Building a speedboat: An NGO experience of public sector innovation

Chris Plumridge is Community Engagement Manager at Crime Stoppers Victoria and one of the participants in our States of Change learning programme in Victoria. He reflects on what the programme has done for his team, and how being a so called “gatecrasher” paved the way for rewriting the script when it comes to government stereotypes.

My unique situation amongst the States of Change learning programme participants in Victoria was emphasised when I promised my advice to another team to help refine their communications strategy:

“Happy for you to email me anytime. Just remember that it’s a ‘com.au’ email address, not a ‘vic.gov.au’ one…”

Yep, that’s right folks, while States of Change is focused on building innovation skills in the Victorian public sector, here I am from the private sector gatecrashing the party. To be truthful, I’m probably from one of the least ‘private sector-y’ environments possible: Crime Stoppers Victoria (CSV) is a not-for-profit with a proud 30 year history of working in Victoria to reduce crime, so we’re not particularly new to working with government.

Historically we’ve worked mainly with Victoria Police, but in the last few years we’ve partnered with Consumer Affairs Victoria (CAV) to increase awareness of scams. We’ve worked together to warn Victorians about email scams, phishing, conmen and every other way of encouraging honest everyday folk to hand over their money to the bad guys.

Our approach has been working well, but could benefit from some new and innovative ways of working. So as a partner with CAV in the Scambusters team, CSV are the only NGO participating in Victoria’s States of Change programme.

There’s a certain amount of eye-rolling from some in the not-for-profit sector when we talk about working with the public sector. “Build in an extra three weeks to get anything approved” might sound tongue-in-cheek, but still exists as advice given to any new starter from an NGO working on a government project.

Those outside government see the red tape, politics and seemingly dogmatic adherence to process as icebergs in the stormy seas of innovation, making steering the ship more difficult. If governments are the big ocean liners, they say, then NGOs are the agile speedboats, able to change direction more quickly to get stuff done.

If the above really is the case (and I’m not sure it is), it certainly won’t stay that way. States of Change has seen every team working incredibly quickly to build solutions in a free-flowing environment designed to encourage creativity and action. “Build first, think later!” is the motto we’ve come to adopt; that it’s better to at least have a potential solution to test and refine than it is to work on a perfect action plan based entirely on assumptions. The pace is fast, the feeling is not always entirely comfortable, but gradually your brain begins to come around to a new way of ‘doing’.

Suddenly you’re halfway through the project and you’ve already consulted with your stakeholders, defined your problems, put forward possible solutions, worked out how to convince the boss that it should be rolled out - before you’ve even realised it.

Along the way the States of Change and Nesta crew have provided us with tools and tricks that teams are already spreading throughout their departments (Crime Stoppers definitely are). This is inspiring the rest of their colleagues to work in the same way and empowering the whole public purpose sector, both governments and NGOs, to be agile, innovative and passionate about serving their community.

So to my friends in the not-for-profit sector currently sitting smugly in their NGO-powered speedboats*, all I can say is: this will become the new benchmark. If you want to work with government in the future, you too will need to start learning this new language. To work quickly. To challenge your assumptions. To engage your stakeholders and your users in co-creating solutions conceived originally in Lego or cardboard or plasticine.

If it sounds odd now, it won’t in a few years’ time. Start expanding your post-it note budget now or you’ll be left behind. I’m just lucky that I’m from an organisation that was privileged enough to be invited along for the ride.

*Please note: These are metaphorical speedboats - I’m aware that most charities can only budget for a rowboat.