• Opinion
  • April 4, 2019
  • 8 minutes
  • 1

Governments can’t be innovative on our own — we need partners

Opinion: External partners are teaching our city council new ways of thinking

This piece was written by Ricardo Martello, Manager of Logan City Council’s City Futures Branch. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.

Governments around the world want to be seen as being innovative, but how easy is that to achieve when the very traits that define a government can often be the biggest barriers to change? One council in Australia is harnessing the power of partnerships to circumvent traditional stumbling blocks to innovation.

Local governments in Australia, like those elsewhere in the world, have been grappling with the challenge of what it means to be “innovative” in an age where the term is over-used and increasingly misused.

Political leaders generally want quick results, which can often lead to reactive projects that are neither strategic, nor neatly fit the local context. Projects can also be constrained by what is traditional or “appropriate” for a government in terms of its function and civic remit.

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Being a government in itself can also be a barrier to innovation. Policies and procedures underpin robust governance, but they can also be an impediment when government organisations want to be agile and responsive. A council can employ staff with amazing creativity and new ways of thinking, but unless the organisation can harness and respond to that creativity, great ideas will wither and die on the vine and those creative public servants will move on to more flexible working environments.

At Logan City Council in Queensland, Australia, we’ve tackled this issue by harnessing the power of partnerships beyond our organisation, and then using what we’ve learned through those partnerships to influence our own approach to problem-solving.

Being a government in itself can also be a barrier to innovation

Logan is a city of 315,000 people (from 215 different cultural backgrounds) across 70 urban and rural suburbs. In 2016, the newly elected council set a vision for Logan to become an “innovative, dynamic city of the future”. The Mayor and Councillors wanted to take advantage of emerging technology and the digital revolution to drive a new wave of economic growth for the city, which has historically had pockets of high unemployment and disadvantage.

Needless to say, this was not going to be a quick two-step fix. However, expectations among elected members were that the organisation would deliver tangible results quickly, particularly when they also endorsed creating a new function area to drive innovation: the City Futures Branch.

The first priority for this fledgling team was to develop Logan’s first City Futures Strategy, an aspirational document built on feedback from the community on how innovation and technology could benefit the City of Logan.

The team simultaneously set about exploring the innovation landscape locally, nationally and internationally. An early win was securing Logan as one of only two local governments in Australia to sign-up with leading Canadian program, City Studio Vancouver. This initiative brings together Council staff, local students, academics and the wider community to work on social innovation projects.

What does that really mean in practical terms? It means the Council has cultivated a range of partners it can bring together to solve particular social challenges: in essence, a matchmaking service.

The most recent project involved a collaboration with a YMCA secondary vocational school and the Ethnic Communities Council of Logan to create a greater sense of place at Logan’s weekly Global Food Village Markets, held in a part of the city that has experienced image challenges due to its street culture and historical perception of crime issues.

The next piece of the puzzle was to formalise Logan’s entrepreneurial network. In June 2018, Council joined local entrepreneurs for beer and pizza at a social enterprise advanced manufacturing site. The hot topic of conversation was the need to make it easier for startups in Logan to connect with the information, support and funding they need.

The result was the formation of the Logan Entrepreneurs Group and the creation of INNOV8Logan.com.au, an online innovation hub where Logan’s entrepreneurial ecosystem can be easily accessed.

We had never had a structured approach to problem solving

While Council has a seat at the table and provides extensive in-kind support, the Logan Entrepreneurs Group has the freedom to drive hub content, deliver entrepreneur support programs, and coordinate innovator meet-ups and other activities aimed at connecting innovators and other stakeholders.

Through our involvement with City Studios and INNOV8Logan, we learned much about approaches, systems and practices that can lead to genuine innovative thinking and outcomes.

While the Council has, of course, been finding creative solutions to challenges for years, we had never had a structured approach to problem solving, or an embedded culture that thrived on complex challenges requiring a different way of thinking.

So, the third piece of our “Partnerships for Innovation” initiative was to create our own Internal Collaborative Network (ICN), to encourage staff to think differently about problem-solving.

Launched in July 2018, the ICN involved staff from across the organisation self-nominating to participate. Selected staff then worked together to identify perceived local challenges, validate assumptions, and develop and test solutions. The first round of challenges — which included a Shark Tank-style project pitch to executive leaders — taught participants valuable lessons in not being too solution-focused, given several “problems” couldn’t be validated.

This was a learning for management as much as operational staff. Council needed to give participating staff space to explore, learn and fail — a luxury not often afforded to public servants — in order to show the value of the process, not just the outcome. This will and patience will be required for our next round of challenges in 2019.

Council is in the early phase of its transition to a truly “innovative” government organisation. We still face a number of challenges, even at a simple communication level of having an agreed understanding of what “innovation” means. But we are on our way, thanks to partners who are teaching us new ways to think. — Ricardo Martello

Logan City Council’s Partnerships for Innovation was a finalist in Apolitical’s Cities of the Future Policy Competition.

(Picture credit: Unsplash)


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