Labs as game-changers for governance?


Emerging experience from Moldova.

We need change, we need …the Lab!

The way the governance process takes place has changed dramatically in the last decade or so. The rise of new technologies, widening democratic space and rise of citizen expert together with our growing understanding of complexity of development challenges, mark the pronounced shift to distributed forms of governance, with governments-enablers and co-creation of solutions at the heart of a such system. In other words, the governments just cannot do it alone, although whether they recognize it or not is another matter.

But by the same token, you cannot force the change from outside, there has to be an alliance. In the case of Moldova, it is the partnership between the innovation champion, E-Government Center, and UNDP. Our joint grand vision has been twofold:

  • A more general one  - to improve governance by introducing new social innovation techniques, building capacity of the involved public servants and advancing broader culture change inside the Government;
  • A more particular to Moldovan context - to help recovering trust between citizens and the state that was hit particularly hard by recent crises by involving citizens in the innovation projects with the Government.

And this is how Moldovan Innovation Lab (MiLab) was born  -  a team of innovation enthusiasts who would test and help adoption of innovative approaches towards governance processes.

Innovation in the public sector: Handle with Care!

Ambition is there but how to approach the task? As eloquently mentioned elsewhere, launching an innovation project in the public sector is akin ‘to throwing a grenade into the system’ due to its procedure-based and often inertial culture. We certainly didn’t want to put the system on fire, hence we proceeded with care. We decided to address this cultural challenge by proving the concept: launch a couple of small experimental projects in sectors where we had inside champions or where outside social energies were particularly strong. We used the subsequent Innovation in Public Sector Forum to bring these champions together and spread the word and advocate for innovation in governance.

Elena Țîbîrnă, an innovation champion, representing National Social Insurance Chamber at the Forum

An additional challenge, particular to the countries with volatile politics and unfinished reforms of civil service, is the high turnover of the public servants. Indeed, in over a year, our counterparts have changed sometimes a couple of times. It has been beyond our control, and we had to deal with it.

With the benefit of hindsight, the solution looks simple: we need to align the MiLab’s projects with the strategic priorities of the Government (like Public Administration Reform) and see what can be our value-added to advance those reforms. This, however, also prompted shift in the way how we select the projects — from working with champions (person-focused) to aiming at sectors (policy-focused).

We are conscious that even with this we are far from making our i-team a source of continuity under politically unstable environment. On one side, closer work with the Center of Government (CoG) and alignment with policy priorities while maintaining stability inside the Lab perhaps might do the trick. However, we still feel this is pretty much an open question the i-teams under similar conditions have been grappling with and we’d be curious to learn more about that.

On the other side, close alignment with the CoG and policy priorities may limit Lab’s ability to challenge status-quo, i.e. Lab maybe viewed by the Government as a problem-fixer as opposed to agenda-setter. While this ambition may seem somewhat premature for MiLab, this is something we consider for the future. Technically speaking, we are hopeful we’ll be able to carve out the latter role along with building our reputation and experience, however political realities might be difficult to overcome. And this poses another open question: how an i-team may carve out a mandate for problem identification and setting agenda for change inside the Government?

Ultimately, we faced a challenge of sustainability. Public servants and people were excited by new initiatives and approaches, but how to ensure that solutions emerging from online consultations and design workshops results in practical changes. We discovered that positive beginnings tended to fade away due to institutional inertia, financial constraints or adverse political challenges. Similar to other labs we understood we simply couldn’t throw a new design to implementation team. Indeed, the Lab is working with public institutions but it should not substitute them. In order to avoid this, the Lab should define a clear vision what service kit it offers to the Government’s counterparts and where its mandate starts and finishes. Public institutions must have realistic expectations of what the Lab can help them with, and their own role in the process.

Besides that, another important question arises. What could the perfect locus for the i-team be? Placed at the edge of the government and working through a network of innovation leads in the ministries and agencies? Or projecting the power right for the Center of Government? Or maybe those approaches can be combined?

Present and Future

Thus far our work has brought quite interesting results. The joint project on monthly child benefits has resulted in halving red tape and waiting time for the parents to receive those benefits.

National Social Insurance Chamber redesigning monthly child allowance service.

The redesigned community police station is soon to be opened and will serve as an example for other stations that will be renovated as part of the wider national effort aimed at the Police reform. We had also several successful endeavors on collective intelligence around SDGs and crowdsourcing for better policy solutions in the education sector. Moreover, we have launched the first ever Randomized Control Trial in Moldova as a way to evaluate current policy and come up with better solution for the national scale-up. Besides, being some individually successful interventions (we are still figuring out our own measurement approach), in most of the cases these projects resulted in understanding that different approaches to policy and service design are possible and are duly reflected in the national policy frameworks. For instance, design thinking will become one of the official methodologies under the national plan on public services modernization and design of the one-stop-shops for service provision at the local level, while Video-Observed Treatment of tuberculosis piloted and evaluated by our RCT will become part of the new National Program on TB treatment.

Nonetheless, creating innovation unit in a country with very limited resources, no whole-of government framework for innovation, high turnover, low pay and limited capacities of public servants, it is important not to disperse the efforts in too many directions of activity. After a year of piloting, we realized the Lab needs to focus on doing a couple of things very well, that are closely aligned with the Government’s priorities and where we can bring the most value. Thus our further work will focus, being supported by investment in further skills development, on three key service lines:

  • Support to the future national action plan on the modernization of public services  -  together with the colleagues from the E-Government Center helping public servants use design thinking in re-engineering public services;
  • Promoting evidence-based policy-making by supporting use of RCTs and alternative data for policy design and evaluation;
  • Supporting Government’s engagement with citizens around strategic policy priorities through collective intelligence (something we will be working together with Nesta in coming months).

Ultimately, the Lab’s work is not only about making Government’s work more effective or democratic. In other words, it is not about delivery as such. It is about culture shift inside of public administration and having mandate for (re)definition of the problems and democratizing solution process for the future of governance… Something we will strive for.


Blog post Moldova Innovation Governance and peacebuilding

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