Prototyping the government of the future in Armenia

Jan 24, 2017

No matter where you live, reforming how the public sector operates is a difficult task.

How do we ensure that public services are designed to be as effective and accessible as possible? How do we make government agile and responsive in the face of black swans and wicked challenges? How do we develop a bureaucracy that handles a myriad of tasks as efficiently as possible?

In post-Soviet contexts, this challenge is even greater. In the Soviet era, a top-down hierarchy rarely rewarded risk-taking and experimentation, a sentiment that is still too common today. Our own research in Armenia shows that experts fear “rocking the boat” with new ideas without say-so from a higher-up. This results in a channel of creativity that flows only from the top down, leading to services that do not account for citizens’ voices. After all, public sector innovation is not only about listening to citizens’ voices – it is also about optimising working process and getting your big bureaucracy to work effectively and efficiently.

When it comes to public sector innovation, technical fixes aren’t enough. Real change isn’t about the new software that streamlines budgetary procedures, or an IT infrastructure solution. The kind of reform we are looking for is one that sees these solutions grow organically and from within; it targets the cause, not the symptom. By itself, a technical fix might plug a hole, but it will not make the ship water-worthy.

2015 paper from ODI found that the majority of public sector reform projects end without being fully implemented. A key explanation for this failure is that change in the public sector is frequently approached as technical change, rather than as behavioural change.

What are we doing different in Armenia?

We started small. Instead of going straight for the “fix,” we began with cultivating individuals in our network, holding public events to showcase a new public face of public servants. In 2016, we tried two different formats in order to stimulate some initial interest, to varying success:

  • A workshop on ethnographic research and design thinking for a group of public servants. This was not fully successful: demonstrating the value of citizen input in being an especially hard sell.
  • A pop-up lab in Government. This was a penny-drop moment. A day-two session saw an endless stream of staff visiting, sharing their ideas for processes and services to optimise.

These networking events helped spark curiosity and got  ideas flowing. With backing from higher-ups now secured, we were able to move to the next stage: idea challenges for public servants. From just two government offices that hosted the challenges we received a cascade of great ideas, including: (i) an app that would help bridge the communication gap between citizens wanting to report consumer rights violations and the state party responsible for acting on them and (ii) a new user-centric registration service for newborns.

Not only have we found great ideas and enthusiasm, but the buy-in to this way of doing things in government is beginning to trickle through. During the past 12 months, the Office of the Prime Minister sought assistance from Kolba in organising a crowdsourced idea competition for its Open Governance Partnership (OGP) process. This was the first time any Armenian government office has used crowdsourcing as a methodology to increase the quality of one of its services or platforms, or applied citizen engagement so comprehensively.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Justice has worked with Kolba Lab to prototype a user-designed legal aid tool that will provide greater access to justice by making use of Armenia’s open data portals. (Thanks to the funding from the Slovak Ministry of Finance that made this possible).

We’re currently holding Armenia’s second Public Sector Innovation week.  After that, we’ll have more challenges throughout the year, which will mean more solutions, all of which are laying the ground for a concept design session for our government partners, facilitated by the fine folk at Futuregov, aimed at finding a way to institutionalise this cultural shift.

Just three years ago, you would not have found the words “crowdsourcing”, “prototyping” and “government” uttered in the same breath here in Armenia.

And yet here we are now, moving into a vision of substantive and systematic problem-solving across the public administration. This hasn’t been achieved with huge financial investment (though there is a time for that), but rather by unlocking the human resources already at the government’s disposal. What matters is finding your champions, those who share your ideas and who have the authority to provide their staff with space to experiment. Once the floodgates are open, you will be amazed by what flows through!

What do you think? Have you had a similar experience in your country? Let us know in the comments section below.