By Joshua Chambers

17 Jan 2017

Joshua Chambers has travelled the world meeting government innovators. Here, he shares some of their secrets.

Welcome to the Museum of Innovation. The collection is constantly evolving, but let me give you an advanced tour. Careful now, the paint is still wet.

First up, we can see the Arab Innovation Lab. Launched this year by the UAE, this “lab” is not an organisation, but a process for driving change. Press the button to hear more on this exhibit.

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“We invite the private sector, we invite youth, we invite academics to come and co-create with government,” says Huda Al Hashimi, assistant director general in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Her labs pull together senior figures from all sectors for a day of intensive talks, ending with participants recommending their solutions to a knotty problem. These ideas are presented to the King or a senior politician, who is able to endorse them and ensure that they get fast-tracked through the bureaucracy.

So far, the labs have pressed local governments to accept a single method of licensing doctors; trialled using drones to measure air pollution; and suggested strategies to help mitigate diabetes.

Next up, we see a collection of Estonian digital units. Curiously, Estonia has avoided building a single Government Digital Service. Instead, it built five of them, each focused on a particular subject area: justice, home affairs, finance, the environment, and social welfare. These units combine policy expertise with technical skill. They design the system in-house, and then outsource the coding to cheap local firms.

“I cannot understand how one IT ministry can have all the knowledge because IT is [a] supporting [function], it is field specific,” notes Kätlin Kattai from the Centre of Registers and Information Systems in Estonia’s Ministry of Justice.

But how is IT in the Estonian government coordinated? A government chief information officer imposes tough procurement standards, vetoing projects that don’t make the grade. A lead architect, meanwhile, ensures that new digital projects don’t duplicate work being done in other departments.

The country’s decision to design its own systems, and outsource the building of them, has had a happy by-product: a booming “govtech” scene. Local companies have honed their expertise, and can sell similar systems to other interested nations. Estonia uses its e-government academy to attract international delegations of officials. Could a reborn National School of Government do the same for British suppliers?

The exhibit in the corner of our Innovation Museum is a selection of Israeli cybersecurity firms. This nation has been remarkable in using government to build its tech industry. Specialist schemes recruit cyber students into the military or fund them through academia, and after they leave national service they spin off companies with some of the knowledge they have gained. 

If we head through the next room, we see the Singaporean display. I have spent some time in this country with my magnifying glass, and here is a novel find. All departments have been encouraged to set up their own foresight units to look up to 50 years ahead. The Ministry of Trade considers how 3D printing could impact ports and shipping; the Ministry of Transport looks at mobility trends. For strategic thinking, governments cannot solely rely on their Cabinet Office or Ministry of Defence: departments must take responsibility rather than leave horizon-scanning to centralised units.

The UAE has even created the role of chief innovation officer for each agency – a highly competitive post sought by high-fliers. Officials train on a specialist course at Cambridge University, then spend a year considering new strategies for their department to implement. The chief innovation officer reports to the permanent secretary, and is able to view all structures and policies afresh.

This vibrant tapestry on the left, meanwhile, illustrates a map of chief design officers, from Helsinki to Indonesia’s Bandung. Many city governments are using designers to reshape everything from digital services to local benefit centres. Healthcare is a particularly fruitful area, as demonstrated in Singapore’s Tan Tock Seng Hospital, where it has been shown that simple changes like moving the pharmacy onto the wards or relocating reception desks can cut waiting times by up to 50%.

And this model building over here shows how governments are re-using their property assets. The City of Amsterdam has set up an AirBnB style site to allow local companies to rent government space, and Jakarta has also opened up its tech labs to companies working for the public good. Some cities, like Brisbane, spend millions on dedicated start-up hubs, but others reuse existing assets to boost sectors which need a lift.

And finally, here’s a Russian information warfare unit, which uses social media to publish a national message and relentlessly boost the country’s global importance. Perhaps, nearing Brexit, British comms teams will play a similar – if less controversial – role: reminding Europe of our national value, even targeting negotiators’ home cities and provinces with messages about their reliance on British trade.

A common theme in this exhibition is that all exhibits boost departmental prowess – rather than rely on the centre. The tour is now over, but perhaps some UK permanent secretaries can visit our gift shop? They are welcome to take home mementos.

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