Chile’s new public laboratory and its many waters

Chile is about to create a public sector laboratory, GobLab, and for the last couple of months I’ve been sniffing around it.

I first knew of this when I heard Christian Bason (ex Director of MindLab, Denmark’s public laboratory) was visiting Chile and advising the government on the creation of the Lab.

Bason participated in a handful of events during his visit, I later learned. The one I attended, Public Sector Innovation in Chile, a lot of noise but where’s the action?”, was open to the public and co-organized by UN’s ECLAC and University of Chile’s Public Systems Centre. As most guest speakers were public officials in charge of innovation and Estate modernization, I was expecting to hear why the government had decided to create the Lab. But this opportunity was not ceased. Instead, the Public Systems Centre explained in detail how they had built a public innovation system applicable to various public services, after winning a few government contracts.

The lack of a more grounded discussion about the Lab itself, or about what public sector innovation means for Chile seemed clear to me when looking at the excited-but-confused faces around me, that appeared to ask: Wait, why a Lab if there are already winning formulas as the Public Systems Centre implies? But the officials didn’t explain why a Lab was not only important but also urgent, and how it was linked to current political demands. Bason went deeper, but his presentation, right after lunch, was diluted among the many presentations that showcased University of Chile’s so-called success formulas.

Politics + co-creation

Some attendants expressed their worries about how the co-creation Bason proposed and the rest of the speakers were keen to applaud, was actually going to work in practice, at the local level and with authorities who are often unwilling to share power. The words ‘governance’ and ‘democracy’ resonated. The linkage between this Lab and ‘citizen participation in local decision-making’ emerged in a handful of comments raised by the audience. But the officials didn’t explore this. Was getting to the heart of the matter perceived as too political and risky? Or didn’t they see the link between co-creating policies or services with citizens and the current political demands of communities to have more than a say in their present and future?

Whatever the case, if the Lab is to be more than a nice looking and short-lived organization, and if public sector innovation is to be taken seriously by public actors, then whoever leads the Lab must be ready to discuss and communicate the political issues behind the decision to create a laboratory. The need for a Lab strongly relates to citizens’ demands for participation, decentralization, transparency and accountability.

New governance models + Lab

Michelle Bachelet’s government is pushing for big reforms, among which are tax, education, modernization, and decentralization. But those who have more economic power, the right-wing sector that also runs most mass media outlets, strongly contest these reforms. Confronted with such opposition, the government has the chance to avoid defaulting to superficial media spin, to draft strong counter-messages to help legitimate the reforms.

One way of doing so is by loudly linking these reforms’ ideals with what’s concretely being developed in other areas. The decentralization reform is meant to provide more political and administrative power and resources to regions and local governments, a move that would, in its turn, help create better outcomes for communities and citizens. But changing the law and redistributing resources won’t be enough. Local governments will have to grow and improve their capacities to deliver impactful policies and services with their new resources. However, current initiatives being deployed to improve capacities won’t add all what’s needed. Why? Because we do not know what’s the right type of local governance for creating thriving territories. That is one reason to rigorously explore and test new governance models.

Finding better ways to design policies and services is the same as finding new governance models. Learning to design the “right it” (‘making sure you are building the right ‘it’ before you build it ‘right’) in terms of services and policies will be key to determining local governments’ success in promoting communities’ well being. This fit for purpose and fit for context design is something local governments need but don’t know how to achieve. The Lab won’t give us all the recipes, but as a place to experiment with governance, it should add to the current decentralization and modernization efforts. And this should be rightly communicated to help legitimate the reforms and the Lab itself.

I believe Bachelet’s decision to launch this Lab is in line with her ambitions for decentralization, good local governance, and thriving territories. And also in line with what I bet is a standing aspiration of hers: find ways to co-govern with the people. Back in 2005, Bachelet’s main campaign promise was this: co-governance between Estate and citizens; promise everyone pointed as the key to her rampant victory and one that we failed to see realized (due in part to with our highly centralized government).

Of course, the Lab won’t by itself reshape local governance, or define how communities should play a role in co-creation alongside local public servants. A lot of coordinated efforts are needed to solve this. Actually, the Lab’s mission has so far been stated as designing and developing innovative projects to solve public problems and improve public services’. A project based approach that does not include -at least for now- innovating policy making processes or working at the local level.

Nonetheless, no matter what its initial foci are, the Lab will need to embrace a systemic view and communications strategy if it wants to avoid becoming an insulated organization with little systemic impact. Or else be criticised for playing with risk for ‘no reason’. Citizens must clearly see how the Lab relates to the promises pushed by Bachelet’s administration (equality, citizen participation, local development). In this way, it will more likely communicate its purpose and meaning while managing effectively the expectations about its work.

Good outcomes

The Lab faces no little task: creating good outcomes out of the interactions between the Estate and its citizens, the moments of truth as Bason calls them. Those moments when we as communities, workers, students or businesses interact with a service that either helps us thrive and dream bigger, or hinder our hopes, opportunities, and sometimes impede us reach our most basic needs. This prototyping and testing of governance models is also a political exercise in itself, and it should be understood and communicated as such. It is an exercise aimed at transforming how our public systems operate, respond, adapt and create our future.

Leadership for systemic changes

Systemic changes depend on whether the transformative narratives reach the public and political arena. This requires leadership with the ability to articulate and communicate how a particular initiative like the Lab responds to larger goals and changes in paradigms. And radical changes bring about the sort of expectations and resistance that are not easy to handle.

This complex road ahead means the Lab needs a tactful leader; one that can focus on both the rigorous process of designing new services, and on the big picture of reforms that provide this Lab with sense and long lasting purpose. This leader will need to have the ability to insulate the Lab from sometimes conflicting and changing political priorities, relentlessly pursuing systemic change, and also the ability to communicate to wide audiences how this Lab can help us move towards greater equality and well being.

The Lab’s head should be as much a craftsperson, as an empathic collaborator and an outspoken dreamer; someone who understands the radical’s dilemma as explained by Geoff Mulgan here, and who is not afraid to navigate its many waters.

As of 4th of December, the GobLab is recruiting its Director. Fingers crossed the right person will be chosen.