• Opinion
  • June 24, 2019
  • 16 minutes
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LabX: Innovation is impossible without a change in culture

Opinion: Portugal's innovation lab wants to challenge your routines

This article was written by Bruno Monteiro, LabX Coordinator, and Sara Carrasqueiro, Member of the board at Portugal’s Agency for Administrative Modernisation (AMA). For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed. 


When LabX was launched in 2016, a popular comic strip in a daily newspaper warned about the “danger of explosion” associated with bringing change to the Public Administration. Those rumours were, as with Mark Twain’s death, greatly exaggerated.

The Experimentation Lab for Public Administration, or LabX for short, is a team under the Agency for Administrative Modernisation in Portugal. LabX seeks to reconcile the demands of optimisation of public resources and the deep commitment to the values of democracy and the universality of public services in its role as ignitor of innovation. To continue in this direction, LabX positions itself as a safe space to explore the challenges and to test innovative solutions for the Portuguese public services.

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We are located inside the public administration, where we balance well-known constraints — urgent pressures to be dealt with intricate procedures, growing demands meeting limited resources etc. — with the advantages of “feeling the pain”, such as accumulating experiences that are shared with other public servants, showing that it is possible to change in this Administration, and giving our proposals context-specific accuracy to the duties and values of public service.

In this article we have identified five principles that guide LabX in the promotion of innovation in the public sector.

For sustaining our practice, we are relying on evidence-based arguments, participatory mechanisms, collaborative exchanges, experimentation and measurement. Drawing consequences from the ever-changing horizon of innovation, LabX doesn’t limit itself to a single and exclusive paradigm, as important it may be for the moment, but tries to apply these principles in the exploration or promotion of generators of solutions, from service design or gamification to behavioural sciences and participatory techniques.

  1. Use knowledge to inform decisions and sustain arguments

In a context that requires the ability to make urgent decisions, it is sometimes difficult to resist the impulse to jump to solutions too quickly and, in particular, to jump to the solutions we rely on by routine.

For this reason, LabX invests in research in order to circumscribe the right problems: either collaborating with scientific research centres and design labs, using data already collected and available from the services, or directly engaging in collecting original data from the field.

Raw data isn’t useful by itself, however; it needs to be articulated in concrete initiatives with relevant goals. Without this constant and methodical attention to the reality, it is harder to keep in synch with the demands and novelties that spring from the present, not to speak of the tendencies for the time being.

There is a growing need to find alternatives to the “traditional” approaches to education for citizenship. Instead of relying on common assumptions (such as the idea that “everyone knows that kids want apps”), we led a field study to find out what really worried Portuguese children and youngsters.

To do this, we developed a participatory diagnosis instrument — and which would be the first tangible result of this project: the gamified solution “Agora falo eu!” (“My turn to speak!”). At the same time we gathered experts, teachers and civil organization leaders to hear their experiences, and we were able to keep the debates focused on facts, instead of impressions and beliefs.

Funny enough: the younger kids between 6 and 12 years preferred to place their questions and engage in practical activities with their relatives and teachers more than just relying in the technological devices increasingly used to divert their attention demands.

Participatory diagnosis sessions (Vila Nova de Gaia) using a gamified instrument— “Agora falo eu!” (“My turn to speak!”) — adapted and developed by LabX, for a project on complementary ways of promoting civic education promoted together with multiple public entities and with the support from the Secretary of State for Citizenship and Equality. (Photo credit: LabX)

  1. Breaking down barriers to participation

Ensuring that public initiatives are based on the participation of all stakeholders is not only a quick way to gather support for the project, but also a way to ensure the inclusion of that plurality of needs and expectations from the start.

To promote participation, it is necessary to break down barriers that prevent communication or discourage engagement with the state. First and foremost the barriers that exist between public institutions themselves.

For historical reasons, these institutions are often organised in silos that do not always communicate between themselves, despite the fact that citizens must talk simultaneously with several of them to deal with a single issue. The next step is to overcome the obstacles between citizens and public services, whenever public services display language that not everyone can understand, opaque and slow procedures, or costly and less inclusive access.

When they were created, in 1999, the “Citizen Shops” brought a new paradigm for the public services: combining in the same space public and private entities, using open and horizontal desks, or larger schedules.

Twenty years after, it was time to accommodate the changes in behaviours and expectations among citizens and businesses. After doing intensive fieldwork, LabX promoted co-creation sessions which brought together citizens or public servants of various entities around the same problem, inviting them to participate in order to complement each other’s points of view or ideating solutions to improve citizen support at the “Lojas do Cidadão”.

Co-creation sessions involving citizens in the parish of Penha de França (Lisbon) within the scope of the project on face-to-face assistance in the “Lojas do Cidadão” (AMA). (Photo credit: LabX)

  1. The whole is larger than its parts: working in collaboration

Through these activities, LabX works as close as possible with its partners. Using its own limitations as an opportunity to imagine alternatives, Labx emphasises its own role as mediator between partners across the innovation ecosystem.

