Innovating in Public Sector

December 30, 2021

Photo credit: Darkhanbaatar Baasanjav

 Across the world, emergent problems such as the pandemic and climate change are testing the current capacities of governments and requiring immediate and novel responses. Citizens around the world are expecting their governments to do better. Governments are looking into innovative solutions to meet the expectations and address the complex problems of today.

 Many countries working towards incorporating innovation mechanisms in their government structure and operations. But most of them still have trouble bringing innovation due to limited expertise, information, and collaboration. Furthermore, the public sector’s concern about negative public opinion, built-in risk aversion, and slow and rigid processes have led them to preserve their traditional ways. For instance, technological advancements are changing societies, but often times governments are the last to benefit from this progress.

 One little-mentioned but crucial fact is that innovation incorporates both completely new solutions or improvements of existing services, products, and operations. In line with this, UNDP Accelerator Lab Mongolia (A-lab) is attempting to bring innovation in development by going beyond simply introducing the newest technological solutions. We are aiming to open possibilities for novel ideas and solutions in the public sector by (1) identifying new partners that work outside the rigid bureaucratic processes, (2) developing new insights, and (3) experimenting with selected interventions.

 Bringing outside engagement is a key to innovation. During the research, analysis, and implementation processes, A-lab has extensive stakeholder engagements and discussions beyond the usual government partners. In an attempt to solicit creative contributions from the public, we organized a Digital Innovation Challenge to crowdsource ideas. We are collaborating with independent researchers, local and foreign private companies, specialized NGOs, academic institutions, designers, ICT, and other experts. As managing these agents is not only challenging but goes beyond the traditional roles and responsibilities of government agencies, A-lab in this way is becoming an envoy that connects agencies and people.  

New information and insights from various sources shed light on existing challenges. A-lab gathered formal and informal data on the areas where the government had limited information. We managed to do this through discussions, formal research, social media surveys, rapid ethnography, official and unofficial sources as well as literature reviews. It was important that our findings help ignite discussions outside of existing stakeholders. So, we made our Qualitative Assessment of Digital Access and Skills of Vulnerable Groups study publicly available. We also sourced and used different data to create new information. For instance, by simply combining government information with on-site observations, we created the first digital version of the complete map of Erdenet bus stations. A-lab believes that these new insights will be the essential building block for innovative approaches and interventions.

For many good reasons, government units often are not able to experiment on ideas before implementation. But testing new ideas and taking risks are an inherent part of the innovation process. This is why A-lab is currently experimenting on five ideas in partnership with the public sector of Mongolia. In the areas of digital literacy, we are localizing Microsoft Digital Literacy contents and incorporating Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to popular local websites and applications. As part of the Smart Erdenet program, A-lab is experimenting on ger districtwaste collection, a community-based recycling initiative, and a bus transportation mobile application. These experiments will allow governments to test their planned interventions, learn from the data, and optimize the solutions before major investments. 

This innovation process is a very crucial learning opportunity for both A-lab and government counterparts. Perhaps some new partners will not be engaged next year, some new data will not be useful anymore, and some experiments will fail, but all these new efforts will bring us a little closer to innovative ideas and opportunities. We will be shaping and realizing the path towards more effective solutions for green and inclusive development.