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Chile’s Government Innovation Lab: Citizen-Centered Design in Action | Ash Center

The Chilean government’s innovation lab Laboratorio de Gobierno [link in Spanish], or “LabGob” for short was formally established in 2015. Since then, it has worked with thousands of civil servants and citizens in Chile, using an iterative, human-centered design approach to tackle problems in health care, energy, and more. Emily Middleton spoke to its founding Executive Director, Juan Felipe López Egaña, about LabGob’s mission, and about how to drive innovation in the public sector. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Article: Chile’s Government Innovation Lab: Citizen-Centered Design in Action By Emily Middleton MAY 15, 2017 

Why was LabGob founded?

President Michelle Bachelet first announced the idea of a government innovation lab to the Chilean Congress in May 2014. Before that, the focus in governments had been on how to increase innovation in the private sector: in firms, and through encouraging entrepreneurship. But there hadn’t been a dedicated agency responsible for encouraging innovation within the public sector. President Bachelet recognized that, and seized on the opportunity to create one.

The Chilean government made a call for proposals for the initial conceptual design of the lab. Together with Nicolás Rebolledo, I put together a design for the lab to address three main problems the Chilean government was facing at the time — and which many other governments also face:

  1. How to learn to understand and manage complex problems
  2. How to improve productivity and deliver better public services with lower cost
  3. How to create a better relationship between citizens and government based on enhanced trust

Those three aims became the political mandate for LabGob.

When LabGob was founded, what decisions were made about its organizational design? How have these contributed to its success?

First, an interministerial governance model was created to ensure the representation of, and real input by, key stakeholders, both from within and outside government. The board of directors was designed to provide strategic direction for LabGob, and includes members from five ministries: those of the Economy, Interior, Treasury, General Secretariat, and Social Development. It includes representatives from within the civil service and from civil society. This model of governance has been critical in realizing the presidential mandate we received in 2014.

Second, we decided to do an open call to recruit the founding LabGob team. We received an overwhelming response, and were inundated with more than 2,700 applicants from a wide range of professional backgrounds. Attracting and retaining a strong, multidisciplinary team has been a key part of our strategy since the beginning.

What are LabGob’s main priorities and projects?

The LabGob has two overarching strands. The first is “Train and Mobilize”: to train and mobilize both government employees and citizens in innovation approaches. An important program under this strand is Innovadores publicos, which trains public servants in skills necessary for innovation. The aim is to build social capital within the public sector. We also help the National Civil Service Directorate to run Funciona — the title is a Spanish word that’s a pun both on “it works” and “civil servant.” It’s a prize that recognizes civil servants that have innovated within their ministry.

The second strand is “Explore and Solve,” which helps government to better understand and solve public problems. It’s primarily concerned with project service delivery [link in Spanish] within government as well as open calls for public challenges. We have in-house, multidisciplinary teams that undertake innovation project briefs in collaboration with government ministries to tackle a particular problem or policy.

One example is a recent collaboration between LabGob, the Ministry of Energy, and the Chilean consumer protection agency. The project was to redesign the domestic electricity bill to better enable citizens to understand their energy usage and reduce costs. The bill was co-created with a diverse group of citizens, and is now received by every household in Chile.

How do LabGob’s values and ways of working differ from the rest of the civil service?

LabGob primarily uses methods from human-centered design, open innovation, and ethnographic research. Our process is adapted from the “Double Diamond” model articulated by the UK Design Council. We have a strong focus on people and understanding the user or citizen. We believe in co-creation and experimentation, and in taking a systemic approach to problem-solving.

Our main goal is to integrate approaches and principles from design into the way governments work. Governments won’t change their management pillars: hierarchies, teams, budgets, timeframes, and rules. Our challenge is how we can communicate our approaches in the language of the public sector. We want people to understand that we are proposing a cultural change that is possible and feasible, and that is not a threat to the traditional way civil service works.

