“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” - Abraham Maslow, 1966.
An Innovation Toolkit for the Namibian Public Sector
December 9, 2022
Abraham Maslow’s quote to introduce this blog is becoming an increasingly popular metaphor which is also referred to as “the law of the instrument”; or “the law of the hammer”, “the golden hammer”, or “Maslow’s hammer”. Also referred to as a cognitive bias, it refers to commonly held experiences in acquiring a new tool or approach and the related tendency to (over)-use and apply the tool to everything. The quote is not only obvious but appropriate in relating it to the public sector innovation toolkit the Accelerator Lab handed over recently to the Office of the Prime Minister. It may be useful to apply this analogy to describe what we have learnt about public sector innovation in the process.
As I write this, I am reminded that the Accelerator Lab continues to seek possibilities in implementing the toolkit we have eventually developed. We have made the toolkit available for others to use in co-creating with others. It is a toolkit which we hope will be used to spark and develop innovative solutions across the age-old organizational silos across the public sector. We also seek to influence how alternative types of knowledge and perspectives will change, for instance by connecting public servants with the communities they serve or how to work with unusual partners such as the creative industry or directly with start-ups and entrepreneurs and how their partnerships could shape a common understanding of key challenges, opportunities in creating fit for purpose solutions.
Working with public policy, and as a former civil servant, I believe we have all been conditioned to think about public policies in a certain way and are somewhat inadvertently biased. The high-level national strategies and agenda are cascaded across the various sectors and frame the context for the solutions. In this regard, the next paragraph, while overstated, in many (if not all government publications), needs some explanation.
On the 22nd of June 2020, the Office of the Prime Minister launched the Public Service Innovation Policy with the aim of both promoting and nurturing creativity and innovative public service delivery. The policy gives practical expression to Namibia’s strategic national aspirations as defined in the Namibian Constitution, Vision 2030, the National Development Plans (NDPs), and the Harambee Prosperity Plan. It seeks to improve efficient, economic, effective and equitable service delivery, The policy is also aligned to the continental and global agenda which includes the African Union Agenda 2063 and the African Charter on the Values and Principles of Public Service and Administration as well as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Amidst the uncertainty and confusion of the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Public Sector Innovation Policy provided the newly established Accelerator Lab with a degree of, and ironically, a measure of clarity of purpose as well as a well - defined entry point. It may not seem like much was done since its launch, but a good part of 2021 was devoted to a series of necessary and relevant conversations. These foundational exchanges were held with our colleagues, the Public Sector Innovation Policy custodians at the Directorate of Public Sector Innovation and Reform in the Office of the Prime Minister. Our deliberations were largely aimed at making sense of what we could do to collectively answer the question:
How might we best define the role and contribution of the UNDP Namibia Accelerator Lab to optimally learn and support innovation capacity in the Public Sector?
Put differently, what kind of approach, tools, methods and ideas might we use for public servants to not only understand the policy but also use to start innovating? How do we encourage innovation in the public sector? How would we link innovation to an improvement in service delivery? Equipped with the Accelerator Lab’s global mandate to introduce new ways of working in taking innovative approaches to capacity development and the Accelerator Lab’s potential value of development ‘done differently’, we were invited to make presentations at four induction training intervals for the innovation champions. Approximately 200 innovation champions attended these induction sessions and were drawn from central government, regional councils, local authorities and public owned enterprises respectively. Our presentations, which stirred a general interest, covered the rationale, purpose and the work of the Accelerator Lab as the world’s largest learning network and highlighted the range of sophisticated and broad set of tools and innovation methods used by various Labs ranging from asset mapping, design thinking, prototyping to participatory approaches.
We reflected on these engagements and in doing so, made a few observations. Public servants are expected to provide quality public services. However, they face a lot of challenges and are pressurised to make and act on key decisions, which directly influence the lives of people. Equally, with budgetary cuts on learning and development, public servants increasingly have limited opportunities to experiential learning approaches which would allow them to implement the Public Sector Innovation Policy, allow for experimentation, and ultimately to encourage those who were nominated as innovation champions to become more involved in open innovation and participatory innovation methods. We also believed that the Public Sector Innovation Policy provided ample scope and opportunity to move away from the ‘hammer and nail’ approach in solving problems.
We felt it was important to introduce what we were experiencing in terms of the complex nature of governance challenges, such as coping with the growing pace of information communication technology demands on the public sector; diminishing issues with public trust; accelerated change and finally, challenges with efficient, effective and economic service delivery. We believe one of the entry points is to aid in increasing their ability to deliver in better, innovative and improved ways, while acknowledging the lack of both the technical know-how, guidance and the resources to do it
We built on what we were starting to learn by first sourcing what was already available. Starting with the orientation slides provided at the Accelerator Lab’s Induction bootcamps, we also sourced useful information from the UNDP Project Cycle Hacker’s Kit, and the DIY Toolkittools supplemented an iterative approach which led to designing our own. We also consulted our Global Innovation Experts across UNDP but also our Accelerator Lab global teams and colleagues who were also working on public sector innovation learning. This process allowed for the co-design and development of a Toolkit which was contextualized for the Namibian Public Sector. We saw the toolkit as only part of an overarching communication and advocacy effort to highlight the importance of public sector innovation, as well as showcase a number of ‘how to tools’ based on the global Accelerator Lab approaches, 90day learning cycle and methodologies. The toolkit, which was designed as a ‘recipe book’ with tools and ideas that would assist people to innovate while focusing more on the bottom-up as compared to the top-down approaches in innovation has five parts:
- Toolkit Overview, and Guiding Principles
- The Accelerator Lab’s 90-day Learning Journey
- Tools and Approaches
- Quotes, reflections and paper plane prototypes
- References and more resources
By running several iterations and by co-creating the toolkit, we generated sufficient interest for our public sector colleagues on board so that they could both contribute to and benefit from what we refer to as enhancing innovation capacity. We have started small by providing the internal expertise from the Accelerator Lab – using our resources, internal design thinking, public policy and behavioural insights as well as facilitation expertise and instructional design as well as social technology to illustrate a start.
In closing, we believe our work is important because we have started laying the first foundations of what we believe are part of an innovation ecosystem: an explicit, systematic approach to strengthening the awareness, competencies and ways of working that can power innovation within the public service.
Do you have some practical ideas of how the toolkit could be used to enrich your innovation process? Have you used any of the tools in the Toolkit? How might we make a bigger impact and help scale some of the innovations using the Toolkit? Would you like to partner with us on some social innovation experiments but don’t know where to start? Let us know.