Just over a month after Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister and started talking about a more innovative Australia, a crowd of people mingle outside the Blue Chilli offices on York Street in Sydney. It’s 8am, so early not even the supermarkets are open, and the out-of-towners are eager to know where to get a decent coffee. A couple of government policy people had road tripped up from Canberra the night before, and a group of Queensland entrepreneurs had flown down as well. No one knows exactly what to expect, but they have all given up a Saturday to contribute their ideas.
We’re here for the inaugural policy hack, hosted by assistant minister for innovation Wyatt Roy. Policy hack’s are quite popular overseas, and are used to source solutions to a myriad of interesting problems.
The idea comes from the “hackathons” that are familiar to people in the technology space. Typically they involve teams of developers and designers working together on a particular technological challenge over a short period of time. Intense bursts of work among multi-skilled teams can produce simple but elegant solutions. But the event in Sydney was a “policy hack”, and policy is rarely simple or elegant.
Eventually the doors open, we climb a couple of stairs and step into an open atrium. A barista pumps out fresh coffee as we wait to hear what we’ll be doing. It’s a very diverse crowd — government workers from multiple departments, entrepreneurs, academics and a couple of journalists, to name a few. I find myself surrounded by people from IP Australia and the conversation turns to comparisons between the US and Australia, and concerns we could face the same patent troll problems that plague Silicon Valley.
Eventually Wyatt Roy takes the stage. There will be ten groups, he announces, all tackling a different problem and led by a “champion”. At the end of the day each group would get up and pitch a solution to their problem. We’re also free to walk around and contribute to any of the discussions.
The problems covered a wide range of areas; from improving gender equality in startups to opening up universities to commercialisation, making medium and large businesses more innovative, attracting capital for startups, and opening up government data. I decided to spend the day with group nine. Their mission was to “improve education systems to foster innovative thinking, creativity, entrepreneurship and digital skills”.
14 of us sat in a glass-walled room on the top floor of the start-up accelerator’s offices. The wide variety of experiences, both professional and personal, were on display in the first task we set ourselves: defining the problem. The university students, rather predictably, found fault with the entire education system, and wanted to blow it up. The businesspeople found mismatches between what they needed and what education produced. The educators pointed to amazing experiments being conducted around the country that weren’t continued, expanded or widely recognised. There were too many problems for us to fix in one day. Too many for us to discuss them all.
Here, then, is the major flaw with the policy hack idea: seven hours just isn’t enough time. Roy brought together an impressive array of experience from all walks of life but there wasn’t enough time to capitalise. No time for the ambitions that had driven so many to give up a Saturday. We had to aim small. We settled on trying to create an innovative culture, and the brainstorming began all over again.
But again, the solutions we produced far exceeded the scope of what we could handle in a day. Not only did we have to come up with a plan, we had to find some proof that it could work and then convince everyone else. Some of our ideas were really good, like creating a platform to link all the educational experiments with organisations around the country. We kept going around and around the room, the ideas getting more fantastical, until someone reminded us of one fact.
Someone brought up the Lemonade Day program run in the US. It’s an initiative that encourages kids to run their own business at a young age. Almost 800,000 kids took part last year, gaining valuable early exposure. We decided to bring it to Australia. Roy popped by and said he supported the idea of business ownership “when they are young, are sponges”. He said another advantage was that it wouldn’t need to be legislated, as the groundwork was already laid in the national curriculum.
We broke up into separate groups to flesh out the proposal — how would it work and how could we carry the idea through to high school? Soon the walls were covered in post-it notes. There were some doozies on there, like after-school programs, or special subjects in school to teach innovation like we are starting to do with STEM. The time crept along and we scrapped much of it. We had to strip it back to the basics. It was time to start working on the pitch.
Constructing the pitch and our “pitch deck”, essentially a slideshow, was as time consuming as the brainstorming process. When you have 14 passionate people, all with strong ideas, it’s hard not to create a camel. On the other hand, it can result in some magic, like our pivot to talking about growing the next generation of entrepreneurs. We split up again and I was tasked with finding examples of the benefits of early entrepreneurialism. It wasn’t long before I came across a Dutch study that found programs like this had wide ranging benefits, such as increased motivation and risk taking. Our discussions had highlighted the need to promote risk taking in Australia. The study also claimed that imbibing entrepreneurialism early was much more fruitful than later in life.
Sitting through all the other team’s pitches was inspirational. One of the groups made a great pitch for the government to open up their vast troves of data for entrepreneurs, to create a “platform” for government data. Another suggested the creation of an “intellectual property bank” to take away the benefit of offshoring intellectual property. There was also a strong pitch to create a “sustainable communities academy”, to train people to use technology and avoid a vicious cycle of technological inequity.
Eventually our pitch came around, and our champion, Erin Watson-Lynn, drove it home. We would create a Lemonade Day program for primary schoolers, with plenty of room for alternation to suit local contexts. All of the necessary requirements for such a day were already there, the government just has to encourage the teachers and allow entrepreneurs and businesses to get involved. Together, we could grow the next generation of “DICE kids” – Digital, Innovative, Creative and Entrepreneurial (an acronym we created).
The judges loved it. One of them, Shark Tank’s Steve Baxter, asked how much the program would cost, and offered to write a cheque. Dr Larry Marshall from the CSIRO, another judge, offered resources from the CSIRO’s children’s outreach program. After another presentation and a short deliberation, the judges announced we had won. Although, it wasn’t strictly a competition. All of the ideas pitched will be collated and sent to the relevant ministries. Really, we all won.
There was a lot of consternation about the policy hack in the weeks before it occurred. Some due to the lack of notice — it was announced just one and a half weeks beforehand — but also because of the types of policies that were submitted online — a lot of solutions promoting the scrapping of tax and regulation.
The event was full of amazing people, ready to contribute. And while several of the attendees were those who had submitted policy ideas online, the day began with a blank piece of paper. The real issue with the event was that it was so short. It was an opportunity squandered.
In the end I absolutely loved the idea that my team pitched. I back the philosophy and think it has a good chance of succeeding. I would like to keep working with the team if they’ll have me. But I mourn all of the ideas that were cast aside due to time constraints. Rather than getting to the meat of the issues, we were forced to tinker round the edges.