Innovation isn’t just a buzzword – without it our future prosperity will suffer

It’s easy to be cynical about the word innovation. The concept has become a buzz term, up there with “synergise,” “leverage” and “out of the box.”


Every politician is saying it; it is on every news report and at the forefront of many business agendas.


Many have claimed the recent focus of innovation in government is just another way for politicians to define themselves and their opponents, to seek a rise in the polls, or to win an election.


That masks a greater truth – the term does indeed mean something, and failure to take real action and actually innovate will cost Australians jobs and kill our future prosperity.


Innovation is about doing something new that creates value. Furthermore, to actually innovate, you’ve also got to stop doing old things.


With the innovation agenda very much in the public conversation, I thought I would offer some practical advice that goes beyond repeating the word over and over again.


At the core of the advice is a reminder of the different roles and responsibilities of the levels of government.


Federal = enabler

Innovation is a journey and many are confused. Federal politicians need to show all Australians the real economic problems beyond debit, deficit and declining productivity.


They’re currently preaching to the converted, the message of innovation resonates with people who are already convinced, the practicality of that change needs to be felt in every business in the country.


Federal politicians are change leaders and need to act that way, they shouldn’t get bogged down in the detail. Their role is to create the conditions in which businesses can thrive; yes, this means policy that counts, and you need to lance that boil of workforce flexibility and tackle the challenge of the broad-based consumption tax.


They need to ensure commonwealth services are digital and best of breed, and the federal government needs to show leadership in providing digital protection and a digital identity for all Australians (it’s a hard one I know).


They can also show leadership by using their financial power to mandate open data as the default for all public entities in Australia.


Finally – and this affects all levels of government – procurement. Only the federal layer of government has the ability to harmonise this mess, mandate innovation and get out of the business of IT that is not in the national interest.


State = facilitator

The state needs to find the middle ground with its politics. The economics are in, now is the time to focus on providing the very best services they can, rather than following a narrow ideological bent and disrupting innovative change.


The state can fiddle at the edges all they like but unless they facilitate innovative economy unemployment will rise.


To do so the first step is to harmonise individual taxes and market regulations and reduce regulation to that which is strictly necessary to protect demonstrated public harm.


A key role of the state is to provide our children the very best opportunities through education that teaches more than code – it teaches entrepreneurial skills, critical thinking and business basics at high school.


The state should also mandate digital change in the areas in which they are mostly responsible: health, human services and transport. In doing so we can provide better service with less and still create more jobs.


The state must understand commercial risk and stop preaching to the private sector. The time for talking is over. Start acting.


And you guessed it, procurement is broken, and badly. Please get out of your own way when it comes to technology.


Local = activator

This is hard politics. Councils are on the frontline every day and control very little of what the community complains about.


There are some shining examples in Australia of local governments working well, large and small; successful councils make it happen in their towns and cities – no more think tanks, no more talking!


They work closely with industries of all sectors and guide, support and mentor small business – the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker want to innovate, they just don’t know what to do next.


Councils need to stop the pretence of being special and different to their neighbouring local government. Digital does not care about geography or understand that you’re playing catch-up. Councils’ internal digital change needs some adrenaline.


And as with the other levels of government, procurement needs fixing. Please councils, get out of your own way when it comes to technology that will create more jobs even in regional areas.


So I admit it, this might sound a little condescending from someone who’s never been or wants to be in political life. The intent is to be part of the solution, not the problem.


Australia is not the healthy spring chicken we’d all like it to be. We really do need to pull our socks up, all of us. It’s OK to say, “I don’t know” because it’s about innovation, no single person has the answer.


The ‘digital economy’ is not new, it’s just the economy and we need to get moving. We all have a responsibility to help make the change, so don’t think you need to try and go it alone.


Neil Glentworth is founder and executive chairman of Glentworth, a specialist information management consultancy firm.


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