Inclusive public service innovation does not happen by itself: problems need to be identified, frontline innovators engaged, incentivized and empowered to translate ideas into projects that can be tested, implemented, scaled and shared. To do so, public service delivery organizations must identify the processes and structures that can support and accelerate innovation.
There is considerable activity taking place already, championed by the Ministry of Civil Service (MoCS) as it endeavors to support passionate civil servants trying to achieve better outcomes for citizens of Cambodia. For example, as part of the Royal Government of Cambodia’s public administration reforms and decentralization agenda and having identified building trust in the health and education sectors as key priorities, MoCS routinely organizes innovation workshops in collaboration with the Ministries of Health and Education.
These workshops attempt to systematically identify second and third tier hospitals and schools in less developed regions and districts and facilitate opportunities for them to learn from bigger, better institutions located in the capital and in more developed provincial towns and cities that have demonstrated significant improvements in terms of quality of service delivery and overall institutional management. Winners are selected by national committee consisting of nine ministries and institutions. It is a cycle that repeats every two (the committee now approves to make it in every three years of the same group of hospital or school. But the competition will be done among other group of hospital, e.g. the competition among health center is conducted in 2020 and expected to deliver the reward in 2021 while the referral hospital competition movement will be done in 2022) years and awardees receive public recognition for their innovation efforts along with a monetary award of USD 50,000 (for the first prize winner). Thus, using this approach, the initiative is:
(1) Leveraging home-grown reform from each participating hospital and school;
(2) Promoting deep participatory learning as personified through the active engagement by the heads of schools and hospital chiefs from participating provinces and study visits to winning institutions;
(3) Building up momentum and aspiration for positive change through rewarding and thus incentivizing innovation;
(4) Providing a comprehensive reform concept for school and hospital to improve the quality of management and service delivery through the competition criteria setting and dissemination and oversea study visit; and
(5) Creating a network through a Telegram group for sharing the new ideas and best practices.
The aspiration is that, once refined, scaling up this process of evaluating and recognizing model public service institutions in key priority sectors will contribute to an overall improvement of quality public services, restore citizens’ trust and confidence and accelerate the achievement of the Government’s Rectangular Strategy as well as the SDGs.
However, the challenge of embedding innovation in governments is changing. Where once the focus was mainly on funding specific ‘innovation’ projects, there is now a shift instead to funding the process of innovation with a systems view. The goal is thus to catalyze the development of a risk space for experimentation within government, as well as the capacity of the civil service for continuous innovation, to make services more affordable, reliable and easier to access, particularly for people and regions that are economically or socially marginalized, or disadvantaged in other ways.
As the Royal Government of Cambodia proceeds with the process of setting up an Innovation Fund, there are key lessons that we can garner from international experiences. In India for example, where in an effort to make the process as inclusive as possible, the government decided to launch district level innovation funds. Each of the country’s 625 districts were given $100,000 each for a period of 5 years (from 2010 – 2015, targeting the Millenium Development Goals) to foster experimentation by frontline public sector innovators. However, hardly 10% of the districts used their innovation funds. Even the ones that did use the funds were for purposes like repairing roads and so on. So, they were essentially treated like ‘gap funding’ to finance routine work. In the final analysis, this was attributed to centralized guidelines which were misinterpreted as ‘a gap funding mechanism’ without any facilitating agency.
What can we learn from this experience? Two common mistakes are usually made in the design of many, if not most, public sector innovation funds. The first is insufficient focus ‘upstream’. Too little attention is paid to preparing the ground, sharing ideas and evidence and helping the people who are developing ideas at an early stage to develop better ones. This failure to curate, encourage and educate generally means that applications are of a lower quality, less inspired and less aware of what others have tried.
The second error is insufficient attention ‘downstream’ – failing to ensure a line of sight from an idea to scale. That may mean a route to taking an idea into policy or programs if it turns out to work, or it may mean a route to getting an innovator a contract and mobilizing public procurement. Without a clear line of sight to scale, funds risk supporting a range of interesting pilots with nowhere to go.
Capacity Development for Continuous Public Service Innovation
We often see that bureaucracies tend to explore only a small, fairly predictable subset of all possible solutions to a given problem, usually emanating from the top, central level of policy making. The solutions that are then chosen and implemented are in many cases the obvious but not necessarily most effective ones.
And the overall picture of the public sector innovation system in Cambodia shows that it is still relatively fragmented. Notably, there is a lack of consistency in how innovation is understood as a concept, a process and an outcome.