Beyond the Paper Trail: Stories from Accelerator Lab on Public Sector Innovation in Viet Nam

Public Sector Innovation blog series by Viet Nam Accelerator Lab Team

November 15, 2023
Accelerator Lab, UNDP in Viet Nam

How can we foster innovation in the public sector of Viet Nam? This is the question that drives the Viet Nam Accelerator Lab, with the hope to promote a sustainable innovation ecosystem through public sector agencies. In this blog series, we share our insights and experiences from working with public sector innovators and champions since 2019. We also connect our local context to the global trends and patterns observed across the Lab network. If you are an innovation practitioner or researcher within the public sector, this series is for you. Join us as we explore the challenges and opportunities of innovating within bureaucracies. This is the first blog of the series, where we introduce the public sector landscape in Viet Nam and how the Lab contributes to it.

Welcome to the (bureaucratic) Jungle -- We’ve paperwork and stamps!

Public servants around the world face many complex and novel challenges in the 21st century, such as implementing digital transformation programmes or developing policies and regulations for better AI ethics, where they are often asked to do more with limited human and funding resources, face a lack of data integration across departments and manage increasing citizen expectations. To meaningfully pursue sustainable development and overcome barriers in the existing system, public servants need flexibility and empowerment with the tools to create positive change. Governments worldwide are increasingly attentive to innovation ecosystems to enhance governance and public service delivery. 

As highlighted in a report by OPSI, there is a global trend of governments paying more attention to how innovation is done within the public sector. This trend has the potential to reinvent how our public institutions engage with citizens, govern accountability, and deliver services. The global UNDP Labs Network has observed that governments  embracing public sector innovation tend to move faster and more determinately.  Secretary-General António Guterres emphasizes the essential role of innovation in achieving Sustainable Development Goals, stating: “Without innovation, we cannot meet the challenges of our time. […] We must learn not only new things, but how to learn. We need to share ideas, push boundaries, and move faster. And we must harness the opportunities brought by digital technologies.” 

Viet Nam, with a history of change and reform since Doi Moi in the 1980s, continues to look for rapid and sustainable growth amid emerging challenges. In 2016, Viet Nam has adopted the concept of “Chính Phủ Kiến Tạo” (Constructivist or Developmental Government), which means a government that empowers society, fosters innovation and creativity,  uses digital transformation and smart governance; ensures transparency, accountability, and integrity; and responds proactively and flexibly to challenges. This shows a willingness to move from traditional top-down state management to serving people and putting citizen needs first. While change is not a new concept for a developing country like Viet Nam, how change happens in the policy space is often difficult to see and predict. We hope to shed some light on this through the stories we observed during our collaboration with leading innovation agencies in Viet Nam to promote innovation in alignment with sustainability values.  

Innovation with a purpose: navigating the Policy Wonderland

The public sector plays a critical role in enabling social change with the power and resources to support innovation to improve the lives of millions of people. However, due to the nature of administration and its size, it can sometime be difficult to fully capture the voices and experiences of people living closest to the problems. Across the globe, we’ve found that the Accelerator Lab can bring a niche to the innovation conversation in the public sector by listening to the voices and needs of the people, especially the vulnerable group through novel methodology, thus supporting grassroot solutions. Our colleagues often work with the public administration bodies to align their policies with the sustainable development goals and involve the “unusual suspects” in the policy-making process. Demonstrating that innovation is not only about high-tech labs and high-growth startup, but also about empowering the creativity and resilience of everyday people.

