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What kind of conditions are important for public sector innovation?

This is a collection of interviews with key participants from the SIC Summer School in San Sebastían. The focus of the Summer School was social innovation in the public sector. Participants who were interviewed represented a number of different sectors, from local government, to makerspaces, to intermediary, to civil society organisations. Translations from Spanish to English were done by the author. For event highlights, and more Summer School content, please click here

Speakers/participants interviewed

  • Jake Morgan-Stead- Head of Community outreach at Apolitical, UK

  • Nicolás Monge- Coordinator of the Social Innovation Unit at Corfo, Chile

  • Vasyl Zadovny-  CEO of Prozorro, Ukraine

  • Asier Gallastegi- Consultant, coach, BHerria, Basque Country

  • Diana Franco- Hirikilabs, Basque Country

  • Ainara Arostegi- Basque Government Department of Employment and Social Politics, Basque Country


What kind of conditions are important for public sector innovation?

Jake Morgan-Stead: One of the biggest challenges is that the average public servant, for the moment, doesn’t have a few different things. They don’t have the skills of public sector innovation, they’re not often very well versed in many of the terms that we like to throw around, such as human-centred design, random control trials, or behavioural insights. These are all quite lofty terms for public servants, they feel like they are not that closely related to their work. When in reality, they are things which have a huge amount to offer any public servant in any position. So there is a real job in giving those skills and investing more in skills training for people.

Secondly I think it’s about enabling a more permissive environment. Actually helping public servants to see that they can take risks, to think and act boldly. Many of them want to do that, have fantastic ideas, it’s not so much in some cases about building the skills, but about building the environment in which people feel happy to stand up and suggest new approaches to common problems. I think if we combine those things, skills, attitude and approach, then we can be really excited about what the public sector can deliver.


Nicolás Monge: What happens a lot in the public sector is that, those who are from the old school, don’t believe a huge amount in the potential of social innovation. There is more faith in traditional government ministries providing sustainable development, and a degree of resistance arises. This for me is something that has to change, as it only serves as a barrier.


Vasyl Zadovny: For me it’s simple. Openness, of everything. Of data sharing, of idea sharing, of institution building, around the possibility to share practices and to use a start-up approach where you can test something on a small size before scaling up. The more experience that can be exchanged amongst different parties around the world, who are trying to do this, the more benefits will be achieved.


Asier Gallastegi: I am of the opinion that the objective of studying and experimenting is not that of just one side transfering to another side, but it is about the relationship between these two parts. We need to put focus on the relationship between the public sector and citizens. We have to live, to inhabit, reality in order to see what we do with it, and to see what it can do for us. There is a lack of confidence in the political class from people within society, and this is a worry for me. The development and growth of ‘soft skills’, for instance relationship and conversation competencies, is key to rebuilding trust and confidence within these relationships.


Diana Franco: I think what is generally missing in the public environment is the ability to listen. As a result we cannot produce new contexts. For me, producing new contexts can help lead to new social structures. Spaces such as Hirikilabs are structures which are helping to open new contexts. How can we articulate ourselves in spaces, such as libraries or schools, that are designed for listening and feedback? How do we take advantage of these public spaces to construct new dynamics that involve citizens? I think this is a condition that is vital for innovation in the public sector.


Ainara Arostegi: For me I think that there has to be a willingness and support to change things, especially because institutions have rigid structures and personnel. Often the most intangible aspects are the most difficult parts to change. But I think that support is fundamental, especially so that people outside of institutional structures, for example people working at the grassroots level, can contribute and create new initiatives within the public sector sphere.