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Innovation and risk

Experimentation and innovation are keys to enabling change. We know from analysis and experience that New Zealand's public services do not have a well-developed learning culture. A learning culture is one that tries new solutions to issues, and exploits opportunities to deliver services to communities in new and more effective ways. It works hard to determine what works and why, and to apply these insights quickly. It looks outwards to other organisations for insights, benchmarking and looking to adopt best practice. A learning culture is key to developing more responsive citizen-centred public services.

The climate in the public sector is shifting and there are many examples of innovative measures to improve performance and services. The equally significant challenge is to get public sector agencies to recognise and apply the innovative success of others. As chief executives we need to be as receptive to, and rewarding of, applying the success of others as we are to our own innovations. Likewise, Ministers need to be alert to adopting innovative solutions from other areas where they apply.

We are making progress in applying the techniques of innovation across the system; the uptake of continuous improvement methodologies is an example of this. Responding to the challenges outlined above – in funding, leadership development, use of data and the policy system – will require more innovative approaches.

But the key to this, and the major enabler of organisational learning, will be overcoming the risk aversion that is a pervasive part of the culture of the public services.

Performance and service improvement will not happen without an ability to experiment. Success and failure are both good teachers; if we do not risk failure we cannot learn. A public that is attuned to that in the public sector is a major challenge.

The scope for taking risks should be a major topic of discussion between Ministers and chief executives. Clearly there are areas where a zero tolerance approach to risk is appropriate. But there are areas, especially new initiatives and pilots, where officials and Ministers should both be more open to experiment and tolerant of the risk that comes with exploring new ways of working.

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