CITRA: Bringing innovation into public sector service delivery in Sri Lanka

Posted April 3, 2019

Embedding Innovation within the Sri Lankan Public Sector

Bearing the Sanskrit meaning of something ‘strange, wonderful and curious’, Citra uses foresight and innovation tools to prototype and test development solutions to ensure they are future-proof before nation-wide implementation. Citra is Sri Lanka’s first Social Innovation Lab established as a co-financed initiative between UNDP and the Ministry of Science, Technology and Research.

The Lab facilitates creating an environment that is conducive to looking at problems from different perspectives and delivers new and sustainable development solutions. This initiative is of definite advantage to Sri Lanka considering the possible value addition to development solution formulation using approaches such as human centred design processes, foresighting tools and co-designing avenues, which will assist the government to find creative and innovative development solutions to increasingly complex demands in the country today.

After a successful year of being in operation, Citra was officially launched last month in the presence of the Honourable Prime Minister, multiple Ministers who have worked with the Lab, high level Government partners, and officials from the public, private and development sectors.

Speaking on the added value of an Innovation Lab to the Public Sector, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe stated, “it’s great to see the results of the Citra Social Innovation Lab within a year of existence - how programs have been carried out, the number of ministries the Lab has partnered with, all those engaged and involved in social innovation who want to make a change in society.

Citra’s first annual report ’Our 1st Year in Review’ was also launched at the event, further detailing the work undertaken and partnerships established in its inception year.

Citra’s key mandate is to generate innovative solutions to enhance the capabilities of the public sector for service delivery in Sri Lanka. Citra works with public sector officials to build on their existing capabilities and introduce them to foresighting and design thinking tools to strengthen and transform them to become champions in the sustainable development process of Sri Lanka. Recognizing the vital role of a strong public sector in the achievement of Sri Lanka’s ambitious development goals, Citra, Sri Lanka’s first Social Innovation Lab, co-developed a programme on Foresight and Innovation for Public Service Excellence through a partnership with the Ministry of Public Administration and Law and Order, Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration (SLIDA), the Presidential Secretariat, and with technical support from Nesta.

Focusing on bringing the concepts of foresight and innovation into public sector service delivery, Citra worked with Nesta, a global innovation facility based in the UK, to develop a comprehensive, tailor-made programme to fit the requirements of Sri Lanka’s public sector. This programme consisted of three phases, the first being a week-long residential workshop, where public sector officials were taken through the process of approaching an issue that needs a solution, identifying its various aspects and stakeholders, ideating to formulate a solution, prototyping to test the validity of the proposed solution. They were equipped with design thinking tools, foresighting exercises, such as thinking about futures and how to plan for multiple possible future scenarios, and many other concepts. Nesta, a global pioneer on public sector innovation that consults with Governments worldwide, presented comparative experiences, which enriched the programme and will be valuable in participants’ professional settings.

Following a competitive process with participation of the Ministry, SLIDA and Citra, the total of 33 public sector officials were selected to attend the programme. The group included officials from across the country, with representation spanning a variety of institutions, Ministries, local government bodies, and Government authorities. The group was diverse, with some participants having up to 20 years of experience in the sector and others with about five. Such diversity guaranteed that multiple perspectives and varying insights were brought together at the workshop, providing all the participants with a chance to learn from each other.

The second phase of this programme was a 3-month long mentorship period, where the public sector officials returned to their Departments and Ministries and practiced these tools in real life by implementing a pilot project identified during the five-day training. During the mentoring period, colleagues from Nesta and Citra closely engaged with the public sector officials to support the practicing the acquired skills and tools.

For the third and final stage of the programme, the participants re-grouped in January 2019 for a Recap Session, to share their experiences and learnings in trying out these tools and trying to implement changes at their own workplaces. They were taken through two days of reflections upon their learnings, the various initiatives they all started after the week-long workshop, and their intended next steps in trying to scale the pilot-projects being carried out in their own departments and ministries. It provided a unique way of measuring the impact the programme created and a means of holding the participants accountable to utilize the skills and tools they were equipped with during the training programme. The Recap Session was a great platform to build a sense of community amongst the participants through exchanging on difficulties they faced and solutions they created while striving for change from within. The participants acted as motivators and supporters of each other’s work based on their shared sense of familiarity within the unique ecosystem of public sector.  

The programme concluded with an awards ceremony, with the attendance of high-level Government officials, where all participants were recognized for their efforts and initiatives to bring about a systematic change to their everyday practices within the Government.

This programme was designed specifically to be different to conventional workshops and trainings catered to strengthen the Sri Lankan public sector. The programme aimed to break down hierarchical barriers and called for applications from officials with varying experience levels. The application was open to officials ranging with five to fifteen years of experience within the Government sector. The application process also allowed applicants from the 6 All-Island Services – namely, Administrative, Planning, Architectural, Accounting, Engineering and Scientific services – to come together for this programme, which is quite unlike the other programmes catering to the public sector.

