On September 25th, Policy Shift participated in the 2nd edition of Innov'ater, a conference organized by several French professional organizations gathering heads of local territories and the French newspaper La Gazette des communes, specializing in local political topics. This event aimed to discuss innovative public policies taking place in local districts, as well as in the private sector, with an international perspective.
The seminar was organized around a series of ten panels and workshops, each one of them discussing a specific issue related to innovation in local public policies. At its basis, innovation refers “to the introduction of new solutions in response to problems, challenges, or opportunities that arise in the social and/or economic environment” according the Oxford Review of Economic Policy. Applied to public policies, it takes diverse forms that go far beyond the use of new technology.
A diversity of speakers attended the event, including members of national and international administrations and organizations, experts in public innovation, academics, innovators from the private sector and heads of local districts. Panelists all agreed that innovation in public policies has become essential due to the budgetary constraint affecting local districts in France. According to the director of Nesta, (a global innovation foundation located in the UK), “[Local authorities in France] are already cutting all superfluous expenses and staff-related costs”. From his point of view, innovation is the only way to improve public policies without increasing public spending.
Yet, a few speakers pointed out that the reality of cutting costs is not the main factor to take into consideration. Continuous improvement of public policies and better answers to social needs are also a fundamental reason to develop further public innovation in local territories. From a local perspective, public innovation represents an important way to re-establish social ties between citizens and to identify the main social issues that policymakers need to tackle.
Thanks to the discussions that took place during the seminar panels, four key takeaways were identified to contribute to the success of local innovative public policies.
1. Territorial innovation should be based on local initiatives, resources and actors.
The first characteristic for successful local innovation is to rely on what already exists or is available locally, and to create links among the diverse actors in the territory. Although this is already well-known for public policy implementation more generally, local authorities have the added benefit, unlike the private sector, of greater legitimacy by forming part of the local ecosystem to create stronger ties and enhance engagement within their districts.
A notable example of implementing such links is the PGH Lab in Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania, USA), started by the city’s Department of Innovation. Its Assistant Director attended the seminar to share the Lab’s experience, which connects local authorities to startup companies in the Pittsburgh area. The city of Pittsburgh provides them with a series of services, such as co-working spaces, classes and workshops. In return, the startups create innovative solutions to support ongoing local policies, focused mainly in three areas: citizen engagement, climate change, and efficiency of the local government’s operations.
2. Local innovative policies should learn from past experiences.
Many current innovation processes taking places in local territories are implemented without learning from previous similar experiences in other locations. Instead, policymakers should draw from existing best practices to prevent them from repeating the same common mistakes.
With this in mind, the OECD has developed specific tools to help innovators improve their understanding of public innovation. Marco Taglio, Head of the Observatory of Public Sector Innovation at the OECD, presented several such tools. For instance, the Toolkit Navigator aims to share innovative practices and methods created by all sectors (nonprofit, private, public, academic) and based on the user's needs.
Nevertheless, learning from previous experiences does not mean duplicating a policy that already exists in another territory. In fact, taking into account the territory’s social, political and cultural specificities while implementing an innovative policy is crucial: policymakers need to rely upon the users' needs, in addition to the way the public service is actually used and how it is designed.
3. Using the correct methodology to design local innovative policies is essential.
To address the points outlined so far, public policy design should use creative methods and mobilize skills and experiences from users and employees to develop public policies. Laura Pandelle, Designer at the “27e Région”, a French association for public policy design, explained the importance of starting from the “concrete experience of users, civil servants and citizens to question anew the efficiency of a public policy”. Observation and experimentation are two of the most important concepts in this approach. On a practical level, it can involve making prototypes and testing them. The aim of this test is to adjust the innovation according to the concrete feedback of final users.
4. Public servants have a key role in integrating an innovative approach.
Public servants are often considered to carry out clearly defined tasks and are generally not involved in the design of reforms and innovative services. However, their role is fundamental since innovation overall is a collective process, which speakers further highlighted during the conference to emphasize the need of spreading a “culture of innovation” in the public sector. This is especially true in public administrations used to hierarchy and heavy bureaucratic processes.
Jérôme Grolleau, a sociologist in the field of innovation, pointed out in his research that public servants tend to have a practical vision of the public interest based on serving citizens and providing public services. These two objectives are what motivates them and gives meaning to their jobs on a daily basis. Because of this, Grolleau’s findings suggest that public servants already are working through the user’s perspective, thereby addressing one of the key principles of public innovation.
This conference concluded with a speech by the French Minister of Public Administration, Olivier Dussopt, who outlined a few reform proposals to improve human resource management in local authorities. These reforms would provide more lifelong learning programs for public servants to enhance working conditions and career mobility. Such reforms could be implemented in France as early as 2019.
As policymakers, researchers, civil society and the private sector work together to create better and more effective policies for all citizens, conferences such as this one highlight the importance of local actors and local policies in this field. In order to implement concrete changes from the ground up and inspire those acting from the top down, we should turn to the experiences of our local districts and their ability to experiment and innovate.
Jérôme Grolleau, “The meaning of local public action”, Observatoire social territorial de la Mutuelle Nationale Territoriale.http://www.mnt.fr/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/OST_cahier20_sens_action_publique_locale_2018_05.pdf