In Viet Nam, our team has partnered, supported, and coached public servants in their efforts to enhance the process or service delivery to citizens. Guided by international expertise of UNDP extensive innovation network, our collaboration with national partners has involved the strategic use of novel innovative tools that has been tested internationally applied to Viet Nam contexts of policy development. Here are some examples of past initiatives:

  • Systemic Design: In 2019, Accelerator Lab has assisted the municipal government of Danang to adopt a Systemic Design approaches to foster innovative solutions and enhance policy-making processes. This approach goes beyond the typical Human-Centered Design (HCD) innovation methodologies. It focuses on understanding the root causes and addressing complex interconnections, aligning incentives of relevant users/persona within the system. This eventually leads us to uncover the hidden role of the informal sector and advocate for their inclusion within Viet Nam’s first Circular Economy Roadmap in Danang. We also applied systemic design in formulation of project “Leveraging Viet Nam’s Social Impact Business Ecosystem in response to COVID-19 (ISEE COVID)
  • Government Innovation Studio: is a powerful capacity-building approach employed by the Viet Nam Accelerator Lab to enhance the innovation capacity of public servants. Inspired by the social lab movement, the Studio is a creative container to bring in multi-stakeholders, creating a dynamic and collaborative environment where government officials can learn, experiment, and apply innovative methodologies to address a clearly defined societal challenge. This has aided in the formulation of a Framework for Measuring Innovation in the Public Sector in Viet Nam with the National Innovation Center and help Danang officials experiment with vibrant youth events as part of CityLab Task Force night-time economy pilot.
  • Innovation Challenges: Organizing innovation challenges where citizens, entrepreneurs, and innovators are invited to propose solutions to specific societal challenges. The Lab implemented Impact Aim accelerator program as part of Ending Plastic Pollution Innovation Challenge and called for social impact innovators to apply to ISEE COVID project.

Image 1: Graphic Recording – a visual note taking tool to to capture insights in a Government Studio Lab with government partner

Accelerator Lab, UNDP in Viet Nam

By using these innovation approaches to foster creative thinking, the public servants we worked with have gained deeper insights into the emerging problems that need to be addressed and empathize more with the citizens while designing or improving policies.   These methodologies not only enhance the effectiveness of policies but also promote a culture of innovation, collaboration, and evidence-based decision-making within the Vietnamese policymaking landscape. As shared by one of our colleagues:

“The tools for innovation not only enhance the efficiency of my work in developing and implementing policies but also facilitate a systematic approach to shaping my thinking. They encourage an open, multi-dimensional, and collaborative operating style, contributing to a smoother integration and coordination on an international level” Mr. Tu Minh Hieu, Deputy Head of Innovative Startup Division / NATEC.   

Indeed as pointed out by Mr.Hieu, many of innovation tools are social and collaborative in nature. We find that the true value in employing these tools is when we help stakeholders meaningfully connect with each other, acknowledging different viewpoints and facilitating a common understanding of complex issues at hand.

Image 2: Visual illustration of Innovation champions in Viet Nam shared their experience to enhance the innovation ecosystem in a workshop with National Innovation Center

Accelerator Lab, UNDP in Viet Nam

Finally, drawing from the collective intelligence of over 90 Labs, our Global team has put together a National Innovation Ecosystems (NIEs) Toolkit synthesizing experience of our colleagues in supporting Public Sector Innovation around the world. In this Blog series, we are distilling our 4 years’ experience in promoting social innovation and advocating for a more sustainable public policy, working with different state actors and department at both central and municipal levels related to Viet Nam’s innovation ecosystem. It encompassed the many stories of changemakers and their experience in how change happens. We will release the following blogs in the upcoming months:

  • How to incubate an Innovation Unit and upskill civil servants: 
    - CityLab experience in Da Nang
    - Government Lab Studio NATEC and NIC
  • How to design Innovation Policy and support a national innovation ecosystem:
    - Da Nang Circular Economy Road Map and Circular Market experiment
    Hue Electric Vehicle Green Transport Experiment

We hope that by sharing our journey of stumbling into the maze of government departments and finding entry points to policy change, we can inspire and inform other public sector innovators who are working to create a more sustainable and inclusive future for their countries. We believe that public sector innovation is not only possible, but necessary, to address the complex and urgent challenges of our time. We invite you to join us in this adventure and share your feedback, insights, and stories with us. Together, we can make a difference!