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Lessons learned for the public sector in social innovation

Written by Tamami Komatsu Cipriani (POLIMI)


Public sector organizations, from city councils to national government agencies, are struggling across Europe to find their role in societal issues among other actors, and how to relate to social innovation. We have reflected on this question based on the experience of five cases of experimenting with social innovation in European cities, and formulated different roles that (local) governments can take to support social innovation. In this article, Tamami Komatsu Cipriani (PhD Candidate at Politecnico di Milano) shares with SIC the lessons for public sector organizations from her research, and her recommendations for public servants to foster social innovation.

Lesson Learned #1: Public sector organizations are (should be) public servants.

Public sector organizations and the processes that guide their operation have become self-serving mechanisms that no longer work to provide effective responses to citizen needs but rather work to be efficient for organizational needs.

Recommendation #1:

Public sector organizations should return to a role of public servant, i.e. return to serving the needs of citizens rather than focusing on organizational needs that obscure the end goal, i.e. providing equal access to welfare and wellbeing to all citizens. Public sector organizations should adopt a more user-centered approach that engages users as active participants of their own welfare and wellbeing. Key skills that are connected with this include listening, empathy, understanding and activation.

Lesson Learned #2: Public sector organizations are potential platforms of (social) innovation.

The public sector is not the sole provider of welfare and wellbeing but rather one actor in a plurality of actors that include social innovation actors, third sector actors, private firms and private citizens.

Recommendation #2:

The public administration should act as promoter and supporter of city-wide wellbeing, and thereby fuel co-responsibility of welfare, by: (1) tracking and monitoring the welfare resources at hand; (2) coordinating and facilitating a concerted action of these resources (including its own) towards a shared (and co-created) goal; and (3) promoting the efforts of citizens in welfare provision. This works towards creating a culture of innovation in the system of actors responding to particular social challenges and thereby setting in place the enabling conditions for innovation to flourish.

Lesson Learned #3: Public sector organizations are dinosaurs to innovation.

Public sector organizations are diffident to new ways of thinking and doing things and are averse to risk.

Recommendation #3:

Trust must be built in new processes and methods. This requires sustained efforts by the innovation promoters to shed awareness about the potential value of methods and processes, while also tracking and evaluating effectiveness during the process. It also requires an acknowledgement by all the actors involved that the way things have been done may not be the most suitable.

Lesson Learned #4: Public sector organizations are lone wolves.

Public sector organizations work in silos on interconnected problems coming from the same user, and yet are so driven and focused on organizational needs and limited by procedural constraints that collaboration between departments has proven difficult.

Recommendation #4:

Experimentation processes can create the necessary “safe zones” in which collaboration can take place on concrete projects, e.g. new service design or re-design of existing services, which can have lasting effects organizationally as an output of the process (which again works towards creating a culture of innovation). For this to happen, longer periods of time must be spent together so that trust can be built up by the actors on the process and methods and so the possibility of a new way of doing things can become more concrete and tangible. Support from the top is also beneficial, if not necessary.

Lesson Learned #5: Public sector experimentations are often one hit wonders.

Experimentations in the public sector are often viewed as nice projects but learning and knowledge often stops with the participants and the impact with the lifetime of the experiment.

Recommendation #5:

An attitude of constant experimentation must be built up in public sector organizations, along with the capacity to innovate and internalize the learning and knowledge resulting from the experimentation. This learning process should be done in a learning-by-doing manner to create shared experiences that promote collective learning and to facilitate deeper cultural change by exposing the tacit knowledge that is built in to existing processes and individual knowledge, while also remolding these into new modes of working and serving. Co-creating, co-designing and co-producing are tools that can help foster these learning processes and ultimately, organizational change processes, in the long-term.

Lesson Learned #6: Public sector experiments are lab rats.

Public sector organizations experimentations are often limited to ideation, staying in the lab, and are hardly ever implemented and rolled out.

Recommendation #6:

More work should be done to bring these experimentations out of the ideation phase and into concrete services, implemented in real life. Once again co-creation and design processes, through the use of participative tools and methods, would help towards building the relationships and partnerships necessary to the success of the implementation process. While the learning happening in the “safe zone” of the lab is important, the implementation process expands the learning and the range of actors benefiting from it, by taking it into the “messy” reality of real-world systems, thereby embedding new knowledge and perhaps new behavior into the culture of the system as a whole (and in the process, fostering a culture of innovation in the ecosystem of actors surrounding a problem).