Public servants are told time and time again — often in articles on Apolitical — that collaboration is the key to innovation. But the siloes and rivalries baked into the departmental system too often prevent civil servants from working with their neighbours.
It’s a problem many governments are grappling with. Now, Taiwan may have found a solution.
The Public Digital Innovation Space (PDIS), an innovation lab that carries out work for Taiwan’s Digital Ministry, has built a fast-growing network of 63 public servants devoted to cross-departmental collaboration.
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It’s proven successful so far: the network has driven policy change, and PDIS representatives say it’s breaking down barriers between departments. But the challenge will be leveraging the work of a small cohort of civil servants to drive culture change across the whole of government.
A new way of working
Often, the problems facing government don’t have a single owner. Drunk driving, for instance, would come under the purview of the ministries of justice, transportation and health and welfare, among others.
By bringing representatives from each of these agencies together to solve problems, PDIS wants to ingrain in Taiwan’s civil service the idea that collaboration is necessary for effective policymaking. It also hopes to build trust between citizens and government by boosting transparency.
“It’s very important to rethink the structure of how government works”
Taiwan’s Participation Officers Network — founded in 2016 by digital minister Audrey Tang — is made up of Participation Officers (POs), who meet monthly to hash out service design improvements and hold workshops with citizens to co-design public services. All 32 of Taiwan’s government ministries are represented.
“It’s very important to rethink the structure of how government works: how services are provided as well as how policy is made,” said Fang-Jui Chang, a service designer at PDIS who helps run the network.
“It’s less about changing legislation than about generating a group dynamic that allows civil servants to work creatively and openly. We try to guide them through a new way of thinking and working,” said Chang, who previously worked on open policymaking at the UK Cabinet Office’s Policy Lab.
The problems the network focuses on are either raised by citizens via an online petitioning website called Join, or suggested by POs themselves. POs then discuss the topics, and vote on which they should focus on that month.
One of the PO network’s initial successes was redesigning the country’s income tax system. The previous tax filing portal was difficult to use, and the instructions were jargon-heavy. It wasted time — both for citizens who had to laboriously fill out forms and for frontline customer service representatives, who had to answer the same questions over and over again.
“Sometimes civil servants are afraid to talk with citizens”
To tackle the problem, the PO network brought together citizens and a range of experts including designers, IT strategists and finance ministry staff.
The POs worked with these different stakeholders to find out what problems they have with the current system: What language is unclear? How could the portal’s interface be better designed? After identifying difficulties, they came up with ideas for solutions, prototype designs and tested them out. The process takes place over the course of several workshops.
The new, more user-friendly online version of Taiwan’s tax system was launched in May 2018. Currently, the PO network is working on a new health card service policy.
Some 30 to 45 non-public servants attend the POs’ workshops, which are critical to the network’s work. Civil servants can get too in-the-weeds when it comes to public services — it can help to hear outsiders’ points of view. Meetings and workshops are made accessible to all citizens through searchable transcriptions and some have 360-degree livestreams.
“Sometimes civil servants are afraid to talk with citizens, because sometimes they’re really angry,” said Billy Lin, a researcher at PDIS. “The process is designed to help civil servants have a culture of openness, where they can communicate with citizens.” PDIS advertises the PO network process as a new way for citizens to engage policymakers, outside of voting, protesting or complaining online.
Currently, the biggest challenge the network faces, according to Chang, is the time commitment. “A lot of POs feel it’s a lot of work to do. It’s a long process,” she admitted.
PDIS runs the meetings and trains the POs in the process, which is guided by a research tool called issue mapping. Issue mapping is a way of visualising a concept by making all possible perspectives, problems and solutions visible on a diagram (see an example here).
The issue mapping process is intentionally comprehensive, which means that public servants have to sift through a lot of reading material. To simplify the process, PDIS creates Google Docs with different perspectives on the issues the POs cover in meetings. But it isn’t easy for civil servants to wade through extensive research on top of their day job.
“Civil servants really need to be able to talk about the difficulties of doing policy”
Additionally, POs are expected to bring the meeting’s discussions back to their department — but it can be difficult to integrate methods and solutions from a deliberately disruptive process into old-fashioned ministries.
“It’s hard to retain the innovation,” said Chang.
But despite the commitment involved, the PO network is growing at a fast pace. Big ministries are sending more representatives; the Ministry of Health and Welfare, Ministry of Finance, and Council of Agriculture have built their own internal networks; and the city of Tainan has plans to replicate the model within local government.
Tang also delivered a training session for New York City policymakers interested in replicating the process in June.
One of the most important outcomes of the network, according to Lin, is increased trust between public servants from different departments. “Before, they didn’t trust each other and didn’t volunteer to help each other out,” said Lin. But after many collaboration sessions and frank discussions about the challenges they face, barriers began to break down.
“In the PO network, they are forced to work together, and start to trust each other,” said Lin. “Civil servants really need to be able to talk about the difficulties of doing policy.” —Jennifer Guay
(Picture credit: Pixabay)