What you need to know about Public Sector Innovation Labs in Australia and New Zealand

A vibrant public sector innovation landscape is emerging in Australia and New Zealand. Public sector innovation (PSI) units are increasingly being established by governments to bring new insights and approaches to policy design and the delivery of public services. According to previous estimates, worldwide, there are approximately 100 such units based within governments alone while new units are being created at ‘a rate of at least one a month’ (Price 2015). This report, based on a survey of PSI units in Australia and New Zealand undertaken in February 2018, suggests that the actual number of PSI units worldwide may be significantly higher than previously thought.

Download the full report here and if you are interested in more information get in touch with us by email at the-policy-lab@unimelb.edu.au

High res version of infographic

Although we surveyed PSI units based both within and outside of government (a total of 52), we identified at least 26 PSI units based in various levels of government in Australia and New Zealand alone.

There are a similar number of non-government units and mixed-organisation types regularly undertaking public sector innovation work with, or on behalf of, governments in Australia and New Zealand. This includes organisations such as The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) and the Behavioural Insights Teams, many of which collaborative extensively with state governments. And this is only counting the PSI units that responded to the invitation to participate in the survey.

All this suggests a vibrant public sector innovation landscape is emerging in Australia and New Zealand. This is reflected in how recently many of the PSI units surveyed were established:

 Six of the government-based PSI units have been operating for 12-months or less

 Over half were established within the past two years.

While we found several examples of very large PSI units in Australia — including some with more than a hundred staff — the survey results overall highlight the extent to which PSI units in Australia and New Zealand are very small organisations:

 About half of PSI units employ five staff or fewer

 12 of the PSI units employ at most two people.

The public sector innovation landscape in Australia and New Zealand is diverse, with numerous PSI units using a variety of methods across different levels of government and policy sectors. Despite international claims that we may have reached ‘peak lab’ several years ago (Price 2014), government departments in Australia and New Zealand have launched at least 15 PSI units in the past three years, including four in the six months leading up to the survey.

Meanwhile, several independent PSI units have demonstrated their longevity, with half of those participating in the survey having existed for more than five years. A total of six PSI units that have been operating for 10 years or more also participated in the survey.

In addition to the sheer number of PSI units in operation, and the difference between the operational age of independent and government labs, this report presents interesting findings about :

  • The reliance of PSI units on consultants and contractors, and their different organisational approaches to staffing projects;
  • The mix of methods used by PSI units’, including their strong tendency to use human-centred design alongside other approaches;
  • Where PSI units sit within different levels and branches of government, with few examples of cross-departmental or multi-level government ownership;
  • The different policy sectors that PSI units work in, with some sectors (e.g. social policy and services) receiving more attention than others (e.g. taxation, energy); and
  • Relatively frequent contact with overseas PSI units.

This research was supported by The Australia and New Zealand School of Government and The Policy Lab at the University of Melbourne. For more information get in touch with us by email at the-policy-lab@unimelb.edu.au