Souvenirs from the Metro Manila Civic Innovation Fellowship

“So why are you doing this innovation fellowship with government?”

This was the question that a manager of a tech company asked me point blank after I pitched Five by Five’s Metro Manila Civic Innovation Fellowship. I have to admit I was caught off guard; I’ve worked with government a lot. But here, in a swanky conference room, I was confronted with a prevailing perception that most Filipinos share: working with government is risky, with far too many factors that can affect the success or failure of the work.

The thing is, we can’t avoid the fact that the way that a government works (or doesn’t) affects us. This decades old system needs to be engaged by 21st century citizens in order to adapt it to 21st century needs. Creating liveable cities is everyone’s responsibility and it’s important for everyone, citizens and government, to work in conjunction to co-design approaches and solutions to the challenges that plague our communities. (Read: Solving Marikina City’s problems through open innovation)

That was the idea when we decided to try to bring together some of the most talented individuals to work on innovative solutions to address the challenges identified by the Marikina City government and the residents of Marikina. For ten days, the 7 fellows were part of three teams focused on challenges around environmental sustainability, delivering better quality medical care, and re-designing daycare facilities.

It was the first time we brought the Civic Innovation Fellowship (CIF) to the Philippines and we had some big questions before we started: Is the Philippines ripe for this type of citizen engagement to take off? What is the criteria for choosing a local government that can undergo the innovation process?

So, here are some of my pasalubongs (meaning souvenirs or takeaways) from what we learned in designing and running a civic innovation initiative in the Philippines.

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Pasalubong #1: Civic innovation programs can work if there is openness, leadership, and engaged middle managers willing to take on the challenge

This is definitely not new but it is too important not to emphasize. The leadership within an organization, especially within a local government, is decisive in creating an environment where learning and experimentation can happen. It creates the space for public managers to flex their creative muscles, and gives them breathing room from daily operations. It gives them time to think.

Openness and trust was a prerequisite for this collaboration between the Marikina city government and Five by Five. In the first meeting with Mayor Marcy Teodoro and his team, we candidly told him that CIF is a process and we had no idea what outputs would come out of it. To this, he did not bat an eyelash and just said “Okay so when do we start? What do you need?” He followed through, allowing us access to their city’s data and making it easy to communicate with public managers that we later referred to as “Solution Partners”: an apt title for the mentors and resource persons who shared their daily work challenges and their knowledge.

On the fifth day of the fellowship, a few of the fellows shared that they were impressed to be working directly with people that could actually influence policy and process within the city government. It also made an impression on one of the Filipino fellows that there was so much openness and engagement from the Solution Partners when sharing their insights and experiences with the fellows.

Pasalubong #2: Think Goldilocks

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Towards the end of the second day of the fellowship, I had a conversation with one of our fellows, Pablo. He just got back from his full day of interviews with mothers and healthcare staff at two barangay health centers. We started talking about his initial observations and how the solution he thought about prior to arriving in the Philippines wasn’t what was needed. Towards the end of our conversation he said: “I now know which ideas to drop.”

Good ideas are hard to come by. But even great ideas require us to “think Goldilocks” — searching for the ‘just right’ response that is appropriate to the problem we hope to address. Supporting the fellows during problem identification and the prototyping phase likewise called for us to strike a Goldilocks balance for a not too rigid and not too loose environment that would allow the fellows to bring their ideas to life. It meant making sure that fellows had the flexibility to go about their work using their own process, but also scheduling check-in sessions with mentors who could find holes in their ideas, doing quick sounding board sessions with them, or making time for a stand-up before they all left for field work again. Definitely a lot of cha-chas done during the 2-week immersive.

Pasalubong #3: Why > how

Photo by Eugena Ossi / Five by Five

The goal of the Fellowship was not about ‘being disruptive’ and bringing digital technology to change the whole city. If you see their outputs, you’d probably say they weren’t anywhere near as flashy as some of the apps that have altered our ways of living (We didn’t have any apps. At all.) When we were designing this fellowship for Metro Manila, it was about “innovation as a process” — looking at the daily work done by local government and assessing the area where incremental improvements could be done.

One of our Solution Partners shared during Demo Day that it was good to get in touch with the citizens of Marikina again and hear about their experiences with maternal health care services. She accompanied the fellows during their interviews and home visits and also served as their translator. She mentioned that it reminded her of the work they need to do and who they are doing it for. She confessed that the fellowship helped her see that she needed to unlearn a few things and realized that reframing problems was part of the work. To me, the fellowship was remembering the why of the daily work of government and having a new set of possible ‘hows’ available to be tested.

The fact that the fellowship was built around finding practicable solutions instead of innovation for innovation’s sake had an influence on the fellows’ work and documentation. They had to make sure that their prototypes were simple enough to be taken on by the Solution Partners and tested. The Fellowship also took into consideration that organizational factors, such as resources available to evaluate prototypes or to go into production would affect the chances for success in adoption. We still have a few follow-up conversations with the Mayor’s office to see if there are partnerships that they might need to bring these ideas to the testing phase.

The fellowship was about transforming “what ifs” to “so that’s what it could look like.” From unknowns and assumptions, we now have a myriad of experiences — our own and our Solution Partners’ — to call on when thinking about how to improve a city. There are still some tweaks to be made and a few “we should have done this instead” moments but that just gives us more to share with people who are interested to learn from us and run this kind of program with their local government. Judging from the conversations we’ve been having since CIF ended, we’re definitely going to continue the work and make civic innovation a new means of change-making in the Philippines.

P.S. Interested in the work produced by the Fellows? You can access it here