Designing Conversations on Public Service Delivery

At Pulse Lab Jakarta, we strongly believe that public services have the potential to be more relevant, effective, and inclusive when they are designed with the participation of citizens. So when KSP and OGI approached Pulse Lab Jakarta to co-design a session that discusses the richness of citizen participation methods for inclusive public service delivery as part of the 2017 Asia Pacific Leadership Forum (APLF) a few weeks ago, our team jumped at the opportunity.

What does a successful forum look like? For us, a successful forum is when most participants — not just the speakers — are engaged in substantive conversations about the session’s topic, and they leave with one or two insights as well as new connections. The design challenge for us was that in the two hours allocated for the session, we needed to create an experience that triggers conversation and connection, not just a session rich in information about different methods of engaging citizens in public service delivery. The team eventually decided on a format that combines lightning talks by five speakers followed by an hour of open mic session; the following are some of our reflections on the process of designing this session.

Speakers as conversation triggers, not resource persons

Anyone who has ever been stuck attending an after-lunch, two-hour, seven-member panel presentation in a conference can relate to the ire-inducing tedium that it produces, as so aptly described by Duncan Green here. We did not want to inflict this on people.

We feel that one of the causes of these undesirable situations is the power gap between “speakers” and “audience”. The way many panel discussions are structured sends implicit signals that speakers are there because they are the “experts”, gracing the audience with their knowledge. We suspect that this might be the trigger for the many, many “this is more of a comment than a question” kinds of questions that you get in conferences — it might be that the audience member is asserting the fact that they, too, are an expert.

This led us to rethink the role of speakers in the session. While it’s easy to think of speakers as resource persons, we realised that APLF attendees are either government officials or civil society representatives who are committed to open government and will have relevant knowledge to share. Often, they too are leading or are involved in projects that are no less innovative than the ones presented by the designated speaker. Participants are also resource persons in their own right, therefore speakers should serve as triggers to spark further conversation through their experience.

Our first decision was to limit the number of speakers and their speaking time to create ample time for discussion. We decided on five speakers and a lightning talk format, in which they will be given seven minutes to present a story based on specific examples with clear, concise messages, ending with a challenge they are still facing to trigger discussion. The talks are presented as a series without Q&A breaks, with visual slides to help illustrate the talk.

To their credit, all of the speakers focussed on telling their story, the lessons that they’ve learnt, and the challenges that they faced, instead of having a visual slide deck party. The very impressive Regent of Luwu Utara, Indah Putri Indriani, even eschewed visual slides altogether in telling a powerful story of how feedback from citizens and better use of existing data helped her fix imbalances in teacher distribution.

Curate, curate, curate

Any forum organiser would be familiar with the challenge of curating the right speakers. We really appreciate KSP and OGI’s guidelines to ensure diversity of speakers — no all-male panels were allowed and both government and civil society must be represented in the session — so we focused on identifying key issues for the session.

In one of our earlier brainstorming sessions with OGI and KSP, one of the questions we explored was how the principles of open government manifest itself in more effective and inclusive delivery of public services. This discussion led to several more reflective questions, which we decide to use as framing questions for the session:

  • Creating platforms that provide citizens with means to provide feedback to government is awesome — but what are some effective ways to sustain citizen participation and how is that feedback actually incorporated to improve public service delivery?
  • What about citizens who have special needs, and those whose voices are rarely heard? How do we make sure that they are engaged in designing inclusive public services?
  • Innovation is a buzzword that has caught fire within the public sector — what has actually worked or not worked in managing innovation for delivering public services?
  • What are some practical examples of breakthroughs in inclusive public service delivery and what kind of actual change have they brought?

Together with KSP, OGI, and other co-hosts for the session (GIZ — Transformasi and UNDP Bangkok Regional Hub), we created a long list of around 20 initiatives that respond to each question. We developed a set of criteria to narrow down the list to five speakers: relevance to the key questions; level of impact and maturity of the case; and complementarity to other speakers in terms of geographical representation and types of organization. We had to let go of many excellent candidates, but again, speakers are meant to trigger conversations and we are certain that session participants will share their own experiences and enrich the discussion. We provided each speaker with a structure to guide their lightning talk, scheduled Skype calls to discuss their outline, and provided feedback for their slides.

Audience participation from start to finish

In addition to selecting and briefing speakers, we spent a lot of time designing ways to maximize audience participation. Our first strategy was to identify who might be in the room. Our co-host, GIZ-Transformasi, invited national and local policy makers within their network that have worked on inclusive public service delivery. We learned about their initiatives and their combined experiences; we listed questions that are relevant to their experience and to the key questions addressed by speakers; and the moderator then used this list to guide conversation at the open-mic session.

We realised that with vibrant, engaging (and well-briefed) speakers, the lightning talks could be very lively, but alone it still positions participants as passive recipients of information. So we decided to give everyone in the audience post-it notes and markers to jot down observations, insights or questions that came up as they listened to the lightning talks. We also designated a facilitator to collect the notes and cluster them according to themes throughout the session.

In the open-mic session, the moderator drove the discussion by drawing responses from both targeted participants identified by our co-host, as well as opening it up for broader discussion. Besides questions from the list that we had compiled earlier, the moderator also asked questions from the post-it feedback clusters from time to time, to make sure that not only participants who are comfortable in speaking out loud get to be part of the conversation. The post-it cluster also made it easy for the rapporteur to capture insights from the session.

We would very much like to emphasise the importance of having a solid moderator that can ask questions to provoke more interesting questions, facilitate as many different participants as possible to share their experience, and distill common threads of the conversation.

Our one takeaway

We have shared our process of designing the session, but the most important thing we learned from the experience is that designing conversations on a topic needs to reflect principles of the topic itself. It would have been much easier to do a talk-show-style or a roundtable discussion, but for us, inclusive public service delivery requires acknowledging power dynamics and closing the power gap between citizens and service providers; so conversations on the topic needs to follow the same principle. Just like in inclusive public service delivery, there is no such thing as one method fits all — so while we’re happy to share our approach in APLF, we would love to learn other approaches to designing conversations on public service delivery. If you’ve got experiences to share, ping us at @PulseLabJakarta on Twitter!


Pulse Lab Jakarta is grateful for the generous support from the Government of Australia.

This blog was originally published by Open Government Indonesia, on December 27, 2017.

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