Small is beautiful, provided it’s viable

Written by Ben Hayman, GM Service Development and Transformation Lead, Assurity Consulting Ltd

In New Zealand, we often seem to be concerned about whether our ideas and innovations are keeping pace with the rest of the world. When New Zealanders return from overseas to resettle here, they often get asked how a sector, trend, or indeed the whole economy compares to overseas. We are quietly proud of a lot of what we do here, but seem to have a lingering doubt that maybe we are a year or two behind the curve compared to bigger economies with deeper pockets.

I personally think this can come from the ‘tyranny of distance’ mindset and the baggage some New Zealanders still carry about being the small, distant relative to larger economies. Anyway, for whatever reason, we seem to care about this. Last week, we saw that small can be indeed be better and more innovative. Our place as a country of rapid innovation was, I think, clearly validated once again. Let me explain…

As part of the push for better services for New Zealanders, the Dept for Internal Affairs (DIA) recently set up a Service Innovation Lab in Wellington. It’s an experiment in public-private partnership to create a space with coaching that increases the collaboration between multiple government agencies. Each Friday, there is an Open Lab event where visitors can see what the teams are working on and what lessons are being learnt.

At the event on Friday the 9th of May, we had the opportunity in the Open Lab to hear from the National Technology Advisor to the UK Government, Liam Maxwell. Liam is well known in digital transformation circles as one of the leaders that enabled UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS) to rebalance the way Government worked with suppliers, got better outcomes and gained significant savings. Liam has also spent time with most of the national jurisdictions that are tackling digital service transformation so he has some great context.

Through the event and in discussions with our visitor from the UK, it was clear that NZ is onto something special. Bringing multiple agencies together to address the needs of citizens for good digital services and, at the same time, joining up government through scalable approaches to data sharing and back-end integration at the same time. A focus on users and their needs as well as the better integration of government to meet those needs efficiently. Very exciting, as well as maybe just a bit “world leading”.

In the case of innovation, scale can be the enemy of pace and indeed throttle innovation itself. Larger public sector systems find it hard to give innovation a clear run. They find it hard to create the space for fresh thinking and allow teams to collaborate well. In New Zealand, we have an exciting degree of scale (our government structures are not simple by any means) and yet we can bring smart people together in a space such as The Lab who really get how to do this stuff to collaborate.

So when it comes to innovation, small is beautiful – provided it’s viable. I think this is especially true when it comes to transforming complex organisations and systems such as government. Provided we set up teams with the right capabilities and allow them enough time to work together on tough problems, then we can maintain a good deal of pace in innovating NZ’s public sector and the economy as a result.

For those of you in Wellington on a Friday, the Lab has an open event at 4pm each week to hear what the teams have learnt or built. They’d be happy to see you there.

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