We don’t have a large team or infinite budget; we are engaged in building strong and mutual relationships among the partners. For the connections inside the public administration itself, we can derive huge contributions.

By engaging members of the public institutions from the start, we can ensure the transference of knowledge and skills, a progressive dissemination of the experimental mindset, and an enduring innovation culture within the organisation after LabX leaves the project.

Nurturing the framework for innovation means building proactive skills and, in the end, making your partners autonomous.

To express and promote these goals we are building up our “Innovator’s Network”, where public servants, independently of their institutional belonging, have the opportunity to challenge the other colleagues with their concerns, to share opinions, or contribute and criticise their ideas and projects, as happened in the initial moment of the incoming platform for public servants, “Intranet.Gov”.

During a collaborative session of our “Innovator’s Network”, public servants use innovative techniques to challenge other colleagues or contribute with ideas to the development of services centred around the needs of the users. Here, we see colleagues from the Public Administration using a card sorting technique to define in their group the ideal requirements that a digital platform should have to address their needs. (Photo credit: LabX)

  1. Test before you deploy: disseminating an experimental mind-set

Instant solutions are rare. The majority of the solutions that we develop travels first through a path of incremental improvements, in which testing serves to fine-tune the solution precisely taking into account inadequacies and flaws as they arise. In other words, these successive attempts fuel the development and improvement of solutions centred around their users’ needs.

Therefore, promoting innovation means taking risks. These risks, however, can be controlled by experimentation, which decreases the margin of uncertainty before we reach a solution that can be scaled. The “Espaço Óbito” (Death and Bereavement Services) project, hosted by the Institute of Registration and Notary Affairs (IRN), which developed a single point of contact for the citizen that needs to deal with the obligations arising out of a relative’s death, aimed to explore the virtues of experimentation.

The truth is that innovation only deserves its name if it surpasses itself over and over again

From a first prototype aiming to validate the concept, we now progress to a pilot project of a service with a higher technological integration between services.

This commitment with a controlled development of solutions was balanced with a realistic and pragmatic approach to goal-setting and “delivery” of tangible outcomes. For us, it was important to show “results” very soon, so we opened up a portfolio that combined large and complex projects with “quick wins”.

Since it is an experimental project itself, LabX tried to capture the opportunities to obtain illustrative cases asap, such as the gamified tool or the network sessions we noticed previously.

Face-to-face interaction with multiple services at the same time: this sort of “human interoperability” was used to validate the concept of the new “Espaço Óbito”, organized by IRN with the support from the sponsor (Office of the Secretary of State of Justice) and with LabX’s collaboration. Nowadays, there is a more integrated pilot being tested in Coimbra Citizen Shop, where the citizen only need to contact with one public servant in order to deal with the requirements of all those public institutions. (Photo credit: LabX)

  1. Show me your numbers: demonstrate value and measure impact

Promoting innovation in the public sector always means bearing in mind that the goal is to improve the experience of citizens and businesses while creating more agile public services.

For the public sector, in particular, it is crucial to adhere to the principles of Open Government, including, among others, transparency, integrity, accountability and stakeholder participation.

Therefore, it is necessary to clearly demonstrate and prove how and which value is created and handed down to society. To publicly communicate the value of innovation, it is important for innovation to be adequately measured in its costs, advantages or impact, either in their quantitative and qualitative dimensions.

In collaboration with the Unidade Técnica de Avaliação de Impacto Legislativo (Technical Unit of Legislative Impact Assessment, UTAIL), LabX has sought to integrate evaluation methodologies, to be able to measure the impact of introducing “Fatura Eletrónica” (E-Invoice) within the framework of the state’s expenditure processes. This is a hard task to accomplish, but it is a way we need to follow to get further commitments in the simplification, digitisation and transparency in public spending.

The attrition criteria

Our intention in telling these stories from the field is to highlight the rough contact with the everyday details that make up the bulk of innovation.

Doing innovation means, one way or another, to challenge the routines, the cultural convictions and the things that are taken for granted in the provision of public services.

From this derives attrition: it is the touchstone that proves we are still enticing the Public Administration to follow, infiltrating it with the attitude of restlessness necessary to keep in pace with the demands from citizens and businesses. We are eager to share our experiences, since we think it is urgent to give innovation a voice without romanticising the nuts and bolts of its application and constant reinvention.

The truth is that innovation only deserves its name if it surpasses itself over and over again. — Bruno Monteiro

Acknowledgement: LabX is supported through the COMPETE 2020 / SAMA 2020 initiative, with funds from the ESF – European Social Fund. A first and initial approach to these topics was made in a much shorter text, “Where are you going innovation?”, published in the gazette In-house. Innovation in the city transformation (Porto, 2019), distributed in the inauguration of Porto’s Innovation Hub.

(Photo credit: Unsplash)

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