The following article was specially written for Diseño Público by Christian Bason,Director de MindLab, the policy innovation lab of the Danish Government. Christian was invited to Chile by the Ministry of Economy, Corfo and by the Public Systems Centre of Universidad de Chile. Here you can read the Spanish translation.

I recently had the pleasure of working for a few days with a variety of actors engaged in the public innovation field in Chile. My visit came on the back of President Bachelet’s ambitious announcement of the establishment of a new innovation lab – or “i-team” – to help drive more and better innovation in the country’s public services.

“Above all I encountered a wide range of actors with a common objective: To help re-think and improve the ability of Chile to achieve better societal outcomes for its citizens and businesses”.

Multiple actors, one agenda

What were my impressions after three intensive days of presentations, workshops and (first and foremost) a lot of engaging conversations? I could mention a lot of things: The impressive economic and social development which Chile has undergone over the past few decades; the high quality of its civil service, not least evidenced by the sophistication of the questions they asked; or I could simply highlight the generosity, honesty and openness of everyone I met, including from my hosts at the University of Chile’s Centre for Public Systems.

However, above all I encountered a wide range of actors with a common objective: To help re-think and improve the ability of Chile to achieve better societal outcomes for its citizens and businesses. I do not recall encountering a nation with as much curiosity and interest in the agenda of public sector innovation across such diverse stakeholder groups: Political leaders, decision-makers in national ministries, representatives of regional bodies, employee associations and networks, international organizations, universities, and consultants and advisors. Such interest is of course a major strength. However it seems that the challenge now might very well be how to focus all the enthusiasm and energy in a joint effort, rather than to risk competing for scarce resources or spending overly much energy on internal coordination.

Co-producing innovation

At MindLab, the innovation team I run in the Danish government, we have for the past few years explored the notion of co-production of public services. Although the term is by no means new – it was coined in the 1970s by political scientist Elinor Ostrom – it is having a renaissance as public managers search for a meaningful concept to grasp what is demanded from our contemporary public services. In MindLab’s interpretation, co-production is to design and organize public services in ways that leverage all resources across a system to address problems and create more public value.
I believe a co-production approach could be what is needed for the multitude of actors around the public innovation agenda in Chile to enable them to collaborate effectively for a common purpose. There might be three ways in which the actors can do this:

First, rethink the challenge. Currently (and quite naturally) the focus will be on how to organize and structure the innovation effort, especially with focus on the newly established innovation lab. While of course it needs to get organized, a first activity of the lab might then be to redefine the challenge; It is not first and foremost to create a well-structured lab; it is to deeply understand which are the current practices in the Chilean context that are not meaningfully creating public value. It is to generate insights in complex problem spaces – such as health, social services and education – which can drive engagement and new ideas for how to tackle the challenges across public service systems.

Second, invest in capabilities. The many actors emerging in the field offer an opportunity to build skills and competencies together, creating new relationships and networks across the system and building trust. It is a possibility for learning about the unique vantage points of national, regional and local levels, for bringing in cutting-edge university research, and for enlisting unlikely and diverse resources around a common cause.

Third, act as a platform. This especially goes for the central government’s new lab, which will be positioned close to the center of power, but which can only be truly effective if it acts as an enabler of other actors to also perform. In this sense the lab will need to practice what it preaches: To co-design new solutions together with end-users such as citizens and businesses yes – but also to co-design through strong involvement of other stakeholders, at other levels of government, who are ready to contribute.

Through such a co-production approach I believe everyone across the Chilean government will win, because they will be making the most of available resources in a resource-tight environment and they will benefit from diversity in their quest for innovation; however the most important winners will be the citizens of Chile who will experience improved public services, faster, due to the collaborative effort.

“Co-production is to design and organize public services in ways that leverage all resources across a system to address problems and create more public value”.

Global peer learning

If you think that this approach, if applied systematically, would make Chile unique, you are right. Nowhere has the notion of system-wide co-production of public sector innovation really been adopted. But I do see two places where my Chilean colleagues could draw inspiration, and which might also be inspired if Chile’s new lab chooses to venture down this route.

One is Denmark, where we now have such a high level of public innovation activity – including multiple innovation teams at local, regional and national level– that the government has recently established COI, the Centre for Public Innovation. Just to get an overview, the role of COI is to scan, assess and disseminate inspiring innovations across the system, in close collaboration with all levels of government and with the tripartite employment actors. Another example is Canada’s federal government, which has just announced the establishment of an Innovation Hub embedded in the Privy Council Office to foster cross-cutting collaboration with various policy departments – many of which are currently establishing innovation labs of their own.

So there should be plenty of inspiration from global peers who are doing something a little similar. However, in spite of my brief stay in Santiago, I am pretty sure that Chile will again be able to move ahead of the pack, and be an inspiration to us all.