Photo: Binh Dang Nam

By Ishtiaque Hussain, Public Sector Innovation Specialist (Consultant), UNDP Cambodia; and
Vichet Seat, Director of Public Service Department, Ministry of Civil Service, Royal Government of Cambodia.

Public sector innovation is about finding new and better means to achieve public ends. Yet, the scale and complex nature of the challenges that governments face today require responses that go beyond incremental improvements and adopt a systems view to develop an inclusive, whole-of-government public service innovation system.

This blog post spotlights how the Ministry of Civil Service, with technical assistance from UNDP Cambodia’s AccLab, is leading the government’s strategic efforts in 3 key areas: i) creating a risk space for inclusive innovation; ii) empowering civil servants with continuous innovation capacity; and iii) transforming citizen-centric public services through human centered design and digitization. By leveraging insights and principles from the experiences of other countries including Singapore, India, Bangladesh, as well as models research conducted by Nesta (the British government’s innovation agency), the ultimate goal is to enable the Royal Government of Cambodia to leapfrog the nations’ socio-economic development and boost its chances of achieving the SDGs.

Citizen-Centered Service Innovation and Agile Governance in the “New Normal”

The “out of the blue” advent and alarming spread of the COVID19 pandemic has caught governments across the globe off guard. Yet, it is already apparent that the response is spurring an extraordinary amount of innovation, both from the public sector (that has demonstrated an agility that many thought it had long lost) and grassroots innovators.

Here in Cambodia, the government has been quick to take steps to contain the spread of the virus, including suspending foreign visas, canceling new year celebrations, encouraging citizens to stay at home and allocating more economic resources to the health sector. Nonetheless, concerns have remained on various fronts including – what will happen to the country’s healthcare for non-COVID patients; education for all students, transportation of food, medicine and other essential goods, and financial services — all of which depend on physical establishments and the physical movement of people. Will all these sectors just stop functioning during this period of social distancing?

A crisis like this can make tectonic shifts happen. With that realization, UNDP Cambodia’s Acclab and the Ministry of Civil Service are jointly exploring how we can harness the momentum from this crisis to spur longer term changes including catalyzing the formulation of an inclusive framework for public service innovation.

Re-designed and Digitized Services to Decentralize Access

A framework for inclusive public service innovation in Cambodia

In terms of our own ‘real-time sense making’ amidst the coronavirus crisis, we find citizens suddenly in a position where they are effectively locked down inside their own homes but needing vital services today, this hour, now. And in a situation like this, they will pick whoever is able to meet their needs.

The Royal Government of Cambodia will thus need to gradually move away from direct service delivery and more towards operating ‘Government As A Platform’ by creating enabling, open and interoperable technology platforms (including unique digital IDs, payments and data) that enable the human ingenuity of social innovators, the private sector, academia and civil society to innovate and deliver the increasingly personalized services that citizens need, when they need them.

One remarkable example of how digital public services and digital payments reinforce each other is India Stack. It combines an ID-enabled platform called Aadhaar with the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) enabling the government to unleash unprecedented revolution in integrated digital service delivery and payments options. The impact of such interoperability is illustrated by the mere fact that more financial transactions took place using UPI in 18 months than on credit cards in 18 years.

In Bangladesh, the foundational work of the a2i Programme and its ‘Digital Service Accelerator’ – which works with all line ministries and builds their capacity to simplify and digitize their services – is helping build the country’s own version of an integrated ‘stack’ of digital ID, services, and payments platform. Together, these have already saved citizens of Bangladesh more than USD 8 billion over the last 10 years through the creation of 200+ e-Services which have drastically reduced the time, cost and number of visits required to access public services.

Inclusive Innovation Fund

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.

A systems view to guide capacity development

The locus of public sector innovation activity in Cambodia currently lies with frontline service delivery organizations which do not to have the necessary whole-of-system perspective to ensure the right overall level, nature and impact of innovation. Its implication for organizations that lack sufficiently developed innovation processes (for example, relatively smaller hospitals and schools in remote, rural areas) is that the responsibility (or rather, the burden) of innovation falls on individuals. Thus, innovation (or the lack of it) is dependent upon the abilities and experience of individuals and happens sporadically and unsustainably often as a by-product of administrative reform processes rather than the underlying need for innovation.

We therefore need to move beyond just methods and focus at the systemic level on building a mindset that allows us to tackle complex issues by taking an unconventional and experimental approach. But how do you achieve that with a 219,000-strong public service? A key part of the answer lies in empowering each civil servant by building their capacity to make a difference in their area of work.

The Singapore Public Service has a rich history of continuous capacity for innovation. Under its world renowned Public Service 21 (or PS21) movement, the government attempted to improve the productivity of public service delivery organizations by training officers on the application of tools such as ethnographic research, sense-making, ideation and prototyping. Obviously, we’ve all heard about these methods. But the real innovation was that, instead of working on projects for civil servants, they were ‘coached’ to do the projects themselves – primarily by the PS21 team and sometimes by external resource persons.

This approach yielded exceptional results. Project teams were able to move rapidly from user research to idea testing to implementation. There was greater ownership and buy-in by the ministries and agencies for the solutions. With less hands-on project involvement, it freed up the PS21 team to coach more project teams, allowing it to scale its efforts to the whole-of-government.

Moreover, the team began documenting its learnings into a blended innovation process that incorporated principles from Design Thinking, Behavioral Insights, Organization Development, Business Process Re-engineering, Systems Thinking, Data Analytics and Futures Thinking, etc. By deliberately stripping away all references to jargon, they were able to collaborate with the Singapore Civil Service College to produce a simple-to-learn, use-what-works innovation curricula that focused on the desired outcomes instead of methodologies.

Exploring The Way Forward

Policy makers in Cambodia are playing an active role in creating the conditions for inclusive innovation – innovation that is not focused on single point solutions but more coherent to the nature of the complex challenges faced by the country. A type of innovation that fosters inclusion and reinforces the SDGs, rather than exacerbating inequality.

While significant progress has been made, particularly through the leadership of the Ministry of Civil Service, going forward, for the sake of whole-of-government institutionalization of inclusive innovation practices, the following questions warrant close enquiry:

·       What is the institutional mechanism for developing Cambodian civil servants’ capacity to lead and manage transformative innovation projects?

·       Are talented Cambodian civil servants getting enough exposure and opportunities for hands-on learning both at home and internationally?

·       Is there a specific unit leading public service innovation efforts from the center of civil service? Does it have the necessary convening authority?

·       What is the strategy to ensure all line ministries “buy-into” this inclusive innovation agenda?

As this exploration continues, UNDP Cambodia’s AccLab will curate examples of what the answers may look like in practice, as well as supporting the government in identifying and applying the approaches that will be most relevant for the Cambodian context. It’s also a tremendous opportunity to learn quickly, across sectors, not only in this region but throughout the global network of 78 countries that host UNDP’s Accelerator Labs.

Do get in touch! We welcome your thoughts as we evolve this framework and test ideas in practice. You can follow us on Twitter @UNDPCambodia

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