• Opinion
  • November 6, 2018
  • 7 minutes
  • 3

A mini-guide to public sector innovation in Switzerland

Opinion: The country is known for private sector innovation — but the state is lagging behind

innovation in switzerland

This opinion piece was written by Maximilian Stern, co-founder of Foraus, the think tank on Swiss foreign policy, and vice president of Staatslabor, a non-profit helping the public sector in Switzerland to build up its innovation capacity. It also appears in our government innovation newsfeed.


Switzerland is famous for many things, not least for its capacity to innovate. This year, the country was once again ranked first on the Global Innovation Index. Unfortunately, this applies mainly to the private sector and universities. The state, on the other hand, has just discovered the catchphrase “digitisation” and can hardly be regarded as innovative. So, what needs to change in government in the Alpine republic? Here’s a guide — in seven steps.

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1. More innovation know-how, less “eGovernment”

Today, it is the preachers of “digitisation” who have the power to control the innovation agenda in Switzerland’s public sector. Not entirely altruistically, they sell software and hardware to public administrations, costing millions of Swiss francs and repeatedly causing scandals because something doesn’t work properly — or at all. The reality that innovation does not just mean “digitisation” and that “eGovernment” does not solve all problems can only be credibly defended by the administration if it itself understands more about innovation than it does today. Learning about public sector innovation is key.

2. New methods, old ideas: citizen-centred design

Public administration consists of institutions that facilitate and enable citizens to live together. First and foremost, these institutions are created for citizens and are intended to solve their problems. There are now new methods — such as citizen-centred design — for a critical approach that is actually fairly straightforward: involving those affected in order to understand their problems and develop solutions for them. This approach should be the beginning of all public sector activities.

3. New analytical methods, new data sources

Involving citizens means not only asking their opinions, but also finding out how they act in real life. How do citizens behave in specific situations? What do they have trouble with? What makes their lives easier? Expert studies have been doing this for a long time, and the great advantage of our time is that it is now much easier to obtain information about citizens’ behaviour. The tools have become so much cheaper, faster and simpler. Instead of teams of scientists, it can now be the administration itself who observes and analyses: What concerns do people call the hotline for? Does a specific form work? What business is done at the counter?

4. Sharing information for better cooperation

The tasks that the public sector assumes today can no longer neatly be assigned to individual departments. Instead, they demand intelligent interaction. Especially in Switzerland, where, thanks to federalism and a permanent grand coalition running the country, it is particularly difficult to share data within the administration. Parochial thinking is, in fact, further strengthened by eGovernment solutions with very rigid specifications. It leads to false assumptions, higher costs and dissatisfied employees.

5. Actively creating transparency

Sensitive information, like personal or security-related data, shouldn’t be made public. The principle of transparency doesn’t contradict that. Instead, the principle’s argument is that if there is no privacy or public security reason, the general public has a right not just to access information and data — but to be informed actively. This corresponds to increased demands of citizens for transparency, but also to our ever growing capabilities today. It is no longer enough to refer to documents in archives and databases; what is needed is accessible and easily understandable information. Whether this really requires a video, an interactive map or an interface should be decided as needed (see step 2).

6. Participation, despite or because of semi-direct democracy

In contrast to other countries, the concept of “participation” does not quite do justice to the Swiss political system. Thanks to semi-direct democracy, fairly regular votes are not “citizen polls”, and do not simply amount to “inclusion” or “participation”. The understanding of democracy here is that power emanates from the people, while parliament and the executive are effectively implementing agencies. Without an acknowledgment of these particularities, “citizen participation” is bound to meet strong opposition — particularly at local and regional levels. In Switzerland, participation can only mean that it is the citizens who decide at the end of the day. This should not mean that citizens should not be supported in formulating proposals, discussing them and forging compromises before they do so.

It is not necessarily desirable that parliament becomes a “co-working space”

7. Culture change is the result of experimentation

Much would be easier if the public sector had a different culture. Drastic cultural change is often called for: instead of civil servants working-to-rule, dynamic intrapreneurs should take over. A note of warning. Firstly, it is not necessarily desirable that every public sector employee turns into an “innovation evangelist” or that parliament becomes a “co-working space”. And secondly, culture change will not happen overnight. New working methods, new organisational structures, or other new approaches need to be tested in repeated experiments by individual employees or teams that dare to go ahead and try something new. Culture change is the result of a lot of work — and best done without too much innovation slang. — Maximilian Stern

(Picture credit: Flickr/Marco Markovich)

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