• Opinion
  • March 25, 2019
  • 9 minutes
  • 1

Colombia is learning from startups to get the public sector innovating

Opinion: We're embracing and promoting experimental approaches

This piece was written by Aura Cifuentes, Director, and Javier Guillot, Learning manager, Public Innovation Team (EiP) — National Planning Department (DNP), Colombia.

It is part of a special mini-series on what the world can learn from the public innovation landscape in Colombia.


An emergent public innovation movement in Colombia is changing the ways in which public challenges are being understood and addressed.

Diverse actors and initiatives — including government, academia, international cooperation, civil society and private organisations — are emphasising the value of learning through experimentation and the need to engage citizens in achieving more effective and efficient responses.

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This is transforming how Colombia is reviewing its past, facing its present and planning its future.

In 2015, decision-makers in the Directorate for Innovation and Private Sector Development (DIDE) of the National Planning Department (DNP), a ministry-level agency devoted to strategic policymaking, decided to establish a team to explore how innovation approaches can be used to (re)design public initiatives and reconfigure the relationships between government and citizens.

The DNP’s Public Innovation Team (EiP — Equipo de Innovación Pública) was born. The EiP combines capabilities to mobilise public innovation in Colombia, in cooperation with local, regional and international actors, working as an enabler and integrator for the Colombian public innovation ecosystem.

To achieve this, the EiP embraces and promotes experimental approaches to optimise transparency and accountability, increase citizen participation, and probe the use of new technologies.

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What can the public sector learn from startups?

Traditionally, public challenges are first addressed “on paper”, requiring significant resources and time in planning and design phases that often have little or no input from the contextual realities of implementation. For this reason, potentially avoidable difficulties and disappointments are frequently experienced at large scales.

Public innovation approaches recognise complexity and uncertainty from the outset

In contrast, public innovation approaches recognise complexity and uncertainty from the outset, and through experimentation — continuously exploring, testing and validating ideas — experience is gained and evidence gathered about the challenge and the possible ways to tackle it.

The importance of experimentation as a core concept for public innovation can be seen through an analogy with entrepreneurship. A startup is not a “small version of a large company,” but rather an organisation dedicated to exploring and learning which business model works best and has the best fit in the market.

To face uncertainty and manage risk, a startup constantly deploys experiments to gain feedback from its users, who effectively participate as co-creators of its products or services:

Start-up vs. traditional business approaches

Source: EiP-DNP

So, how could we have more startup-like approaches in the public sector?

After a process of research and collective participation carried out by the public innovation ecosystem in Colombia, we have identified experimentation as a common ingredient in innovative strategies that recognise complexity and uncertainty.

In order for experimentation to contribute effectively to generating public value, it must have the following characteristics:

  • Adaptive: performed in iteration cycles, in which the learning obtained in one cycle is used as input to make adjustments in the next.
  • Evidence-based: evidence needs to support ideation and decision-making.
  • Open: most critically, moving from creating value for people to creating value with them, to reap the benefits of collective intelligence and strengthen democratic legitimacy. 

Characteristics of the experimentation process

Source: EiP-DNP

The Colombian public innovation roadmap

For the first time, Colombia has a clear roadmap with defined goals to promote public innovation. Below we present the five general strategies of the public innovation policy enshrined in the National Development Plan (PND) 2018-2022.

The PND is one of Colombia’s key policy instruments. It reflects the program of the Presidential administration and carries the strength of law, after being approved by Congress. In practice, it serves as a blueprint for action for the executive branch of the Colombian national government each four-year Presidential term.

  1. Strengthen the public innovation ecosystem

We need to recognise an ecosystem with diverse actors, resources and channels, and guide its collective action towards addressing citizens’ needs. A key goal here is to create a digital platform for public innovation centred on users across Colombia, which will facilitate more effective communication and articulation and connect the supply and demand of resources more efficiently.

The platform will be complemented with analogue spaces for sharing knowledge and lessons and with interaction with local and international communities of practice (such as States of Change).

An additional goal led by MiLAB, a national public innovation unit, consists of diagnosing 24 public challenges and then engaging private organisations and entrepreneurs to solve them.

  1. Enhance institutional conditions for public innovation and remove barriers

Among the goals in this strategy is the creation of the Colombian Index for Public Innovation, which will tackle the challenge of measuring public innovation to provide useful inputs for national and subnational government organisations in defining and guiding their actions within the public innovation ecosystem.

The strategy also suggests having an open dialogue with oversight bodies to diagnose and overcome normative barriers for innovation in the public sector.

  1. Promote a culture and mindset to foster public innovation

In order to achieve sustained and structural impact, public innovation needs to be rooted in organisational cultures that encourage experimental problem-solving.

This is no easy feat. As a step in this direction, the government has committed to strengthening innovation capabilities of 8,300 public officials up to 2022. EiP is also leading the creation of a tool to promote an experimental mindset, originally conceived in cooperation with Nesta.

  1. Create support and financing mechanisms to materialise innovation

A key goal here is to review and promote the use of innovation procurement as an instrument for boosting public innovation nationally and locally. The government also aims to explore and foster results-based financing mechanisms, including social impact bonds.

  1. Manage knowledge and learning to create public value

Colombia will build and use specific measurement and evaluation tools for public innovation that can take into account processes as well as results, integrate quantitative and qualitative evidence and build citizens’ trust.

The adventure is only just beginning. We face many challenges to promote public innovation effectively in practice. Multiple barriers need to be removed and myths debunked in order for government and citizens to work as a successful team and create public value together.

But we are confident about the potential of this movement, and will continue to work hard to make public sector innovation a reality in Colombia and our region. — Aura Cifuentes & Javier Guillot

(Picture credit: Credit: National Planning Department (DNP), Colombia)

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