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Can academia and government team up to spark innovation in public policy? Stay tuned.

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The best way to drive innovation in government is to gather a bunch of civil servants and academicians to talk about being innovative, right? Right?

The Gillard Government hopes some version of that approach will work.

Earlier this month, it announced the creation of the Australian National Institute for Public Policy.

Launched 7 February at Australian National University, the institute pulls together the brainpower of new and existing schools and centres at ANU. It also incorporates the new HC Coombs Policy Forum, which aims to break down the walls between government and academia.

The government invested $112.7 in the institute with the hope that it will strengthen public policy capabilities across the Australian Public Service.

The institute is supposed to help break down barriers, build up ideas and generally streamline government. Or, as Innovation Minister Kim Carr says in a news release: “It will promote public involvement in policy debate and catalyse interdisciplinary research in areas of critical national interest.”

Clearly, specificity is hard to come by this early in the game.

Carr’s broad strokes continue elsewhere in the release: “I have seen the impact of collaboration in my own portfolio. The Labor government welded science, research, industry and innovation for the first time to ensure our decisions reflect the full breadth of the innovation system.”

The Senator is probably forced to speak in lofty terms because, when it comes to action and innovation, government — Australian or otherwise — is a slow learner. It takes massive political will to turn the ship of state… like bankruptcy, as was the case in Iceland’s recent past.

Can the Gillard Government sustain that drive? Can it push through greener energy, more efficient services and a friendlier environment for new businesses in an still-creaky economy?

Carr notes that the institute is part of a “new way of thinking” that was pushed forward in May 2010 by the “Ahead of the Game” plan for government reform. So this change-the-game thing has been around for at least nine months. Will it stick? Will this promise of a new direction be one that we’ll eventually see on something other than news releases and white papers?

Those who remember the rhetorical hubbub that surrounded Venturous Australia, and its recommendations in 2008, might feel a tinge of cynicism.

As Carr puts it: “Working across old divides is not easy. It requires new networks, new processes and a new way of thinking.” He adds: “The institute will encourage that transformation across the APS.”

They believe they can turn the ship. Hang on tight.

Image by Alosh Bennett

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