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.
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:
- How to learn to understand and manage complex problems
- How to improve productivity and deliver better public services with lower cost
- 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!