How can Bosnia and Herzegovina's public sector employees shape the future of public service through innovation?
DigiBlog: Paving the way for public sector innovation in Bosnia & Herzegovina
April 4, 2023
Authors: Sofija Bogeva and Milosh Sokolikj
Introducing innovation, a concept that calls to mind open-ended thinking, creativity and a certain disregard for rules to an environment often regarded as strictly hierarchical and highly inflexible such as the public sector is no small feat. Doing this in B&H, with its uniquely complex public sector, makes this even more of a challenge.
Taking into account the fact that most public sector employees view innovation as incompatible with the more rigid, process-driven culture they are used to, this starts to look like a mission impossible.
“How might we introduce the fundamentals of innovation and convey its potential to public sector employees in Bosnia and Herzegovina?”
This is the question we at SmartUp Social Innovation Lab (NMK), together with our partners Dark Matter Labs (UK) and Korimako (Slovenia), asked ourselves when embarking on the journey to deliver a week-long training during March 2022 on public sector innovation (PSI) for a cohort of public sector employees in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Initiated by UNDP BIH, and supported by the UK Government, in the scope of the Digital Transformation in the Public Sector in BiH project, this training aimed to introduce the participants, coming from all levels of government to the fundamental concepts of innovation in the public sector and equip them with the basic tools to initiate their own innovation journey.
B&H proved to be not far from the North Macedonia reality and our experience with the rest of the Western Balkans. On one hand, there are issues with motivation, support from decision-makers, skills and capacities, hierarchy and authority, that impede innovation from the inside. On the other hand, political influence, power struggles, and citizens' expectations are significant external influences.
Drawing on previous experience, we fixated on three tenets for our programme:
- Create a comfortable environment where participants can relax
- Make the training interactive and fun
- Encourage questions and teamwork
Another important component was creating a connection between participants and the material of the training. In our case, we made sure to emphasize that innovation isn’t only a free-thinking exercise, but rather a structured, disciplined process. To address the siloed, low-cooperation environment, we also made it clear from the very start that innovation also requires dedicated cross-institutional work and skills, to be truly effective in the public sector.
5 days, 50 public sector employees & 2 kinds of trainings
With a total of 5 days in a row to conduct the training, we focused on a structure built around a three-day foundational training and a two-day Policy Lab simulation exercise.
The first 3 days focused on three modules, each intended to nudge our participants from “should we even bother with innovation?” to “how soon can we start?” : with the goal to not only impart knowledge but inspire the participants to start thinking about how they could begin to implement innovation practices in their workplace.
We tried to do so starting from positioning public sector innovation within the larger landscape of 21-st century challenges, and introducing the purpose and different aspects of innovation, to narrowing the scope by focusing on:
- types of innovation and relevant examples,
- the innovation process and tools and
- an overview of the different roles necessary for innovation to thrive.
The Policy Lab was a dynamic, interactive workshop, allowing participants to apply all the knowledge they had gained by then. To accommodate the different levels of government and the type of work the participants did, we devised two programmes - a service and a policy track. Both followed a similar process, with adjustments to certain tools, so as to make them more relevant to the nature of the work.
Going through a full innovation process, the participants surprised us with their enthusiasm and high level of engagement as they made an impressive effort to engage with each exercise and understand the value of each of the tools they were using.
What made us proud was the willingness to question things, which is not really a highlight of administrative cultures across Western Balkans. Having that level of engagement and openness was therefore quite exciting - it allowed us to better contextualise the work and the participants to better understand the inherent value of innovation practice for their work.
Starting from hopes
To start off the process and have a clear vision of the future really begins from the inside - the hopes and the fears we hold are our drivers of actions. When we are aware of our fears we can better think of our desired futures - therefore, we created an exercise to put people in the mindset and create a safe space to collaborate and dream!
… to building a vision and trying to design an action
The hopes and fears of the participants were reflected in the three emerging themes - Digitalization, Employment and Strategic Planning. Besides digital transformation of services and processes, attractiveness of employment in the public sector and transparency of that process were recognized as some of the challenges innovations could support in solving. The Policy Lab resulted in 7 service and policy concepts, aimed at solving the contemporary challenges the public sector in BIH is facing.
A glimpse into what we learned and the challenges ahead
- By engaging the participants from the get-go, and giving them the opportunity to voice their opinions and share their experiences, we can create a productive environment conducive to active participation.
- It is very important to create a safe space for interaction, without judgement and fear of being wrong or failure not being tolerated! A space where experimentation and failure are celebrated and taken as a lesson forward! That is what innovation is all about!
People enjoy working together, inter-institutionally and multi-disciplinary. Innovation requires multiple perspectives working together to give a holistic solution to a certain challenge.
- Working on real issues close to the participants ensures they could see the value of the process and each tool in a context relevant and familiar to them.
- Looking for the real cause, the problem, that most of the time is out of sight, is not an easy task! Support, tools and guidance are needed for people to identify the real issue. We need networks of trainers to support the administration if we are to solve the real challenges!
- Innovation vs digitalization - It is more than important to make a distinction between innovation as a process and digitalization as a mechanism towards innovation, rather than the goal. Public sector innovation must focus on improving processes, services and policies and making them more user-centric; digitalization is but one tool at their disposal to do so.
- Added vs integrated innovation. Added innovation is an effective mechanism to bring in innovative practices or the benefits thereof within an environment that previously didn’t have that aspect. It is, however, not a long-term solution. To achieve long-lasting change, we need to work on the integration of innovation practices within the work processes and organizational culture. This is the way to ensure continuity in the practices.
We made the first step!
This training was an initial effort to introduce the fundamentals of innovation for the public sector in Bosnia & Herzegovina. We managed to inspire participants to not only understand innovation and its importance but to start asking themselves how it might look in their everyday work, what the benefits might be and how might they begin implementing it.
But to truly achieve a change in the way the public sector works, there is still a lot to be done. From establishing clear missions to building up skills and capacities to changing processes and structures to enable experimentation and celebrate failure!
We invite you to join us on this journey to a better tomorrow!
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