Digital and innovation are getting lots of attention from public servants for good reason. Public servants work within structures and institutions that were designed years or decades or even longer ago, and which have often not evolved as the world around them has changed.

While the potential for transformation is large – there are many areas in which public services haven’t been able to deliver optimal outcomes – some of the reasons the potential exists are quite subtle.

One example is the economics of the digital era are different from the economics of the industrial era. Cost-effective delivery of services to large numbers of users in the industrial era was based on economies of scale. The economics of the digital era make mass personalisation possible – the Amazon bookstore that I see is not the same as the Amazon bookstore that you see – social media is based on communities taking a single construct and turning it into something meaningful for themselves (my Facebook community is different from the Facebook communities created by the NSW Police).

The opportunity is for public servants to create new public services that deliver better outcomes either to existing users or beneficiaries, or users who previously couldn’t or didn’t access the services.

A starting point to address this to create a digital innovation capability, and below is a checklist of the ingredients of such a capability.

1. Define the goal. Why are you innovating, what is the service or policy outcome you want to improve. An approach which starts from ‘we want to be innovative’ or ‘we need to become a more innovation culture’ is too vague. Better goals offer a clearer picture of the future. Some say the starting point is culture (‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’). Actually, the starting point is purpose. JF Kennedy didn’t declare he wanted to develop a space exploration oriented culture, he declared he wanted to send an American safely to the Moon before the end of the 1960s. A purpose provides the necessary focus for efforts, and enables measurement of whether progress is being made (and learning and iterating).

2. Define the remit. How radical is innovation allowed to be. The choices are: (a) sustaining innovation to make the existing services more convenient, faster, or cheaper focussing on process, or how the services are delivered or by who; (b) breakthrough innovation to deliver better outcomes that are potentially radically cheaper through redesigning the services themselves; or (c) transformational innovation, which involves redesigning services plus the supporting business model.

2. Senior level sponsorship and leadership. Innovation requires the support to do things differently, which may not be welcomed by all stakeholders, and ‘air cover’ to allow a process of discovery-testing-iterating (experimentation) where things will not always work or may happen more slowly (require more cycles) than expected.

3. Money or a mandate. There needs to be a reason (and permission) why people would want to work with you. One reason is there is an ‘authorising environment’ that allows the work to happen. The other is there is money – seed funding – for public servants to come forward with problems they want to see solved.

4. Process and metrics. Innovation doesn’t happen because of good intentions. And innovation isn’t just about producing ideas. Innovation happens only when an idea (actually a hypothesis) has been through a process of testing, iterating, scaling, can be used by the target audience, and the outcomes can be measured and compared against the previous service. This requires a process and metrics.

5. Capability.  There will be many people in your organisation who can become skilled at digital innovation. However as that suggests, digital innovation is a skill requiring experience and expertise. A good approach to capability building is a ‘master-apprentice’ model where you hire people with digital innovation expertise and experience who can work collaboratively with subject matter experts and others. That process not only enables innovation, but trains the next group of innovators. This also enables digital innovation efforts to scale across your organisation, rather than rely on a single team whose expertise will necessarily need to be rationed.

Now go forth and innovate. And remember you have a responsibility to those that come after. We are all at the early stages of this exciting journey. Share your learnings.