Removing hierarchy to spark innovation within the New Zealand government

The innovation lab is charged with helping government agencies develop products and services that actually benefit citizens.

The New Zealand government in early 2017 stood up an innovation lab that aimed to bring citizen service delivery to the forefront of the public service.

The lab work is being led by the Service Innovation Team out of the Department of Internal Affairs -- New Zealand's oldest government department. It's also part of the nation's Chief Digital Office, charged with digital transformation within the government.

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According to Glen Thurston, service design lead, all the existing strategies within government were there, but its delivery needed improvement.

What had started as a 10-week experiment to see what could be done in the space turned into a full-time initiative, Thurston told the Public Sector Digital Transformation & Optimisation conference in Canberra on Wednesday.

The lab sees those involved experimenting with a new model for government services based on the idea of government information, services, and rules being available as APIs -- "government as a platform".

"Government at the moment isn't well set up in New Zealand for sharing, everyone assumes we do it ... but that's far from correct," he explained. "We don't necessarily share information particularly well, sharing skills between the different departments is really tricky as well, access to data, and access to people with the right skills and ways of working has been a challenge as well.

"We also have an environment -- it's been a very lean government, very focused on government being small -- to do more with less inefficiencies and focus on the BAU sort of targets that we have and not a lot of incentive to focus on all-of-government goals."

What that resulted in, Thurston said, was citizens having great difficulty in trying to access government services, often being required to contact multiple agencies to achieve their outcome.

"People shouldn't necessarily need to know the structure of government to get what they're entitled to," he added, noting he was told by a government contact centre to flip through legislation to have his question answered. "That's not acceptable, the rules shouldn't be that hard."

The lab has an all-of-government focus, which Thurston said had proved to be difficult to work in, especially when having to consider the needs of all of the different agencies and partner, as it's their projects that are being worked on.

"We don't control any of the products or services that we work on in the lab ... everything we do has to be collaborative," he explained.

"Our value proposition at this stage has to be flexible, at the moment we're contributing to projects within our customers work programs; building and providing examples to demonstrate technology processes that facilitate change; and support businesses owners to make all-of-government changes for themselves as well."

The space the lab operates out of isn't huge, but Thurston said it feels like an early stage startup. Government agencies can choose to either bring their own small teams into the space, work with the 15 staff the lab has, or attend workshops run out of the lab.

"You can't under estimate the actual physical space and what it does to people as well," he said.

"The neutrality of the space is important because it removes the hierarchy, it removes some of the power games that sometimes agencies unintentionally have, and when they come together they can focus on what's important -- the customer."

However, changing up an environment can create a clash of cultures, which is something Thurston said he has been experiencing.

"We're hosted by a very traditional government agency ... but the lean startup style approach that we brought into the lab has caused some tensions," he said.

"Leaders need to recognise that this okay and bringing an innovation team together will challenge the status quo significantly internally but also with your agency partners as well."

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