Ultimately if we want to be tackle complex problems, and if we want to reshape the government’s relationship with citizens, will a traditional, linear approach work? No. So let’s use principles from design to shift from a linear policymaking process to a more open, complex, user-based approach. That’s how we will be able to deliver better and more sustainable public services.

How do you manage the cultural change element of your mission? Isn’t it difficult to change culture within the civil service?

It might sound counterintuitive to say, but the Chilean public sector is extremely innovative. However, public servants often don’t have the opportunities or the support to foster their own initiatives. And budgets, timelines, rules, and leadership typically do not often align with the innovation process.

From my perspective, we need to work with public-sector managers to get them on board, and create an environment accepting of innovation. It’s not only about giving civil servants tools and methods.

That’s why we work on three dimensions: improving opportunities inside public-sector institutions, developing skills among public servants, and fostering motivations across people both inside and outside government.

How does LabGob engage citizens?

One of our main tools is open innovation challenges, where we invite members of the public to propose solutions to a public problem.

For our first “demo” challenge, we chose access to primary health care. This is a big problem in Chile — people often queue very early from 5 or 6 am just to get a primary care appointment. We received 208 solutions, 70–80 percent from Chile. We then held a boot camp for the best 20 to prototype their solutions in a municipality. There were four eventual winners. Of those, one is now in the market, and two are being absorbed by the municipal government as part of their service delivery.

For us, it was very promising to see what happens when you open public problems to the public. The results can be exciting. For instance, Levanta Tu Casa (Lift your House) was a project led by a group of architecture students. It won AULAB Natural Disasters in 2016 [AULAB is an innovation competition for university students, run by LabGob]. The students designed a new system for emergency housing that now has become the new standard of emergency shelters for ONEMI, Chile’s National Emergency Office.

For our next open innovation challenge — in public safety — we want to involve as many people as possible in terms of demographic diversity and geographic area. We want to encourage families and local neighborhood groups to come up with solutions to their local problems.

LabGob has been especially active within the design and innovation for government movement globally. What’s your take on the outlook for this movement? And what advice would you offer to other countries wanting to replicate LabGob’s success?

LabGob has conducted research with the OECD on the capabilities needed to innovate inside government. This had an important milestone in 2016 with the Future State event, which aimed to explore the common opportunities and challenges of innovating in the public sector. With the event, we also wanted to connect with public-sector innovators from other countries, and help build that community. A synthesis of the discussion is available here [link in Spanish]. We believe that a global movement for public-sector innovation is not only important — it is imperative for driving government transformation.

In Latin America, we have been sharing our experience with other countries. One of my main messages is that it’s not really about design, labs, and methods… those are just tools. It’s really all about how government works, how it understands, and how it addresses new problems. We should talk about public management rather than design. Otherwise it becomes a very selfish conversation, only suitable for an elite trained in specific methods. The government innovation labs around the world that failed were in love with design tools. They didn’t take the time to convince and persuade their clients, and to speak their language. If we want to have a successful international movement, we need to speak in the language of the public sector — not in the language of design.

What are your plans for LabGob in 2017 and beyond?

Our short-term goal is to consolidate our work. In 2017, we need to demonstrate beyond doubt that our work is vital and urgent. The LabGob was established by the current President, and we have a presidential election at the end of this year. We need to ensure continuity of LabGob, no matter what the outcome.

In the longer term, LabGob should be widely recognized as a frontline agency that can help public institutions test new approaches and services. That’s it. If that happens, I can die happy!

Article: Chile’s Government Innovation Lab: Citizen-Centered Design in Action By Emily Middleton MAY 15, 2017 

Cities Can Prepare for Trump by Establishing Digital Service Organizations and Mobilizing Civic Tech Communities

Within a few weeks of Trump’s victory, mayors of big “sanctuary cities” throughout America, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles declared that they wouldn’t collaborate with a Trump administration order to deport peaceful, law-abiding resident. Trump is now threatening that he will deny these cities federal funding unless they comply. The amount of money that cities could be denied by the Trump administration isn’t entirely clear, but Mother Jones estimates that Washington DC could potentially lose up to 25% of its budget, New York and San Francisco could lose 10% and Los Angeles could lose 2%.

