In the world’s most innovative country, government is falling behind

Fear of failure holds Swiss public servants back from experimentation

For seven consecutive years, Switzerland has topped the list of the world’s most innovative countries. Still, its government has “nothing in common with Silicon Valley,” according to the director of one of the nation’s pioneering government innovation labs.

“Failure is really stigmatised in Switzerland. If you waste public money – spend a couple million on something and it doesn’t work – your career is over,” said Alenka Bonnard, the co-founder of Staatslabor, a not-for-profit lab that functions independently of government.

As a small, landlocked nation with few natural resources, Switzerland has had to continually reinvent itself over centuries, earning a well-deserved reputation for innovation. The country files more patents per capita than any other OECD country, boasts world-class research institutes and is a leader in the fields of robotics, cryptocurrency, virtual reality and AI.

Data source: Statista

The secret to Switzerland’s success

Many factors contribute to Switzerland’s innovation capacity, but the “secret to its success” is the education system, according to Daniel Egloff, Head of the Innovation Unit at the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education, and Research.

“Only 20% of students go to university to study academic subjects. The other 80% are trained in a VET program [Vocational Education and Training], where they go to school for a few days a week and otherwise get training on the job,” said Egloff, who advises the government on innovation policy.

As a result, the majority of Swiss students graduate with diverse skills and qualifications – from an understanding of French philosophy to on-the-job experience in mechanical engineering.

“There’s a lot of pressure from federal government, which leads to a fear of doing things wrong”

Another key factor is Switzerland’s immigration system. The country fell into a deep recession in the early ‘90s, and its economy was briefly Western Europe’s weakest. One of the most effective tools government used to boost the economy was opening immigration up to skilled migrants. Now, a quarter of students and 40% of researchers at Swiss universities are foreign nationals.

Other crucial elements include high trust in government, business-friendly tax and labour laws, a stable political system, and generous funding for research – by both government and the private sector, which provides two-thirds of investment into innovation, education and research.

As a result, investment in R&D makes up 3.2% of Switzerland’s GDP – much higher than the OECD average of 2.3%.

Data source: OECD

Why doesn’t this ethos extend to government?

Switzerland, like many other countries, faces two major impediments to government innovation: a risk-averse culture beset by bureaucracy and a decentralised government with poor communication between administrations.

The country is a confederation made up of one federal system and 26 cantons, each of which enjoys a great deal of independence when it comes to public services, regulations, language and taxes. This system can prohibit innovation, according to Bonnard.

“Each canton has its own system. If you had something interesting in the German-speaking part, it wouldn’t necessarily be communicated in the French-speaking part. Trying to translate interesting cases and being able to have a meaningful conversation [with a department] somewhere else in the country is hard,” said Bonnard.

“There’s a lot of pressure from federal [government], which leads to a bit of a fear of doing things wrong. It’s difficult to try new things.”

Staatslabor was launched a year ago by Bonnard and three co-founders with backgrounds in public service, political science and innovation. It hopes to incite a sea change in the Swiss government by bringing together public servants from across the country and giving them grounds to experiment.

The founders of Staatlabor, from left to right: Maximilian Stern, Danny Buerkli, Alenka Bonnard and Nicola Forster

The lab is working with hundreds of public servants to test policy solutions to ubiquitous problems: How can government sell a career in public service to millennials? What’s the best way for civil servants to take advantage of blockchain technology? Can we make social welfare work better for everyone?

“We need more collaboration between cantons. If departments start sharing with each other, they will see that failure is common. We want to build a space where exchange and thinking differently is encouraged.”

The lab is new and small, so its impact is yet to be seen. By bringing in universities, designers and anthropologists in to work with public servants on these projects, Staatslabor hopes to demonstrate to the Swiss government that experimentation – and, inevitably, failure – is a critical part of innovation.

“We see interesting cases [of government innovation] from elsewhere, but we need them from within Switzerland,” said Bonnard. “Our public service delivers well – but we could do so much more.”

(Picture credit: Unsplash/Martin Sattler, Staatslabor)

Jennifer Guay


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