working on innovation in the Australian Government – the need to establish a strategic vision, using communities of practice, the importance of experimentation and of leadership, and the need to resource problem solving.

It also covered a number of challenges that are just as familiar – how to foster team collaboration in problem-solving, how to build and develop institutional knowledge, and the question of how you maintain a culture of problem-solving or innovation over time.

At the end of the day did I have an answer to my question about how innovation differs between the federal and local tiers of government? To be honest, I’m still not sure. I think there are differences but I am not sure whether those differences matter as much as the similarities. I suspect this will be something we better understand over time, in part through the work of the Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government.

For those employed in local government and interested in innovation, I highly recommend investigating their IKEN (Innovation and Knowledge Exchange Network) resource (as well as our own Toolkit, of course!).
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