Technology or public service culture? Redefining innovation in Australia

Renee Leon

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An innovation-capable Australia will require governments to focus on public sector culture as well as technology, Professor Jenny M Lewis from the University of Melbourne writes. 

Innovation has become a magic term to capture how nations will solve the complex challenges facing them. But changing definitions of innovation so far have been hampering Australia’s innovation capacity. 

Driving the knowledge economy by supporting the generation of innovative products and start-ups (commercialisation), doing more with less to make the best use of stretched funds in government (frugal innovation), rebuilding trust in the public sector (democratic innovation), and addressing global challenges like climate change (mission-driven innovation) are just four examples of how innovation is now discussed in Australia and around the world.  

So, what do we mean when we talk about ‘innovation’? 

The expanding meaning of innovation and its increasing presence in public discussions, leads to the question of whether Australia has a coherent approach.  

To answer this, we need to know: How do governments define innovation? What work do these definitions do in shaping ‘what is the problem’ of innovation and potential solutions? These questions are important if policy on innovation is to be best supported by public sector staff and directed in the most appropriate way. As it turns out, public sector culture is an important topic for innovation. 

Our research examined how Australian governments have defined innovation over four decades.  

We found clear and conflicting signals of policy intentions about how to make the nation more innovative in 79 Australian (national level) policy documents published from 1976 to 2019.  

We closely read these documents and did a computational analysis of the same documents. Our aim was to follow the trajectory of innovation definitions over time in search of themes. 

We found two main definitions of innovation used in policy in Australia—one related to technology and one related to culture.  

This divide corresponds to changing definitions of innovation, which in the early days of the establishment of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) was heavily focused on science and research (1960s), before including a stronger focus on technology and industry (1970s and 1980s). Both of these fit within the ‘technology’ definition.  

The ‘culture’ definition is more recent (1990s onwards), in line with system ideas about national innovation policy. This change included the role of governments and public service organisations in innovation, suggesting that these needed to play a greater direct role and become more innovative themselves. 

Our analysis showed that innovation as technology can be further divided into a focus on businesses, or a focus on research and development (R&D). Highlighting the most exclusive words dividing the three definitions illustrates the differences: 

  • Businessfirm, innovation, innovation system, university, proposition, intellectual, business, industry, IP, science 
  • Research and developmentR&D, ISA (=Innovation and Science Australia), growth, tax, company, economy, GDP, imperative, OECD, expenditure 
  • Public sector cultureinnovation, innovative, idea, public sector, solution, barrier, literature, pilot, risk, failure. 

Further, we discovered that different innovation definitions dominated at different times. Coalition governments tended to favour the technology (business and R&D) definitions over culture, with Labor governments doing the opposite.  

During both the 1983-96 and 2007-2013 Labor government terms, public service culture was the main theme for innovation. In contrast, the 1996-2007 Coalition government favoured a business definition, while the 2013-19 Coalition government favoured R&D.  

These different approaches to policy on innovation in Australia suggest a lack of coherence and consistency in policy over the long term.  

If innovation is defined as 1) business, 2) R&D, or 3) public sector culture, then the problem is seen to be: 1) lack of support for businesses to be the innovators, 2) lack of tax breaks for technological breakthroughs, or 3) stifling bureaucracy and a lack in innovators inside public service departments.  

Further, the policy solutions to these problems might be promoting technology via private sector incentives or restructuring the public sector to make it more innovative. The role of public servants in these starkly opposing solutions is very different. 

The changing definitions over time, and the link to which government is in power, suggests a lack of cohesion in a national outlook to supporting innovation over the long-term. Attention needs to be directed to both technology and culture if the aim is to support more innovation-capable national systems in Australia.  

The current Labor government might be expected, in line with previous Labor governments, to be more inclined to focus on public sector culture.  

Early signs are that the Australian Public Service is now seen more as a trusted partner with relevant policy expertise – and this has now become a crucial issue with the recent PwC revelations of impropriety 

A definitional change back towards a focus on public sector culture would signal a desire to innovate within important policymaking organisations in Australia. It should also improve Australia’s innovation capacity beyond a reliance on technology to deliver innovation. 

Read the full article in the Australian Journal of Public Administration: 

Professor Jenny M Lewis is Professor of Public Policy in the School of Social and Political Sciences at The University of Melbourne. She is also Academic Director, Scholarly and Social Research Impact for Chancellery Research and Enterprise. 

She is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences Australia in 2020 and was presented with a Routledge lifetime achievement award by the International Research Society for Public Management in 2023. Jenny is the winner of four different international journal prizes and a past President of the International Research Society for Public Management and the Australian Political Studies Association. She is an expert on policy making, policy design and public sector innovation and was the founding Director of The Policy Lab. Jenny returned to Australia from Denmark as an Australian Research Council Future Fellow for 2013-16, has received multiple research grants within Australia and internationally, and has authored many publications which can be found here: Google Scholar Citations