DFAT enjoying freedom to innovate outside of classified government network

Having its innovationXchange platform outside of the government network allows the foreign aid team to sneak in innovation on behalf of its other departmental segments.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

In 2015, Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop launched the innovationXchange in a bid to activate innovation across the Australian aid program, delivered by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).

In order to do that, DFAT had to look outside the Australian government's classified and protected networks, as it essentially needed the ability to innovate.

Speaking at the Technology in Government conference in Canberra on Tuesday, Jeff Roach, the first assistant secretary of the innovationXchange, said not being locked down by the restrictions the classified network enforces meant DFAT could step away from its reputation as a department good at implementation and risk neutralisation.

He said it allowed the historically non-creative department to shake that status.

"Underpinning all of that was an environment or a culture in which ideas have not been fostered," Roach said.

"Over the last four years, we've been taking forward a number of things to effectively try to loosen the screws and give staff that opportunity and that supporting environment to think creatively about policy settings."

To Roach, it was an important shift in how DFAT conducted itself, as previously staff had not been given the opportunity to think outside the box.

Although set up to provide innovative solutions to deliver aid, Roach said the innovationXchange is being leveraged by other areas of the department.

"We've used that freedom that has come from working on a non-DFAT system to go out and do things that other parts of the organisation may wish to do, but simply don't have that technical operating licence," he explained.

Roach said DFAT has been quite opportunistic with its innovationXchange, exploring emerging technologies such as virtual reality and running "ideas challenges" that have been "pivotal in unblocking the taps" and getting people thinking about ideas.

"We can use technology to provide us with these platforms to create new ways of seeing opportunities for thinking about behaviour change externally, thinking about it in terms of fostering our creativity in workplaces, but at the end of the day, you need substance behind it," Roach said.

"Without the substance, it doesn't matter how big your platform is, regrettably it doesn't matter how good your technology is, it's got to come down to that position taken by senior leadership about how serious they are about creating innovation within a government department or agency.

"Establish that first, and then look at the technology solutions that hang behind it."

During his election campaign last year, Labor leader Bill Shorten announced plans to "improve the budget bottom line". One of his proposed measures was to redirect spending from DFAT to other budget priorities, which included the abolition of the innovationXchange.

At the time, Shorten said the innovation hub focused on "purchasing bean bags" and binning it would save AU$4 million over the medium term.

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