Ideas challenge delivers innovative solutions for Australian aid

Julie Bishop (center), Australian minister for foreign affairs, and Peter Varghese (far right), secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, present the winners of the DFAT Ideas Challenge: Michael Lynch (center left) of “Cloud Passport” and Nathan Dal Bon (center right) of “No Win No Fee for Taxation Reform.” Photo by: Nathan Fulton / DFAT

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade challenged their staff members to develop innovative ideas to transform their capabilities and performance, including to the Australian aid program.

And they delivered.

The inaugural DFAT Ideas Challenge generated more than 16,000 votes and comments from staff around the globe on 392 ideas submitted through an online system. The 10 best ideas were presented this week in Canberra, and were judged by a panel comprising Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Parliamentary Secretary Steven Ciobo, DFAT Secretary Peter Varghese and innovationXchange International Reference Group member Chris Vein.

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“No win no fee for raising government revenues” — an idea from Nathan Dal Bon of the DFAT Strategic Policy Branch to improve taxation revenues in developing countries — was awarded the top prize after the judges thought it could leverage millions of dollars in additional financial flows that can be invested directly in development outcomes. The flow on effects in creating sustainable development were significant — it could create an incentive for private sector organizations to realize tangible development results and governments could be encouraged to deliver more or improved development programs through the opportunity to increase their revenue base.

Bishop called the idea innovative and said it had the potential to transform the way DFAT does business globally.

“The tax idea in particular went to the heart of the new aid paradigm in harnessing the skills and resources of the private sector and adapting to a changing aid landscape,” she told Devex.

Although no timeframe has been set toward the implementation of Dal Bon’s idea, DFAT has allocated time and resources to develop a concept and trial.

But the Ideas Challenge didn’t stop there.

More and timely information should be expected from DFAT in the future with four ideas aimed at improving external communication through better technology proceeding to implementation.

Two ideas to improve Australia’s investment in gender equality in the Pacific will be considered further as part of future programs. One aims to help women and girls access affordable feminine hygiene products while the other targets increased awareness and support for victims of domestic violence.

How behavioral insights are used to improve the impact of Australia’s development assistance is also set to be looked at further following the Ideas Challenge.

Varghese said the Ideas Challenge had helped to start a conversation across the department about innovation and how it can be better used to achieve objectives.

“I want to see innovation embedded in our culture, and it will be important to ensure the momentum behind this process is not lost,” he told Devex.

Bishop agreed.

“Innovation is more important than ever and governments must apply innovation as a principle to deliver more effective, efficient services to effect positive change,” she said.

The Ideas Challenge is set to be an annual event for DFAT, but Bishop hopes “this concept takes off across the public sector allowing the best ideas to be trialed, adopted and scaled up.”

Innovation in health

The results of the Ideas Challenge were announced the same day Bishop launched Australia’s first health for development strategy, which emphasizes innovation and public sector engagement as well. Private sector partners were identified as significant funders and providers of health services, and new approaches and technology will be investigated to meet the health needs of Australia’s neighbors.

While the strategy was welcomed by the development sector for identifying the important link between health and poverty, there was concern that DFAT is focusing too much on innovation.

“We can’t lose sight of the importance of local knowledge and local solutions in development,” Nigel Spence, CEO of Child Fund Australia, told Devex. “Models don’t have to be fancy — they just need to deliver what is required.”

Recent cuts to Australia’s aid budget also raised question about DFAT’s ability to deliver innovative solutions.

“What matters is delivery,” Spence said. “There needs to be a good implementation that’s properly resourced. This is difficult to achieve when the budget is under pressure.”

In addition, nongovernmental organizations are calling for more detail on how Australia’s aid strategies will convert to programs.

“It is not yet clear what the total budget is for health — and therefore what the consequences on the country programs will be, given the enormous cut to the Australian aid program,” Susan Anderson, policy research and government relations manager at World Vision Australia, told Devex. “So despite having a health strategy, the Australian government will be forcing these countries to choose between sectoral needs such as health or education.”

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About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a freelance data journalist based in Canberra, Australia. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane and online through Lisa has recently been awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.