Why public servants need to get out of the office more

As cities grow in size and significance, they can become sites of complex social problems – but also hubs for exploring possible solutions. While every city faces distinct problems, they all share a need for innovative approaches to tackle today’s challenges.

This essay is one in a series on future trends for innovative cities, written by the leading thinkers of the Mayor of Seoul’s Social Innovation Global Advisory Committee. Fourth up: Louise Pulford, Director of SIX. 

Opinion: Embracing social innovation doesn’t just mean setting up 20 new labs

There are very few Mayors around the world that would move into a shack with no air conditioning in the middle of a particularly hot summer, so that he can experience how other people live. Mayor Park Won-soon is an exception. And this is one of the many reasons that Seoul city excites me.

By spending a month in Samyang-dong, a dilapidated neighbourhood on the northern fringes  of Seoul, Mayor Park was able to learn first-hand about the difficulties that Seoul’s poorer residents face. Whilst mainstream media has referred to this as a ‘stunt’, for those of us who work in social innovation, it is not unusual to put yourself in the shoes of others, to try to understand and develop empathy for the people we are designing services for. Before coming Mayor of Seoul, Mr Park was an activist and innovator so trying to develop a deep understanding of the citizens he has been elected to serve may not feel unusual, or like a stunt to him. Mayor Park, the social innovation Mayor, was simply practicing what he preaches.

Whilst learning first hand is not unusual to a social innovator, what is unusual is that the Mayor took this action. For cities to really be innovative, this should not be unusual. Everyone in a city should be getting out of the office, and getting closer to practice. This is not to say that civil servants aren’t doing good and important work. This also applies to policy makers and the civil servants in City Halls around the world, as much as it does to anyone in a big bureaucratic organisation with a public purpose.

There are several ways to recreate the Mayor’s actions, for civil servants to get out of the office and practice social innovation, without locating 50,000 of them to live in a shack for a month.

Embracing social innovation doesn’t just mean setting up 20 social innovation labs, or developing dedicated innovation teams – it requires a deeper cultural change across an organisation. Asking teams to do social innovation means we are asking people to be inquisitive, agile, reflective, and to use new tools and technologies. In the context of a city administration, we are asking civil servants to be comfortable with uncertainty, and to support projects where the results are unpredictable. We may also be asking people to stop doing some things, and to look at issues in a new way.

Part of the challenge of this work is developing the right skills. Nesta’s States of Change is one example of a training programme building innovation skills. The programme supports public servants to adopt innovation mindsets and habits that help them become more effective change agents, and to sustain an innovation culture in government. But building basic capabilities and skills is only part of the challenge. These skills need to be put into practice. They are only useful if they are refined through new experiences, new conversations and new perspectives. We must find opportunities to get civil servants out of the office and put their skills into practice, then provide support for reflection, learning and adaptation.

One municipality, Amersfoort, in the Netherlands has been supporting its civil servants to get closer to practice by doing their jobs outside, on the ground, in the city and close to citizens, rather than remaining at their desk. They call themselves ‘free range civil servants’.

And if you can’t become a ‘street soldier’, as the Amersfoort civil servants call themselves, city governments can also partner with other institutions to increase their capacity and impact. Universities are one resource that are often overlooked. Universities can provide deep insights on local challenges, use students to design new solutions, be testbeds for new approaches, and they can provide space and technology resources. At SIX, we have been working with a group of universities in Latin America and South East Asia who see themselves as more than academic ivory towers, and are beginning to recognise themselves as part of the social fabric of the city.

Cities should also use other cities more effectively. Many cities are part of networks, but it is often not much more than a branding exercise. True exchange between civil servants in cities, should occur both within countries but also transnationally. The European Commission funded URBACT programme is one of the best, most established transnational city exchange programmes. Running for 15 years, URBACT enables cities to work together and develop integrated solutions to common urban challenges, by networking, learning from one another’s experiences, drawing lessons and identifying good practices to improve urban policies. The programmes involve practitioners, city managers, elected representatives and stakeholders from other public agencies, the private sector and civil society.

Exchanges between civil servants globally is also a way to get civil servants closer to practice. Cities often participate in learning visits or secondments to other countries, but they rarely focus on social innovation,and they are rarely directly connected to their jobs or current challenges. These kinds of exchange are only effective when those who participate are given enough space to reflect on the experience, and when the learning is embedded into their organisations when they return.

We are living in great times of change. The challenges facing society are increasing in scale and complexity, and traditional institutions, from banks to universities, to INGOs have begun reviewing their roles and the way they are organised. At the same time, citizens are equipped with tools to enhance their power, and the way they organise themselves. Our cities, and the institutions that govern them need to respond. Rethinking the role of public servants, collaborating internationally, and getting them out of the office, is one small way to do that.

This article was originally published on Apolitical.co.