How to make innovation in government ‘the new normal’

Under the headline “Innovation in Government: The New Normal”, the OECD convened more than 500 government leaders, civil servants, and innovative partners in industry and civil society in Paris this week to explore what the new normal today looks like. Here’s  what we learned:

Addressing low levels of trust

“We can go nowhere if people don’t trust government. We can go nowhere if people don’t trust the idea of governments,” were the closing remarks of Ángel Gurría, secretary-general of the OECD after the first day of the OPSI conference. The new normal for governments, we heard, needs to be about showing people that the public sector can improve their lives, and even more importantly the lives of the next generation. Government innovation is a key driver to achieve this – it is a constant process, a must-have for government today.

There was no shortage of inspiring examples for government innovation. These ranged from famous cases, such as Estonia’s e-government, SIMPLEX+, the Portuguese co-creation initiative, to less well-known examples, such as the concept of the GreenDeals in The Netherlands that enable a better collaboration between different levels of government, companies, and other stakeholder organisations on green growth and social issues.

Spreading innovation – how do we become better partners in collaboration?

Innovation is driven by working together and learning from one another: “stealing with pride”, was another common theme that emerged at the conference. The OPSI conference itself, as well as the OECD’s Observatory for Public Sector Innovation (OPSI), are a great way to promote this culture of sharing experiences and best practices.

And again, we heard of some great examples: the UK’s Government Digital Service, for example, shared their code and lessons learned from the digital transformation process in the UK with the New Zealand government, giving them a head start in improving their digital services.

Towards more tolerance for failure in government

However, innovation is not only going to come from sharing ideas, we heard from Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation. Innovating is also about failing: what we need is more tolerance for failure in public services, admitting to not know what the right answer is, whilst showing a willingness to explore and try it. This is, without doubt, much easier said than done. And so far, few countries and leaders seem to have successfully attempted to address this challenge.

From French Minister Mounir Mahjoubi, secretary of state to Prime Minister Macron, we heard about the “public sector entrepreneurs”, which is a one year programme that pairs private sector experts with senior civil servants, bringing new ideas into the administration and encouraging civil service to think outside of the box. The concept has been piloted with 20 heads of departments in the last year, and more than 300 civil servants have now expressed an interest to be partnered with a private sector entrepreneur in the next year.

Government innovation labs – between safe haven and hype

Unfortunately, there is limited room to experiment. Especially when public trust is declining, margins of error are small for government. What is missing, many said, is a safe space to test and pilot new solutions to old problems without being judged.

In this context, it is unsurprising that government labs, or innovation labs were a prominent topic in Paris too. Despite some cynicism about “the new cool kids in town” and the honest recognition of Beatrice Andrews, Head of Policy Lab in the UK Cabinet Office, that what labs need today is “humility”, it became clear that Labs can be a core component in the process of changing the spirit of experimentation in public administration.

Labs, we heard, enable governments to bring together and organise new competences. They create the space and give the permission to talk and think about new ideas. They are agile and able to respond quickly, and also play the role of a convener, an enabler and supporter.

We also talked about technology and digitisation: we heard about the positives, such as more effective services for citizens, the opportunity to engage citizens and optimise services at scale. But we also discussed key risks for government today: there was a feeling of slowly running out of time, of needing a (regulatory) response to technological inventions from the private sector.

A key challenge for government remains the attraction of the right talent that will enable government to cope with new technologies. “Artificial intelligence as the second biggest threat to humanity,” was one argument we heard. Whilst this is a simplification, it points into the right direction: if governments don’t act today, don’t start to reinvent itself, government may no longer be relevant in 5, 10, 15 years time.

‘Eating the elephant, one bite at a time’

Innovation does not need technology, was another common theme of the conference. Without doubt, the potential benefits (but also risks) of new technology for governments and society are enormous, but thinking that innovation is all about technology is cutting it short. Innovation, we heard is about real change to people’s lives, regardless of how it was brought about or where it originated from. What we need to learn is that a good idea, no matter how small it might be, can lead to real impact.

 

FURTHER READING

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  • Growing global good governance. Helping governments improve their public sector performance is the task facing Rolf Alter and his colleagues at the OECD. He tells us how better governance not only boosts the wellbeing of citizens, but also strengthens the competitiveness of their economies
  • Mission Possible: redesigning services in South Africa. Pierre Schoonraad is playing a leading role in strengthening innovation across South Africa’s public services. He explains how, why and where
  • A new way to spur government innovation. Phaedra Chrousos, who recently served as the Commissioner of the Technology Transformation Service at the General Services Administration, talks budget cuts and innovation with Danny Werfel
  • Transformation from the grassroots. Driven by the belief that the best solutions to challenges can be found in communities across the country, the Obama administration created the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation to find new ways to solve old problems. Here, Dan Vogel talks to the Office’s first director, Sonal Shah, about her experiences in reshaping American government
  • From imagination to innovation. Faced with what are often seen as mountainous challenges, policymakers are increasingly reliant on creativity to power their ascent. Alan Iny explains why thinking outside the box is just the start
  • Welcome to the lab. Governments worldwide share an insatiable hunger for that flash of inspiration that can transform public services. To do so they increasingly rely on a lab, a bespoke group of individuals dedicated to driving innovation and impact. We speak to the director of Denmark’s MindLab, Thomas Prehn, about this pioneering approach to policymaking
  • Lab lessons. Andrea Siodmok and her team at the UK’s Policy Lab are blazing a trail across the civil service. She tells us about designing new services around people’s experiences
  • Different by design. Christian Bason is not one for the status quo. He takes time out from running the Danish Design Centre to tell us about a new way of creating policy