The unorthodox selection process, consisting of a written application and an extensive interview, which asked the participants to explore and acknowledge areas in which they succeeded, but also failed during their career, ensured that we were only left with the most open-minded and innovative officials, who were willing to explore innovation for the betterment of country even at the risk of potential failure. The mentorship period and the Recap Session were also incorporated into this programme to build in an accountability and evaluation framework to ensure the participants did, in fact, utilize the skills and tools they learnt while attending the workshop.

Some examples of diverse and inspiring pilot projects are:

Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration (SLIDA)

This project foresaw the need for an extensive mapping of the Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration (SLIDA, inclusive of courses offered, teaching and training methodologies adopted, as well as the relevance of existing course material. As a part of this, a mini-workshop was conducted at SLIDA with senior faculty members from SLIDA as well as other relevant stakeholders to identify the main challenges existing within the organization. The main objective of SLIDA was identified as being a “Centre of Excellence for the Public Sector”, which is directly related to the vision of SLIDA. During this workshop, the main issues along with possible solutions were identified by the participants.

As Citra identifies the importance of SLIDA and its role in shaping the public sector of the country, the Lab is interested in working closely with SLIDA and its relevant stakeholders to delve further into the challenges which were identified through the first exercise and investigate deeper in order to formulate comprehensive solutions.

National Budget Department

Designing a process and procedural guideline for officials to follow when sending any documents to the Record Room at the Budget Department was the key focus of this project. As of now, the Department does not follow a set standard of processes when filing documents, which has led to many challenges, including the difficulties faced when retrieving documents or files, time-intensive nature of the process, and many others. Having completed a mapping of the current record management process and having met with the team that runs the Records Room, the ‘innovation champion’ undertaking this project is even looking forward to automating the entire process by switching to a less-paper and more-digital approach.

National Procurement Commission

Developing a Document Management System which will allow the Commission to store and scan documents and files easily, enhance accessibility, and allow officials to submit documents and files to the respective members as required in an efficient manner.

Ministry of Public Administration

This project attempts to find a solution to insert the e-code with the latest amendments for ease of reference when searching for most up to date circulars and guidelines. This will be demonstrated on a website which will show the circulars at the relevant instances, identify these linkages within these circulars/codes and develop a user-friendly and easily accessible document.

Kandy Municipality

It was identified that socio-technical approach might be adopted to mitigate traffic congestion in Kandy. The project will begin with research to identify issues around ill-formed decisions which are not evidence-based. The end outcome would be a Tool which could be used to analyze a situation and find a solution after following a logical and data-driven process. This will be scalable and applicable to other issues from across the country. Citra aims to continue this programme with the relevant partners, and to carry out similar workshops and scale as needed in the coming years. We have no doubt that the ‘Innovation Champions’ that emerge from the programme will become the catalytic change required within the public sector, in order to catapult our work towards achieving development objectives forward.

SDG Dashboard to track progress on SDGs

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. Based on the requests made by the Government of Sri Lanka through its Department of Census and Statistics and by the United Nations in Sri Lanka, the Citra Social Innovation Lab developed an online data monitoring tool – SDG Dashboard - to track the progress in implementation of the SDGs, support data-driven approaches to enhance development work, and promote evidence-based policy- and decision-making in Sri Lanka.

Initially, Citra worked with the Ministry of Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine and the World Health Organization (WHO) to collate data related to Goal 3 and designed a prototype of the SDG Dashboard. Citra tested the prototype with multiple stakeholders, including government agencies. During the testing phase the prototype was presented to the stakeholders to use and generate visualizations where feedback was noted on how they preferred the interface to be and comments they had.  After incorporating the feedback received during the testing phase, the finalized prototype of the SDG Dashboard was launched on the 7th of April 2018 at the World Health Day celebrations held in Colombo in presence of His Excellency the President, the Honourable Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, and the WHO Director General. Subsequently, Citra has expanded the SDG Dashboard to include seven more SDGs, namely Goals 7, 13 and 15. The SDG Dashboard aims to absorb and visualize data for all 17 SDGs by end of 2019. 

The tracker is an effective tool which provides data to produce evidence to inform development interventions and visualize progress.  Currently, the SDG Dashboard houses data ready to inform targeted and evidence-based development solutions, presents them in easily accessible graphical formats, and aims to be an effective tool that streamlines coordination of initiatives contributing towards the 2030 Agenda.

UNDP Sri Lanka, working closely with Citra Social Innovation Lab, looks forward to developing more comprehensive and innovative programmes informed by design thinking tools to tackle the country’s development challenges and achieve the 2030 Agenda.