If cities want to have a leg to stand on during their negotiations with the Trump administration, they must prepare to operate without federal funding. If there is one message US cities need to convey to Trump, it’s that they can turn Trump’s belligerence into the political will they need to make municipal government more  efficient, transparent and participatory than the Federal government; and in the process restructure the relationship between municipalities and nations. Trump and his supporters must realize that the more pressure the Federal government puts on cities, the more cities will unite together, and the faster an emergent, post-nation-state paradigm will emerge. If In short, if Trump doesn’t play his cards right, he could very well become the president that undermines the role of the nation-state in global affairs and kicks off a new version of the “devolution revolution“, but this time based in cities and inspired by progressive values.

Municipal governments will not be able to fend off the federal government if their bureaucracies are inefficient and unpopular with the public. Most municipal bureaucracies were designed in an era of switchboards and memos and need a significant upgrade. Is there really any doubt that new systems designed around smart phones and open source software couldn’t out perform the many-decades-old legacy systems most cities currently use by significant margins? The factor limiting the upgrading of municipal bureaucracies are political, not technological. Changing how government works involves shifting the balance of power within agencies, department and groups. These types of changes require tremendous amounts of buy-in from members of the bureaucracy and the public in general. This buy-in is hard to get, but with the nightmare of Trump using federal funds as leverage to coerce cities to adopt policies their residents abhor, it will become much easier to make the case that municipalities must engage in serious internal reform.

The choice for city residents should be clear: adopt 21st century technologies and organizational forms, or submitting to federal coercion. If current city leaders can’t or won’t execute the reforms needed to wean their cities off federal funds, then new leaders need to be brought in who will. Instead of talking about it — let’s build it. For our cities. And now. As if the lives of our neighbors depends on it. Because it might.

Existing models show us how we can systematically transforming government agencies through the adoption and use of inexpensive open source tools and techniques. One group that performs this type of activity is 18F, a unit within the Federal Government’s General Services Administration. 18F helps federal agencies figure out how to improve their operations using open source technology and iterative development processes. They’ve been extremely successful, to the point where government contractors lodged an official complaint that 18F was hurting their businesses because they were saving the Federal government too much money.  18F’s is small group in a massive federal government so their impact is limited, but their model is spreading. The Pentagon’s Defense Digital Services and the White Houses US Digital Service both model themselves off of 18F. City governments could and should create similar types of Digital Service Organizations (DSOs) as a means of increasing their ability to not only do more with less, but also as a means of challenging the Trump administration’s competence.

One of the innovative features of DSOs is their commitments to clear documentation of business processes and utilization of open source software. This allows them to share the innovations they develop for one agency with other agencies within that government (and ideally with other governments around the world.) This eliminates complex procurement processes, reduces costs and even creates an opportunity for highly skilled developers outside government to contribute to their effort. Since the solutions DSOs create are often open source, they can (and do) set up bounty systems that allow software developers to submit code that solve problems identified by the DSO. Allowing highly skilled urban residents to contribute code to a project that improves a city’s effectiveness if precisely the type of deep contribution city residents should be able to make to defend their cities from federal coercion.

There are existing “civic tech” volunteer groups in cities all around the country filled with people passionate about finding ways to help city governments run faster, better and cheaper. A great example is NYC’s BetaNYC group. These groups present fantastic venues for sourcing and organizing volunteers that can amplify and support the work of DSOs to help make cities more resilient to federal coercion. But technology is just one area. Cities will need to build many more mechanisms that can convert their resident’s anger at Federal policies into surges of local volunteer-ship that increase the capability of city governments and reduce their need for federal aid.

If cities can find more effective ways to mobilize their massive human resources, then the era of Trump will be a catalyst pushing cities to be more efficient, autonomous and globally networked than ever before. This might sound like overkill, or too much work, but we have to be prepared if we want to defend ourselves and our neighbors from destructive federal actions. And if it turns out we overreacted and mistakenly volunteered to improve our cities, so it goes.