Jonatan Beun, Argentina’s General Coordinator of Public Innovation at the Undersecretary of Public Innovation and Open Government, on the impact of offering virtual innovation classes to fellow public servants.
Public administration universities, where budding civil servants learn the fundamentals of policymaking, law and leadership, are common.
But Argentina may be the only country with a government-run school devoted to teaching public servants how to innovate.
In just the three years to mid-2018, 15,000 government employees had taken classes at the Buenos Aires-based Design Academy, funded by the Government Lab of Argentina (LABGobAr).
LABGobAr teaches public servants skills that will be integral to the future of government work, from human-centred design to evidence-based policymaking.
One of the biggest challenges facing teams like LABGobAr, tasked with spreading innovation throughout the public sector, is bringing their work outside the lab and into the rest of government.
But with the Academy, LABGobAr is achieving what many of its counterparts have tried to do: teach masses of civil servants how to bring innovation into their everyday work.
“In a country where systems, data and civil servants work in silos; where every ministry works alone, it was clear to us that this could be a project that could accelerate transformation,” said Rudi Borrmann, Undersecretary for Public Innovation and Open Government at the Secretary of Modernisation, which is under the purview of the Cabinet Office.
“In the beginning, we feared that if we created a training program in open innovation and open data, no one would show up,” said Jonatan Beun, General Coordinator of Public Innovation at the Undersecretary of Public Innovation and Open Government. “Fortunately, there’s been a lot of interest.”
“A lot” is an understatement: the Academy had expected to reach 20,000 students by December 2018.
So how did the government get public servants to sign up for classes on top of their everyday workload?
Simply put, they gamified it.
For every class taken, a public servant earns points, which are a prerequisite for promotions and pay raises in the Argentinian civil service.
Every public servant is required to collect 60 education points annually.
The amount of points awarded to students depends on the length, difficulty and type of training they undertake.
A public servant would earn two credits for attending a two-hour inspirational talk, for example, or 100 for an in-depth, intensive course.
The Design Academy began as an experiment at Argentina’s Institute for Public Administration (INAP), which trains civil servants in the more traditional skills needed for government work.
When the pilot project exceeded expectations, LABGobAr and INAP launched the Academy.
It now acts as a lab for the public administration school: experimental ground to test new ideas, teachers and class formats.
“The strategy was to identify trends and integrate them into the university — to help accelerate transformation at the Institute,” said Borrmann.
Creating a culture of learning
At the Design Academy, students can take classes on digital transformation, storytelling, design thinking, data and evidence use and artificial intelligence, among a variety of other disciplines.
Teachers are mainly Argentinian civil servants and academics, but the Academy also hosts international speakers from organisations like the UK’s Nesta, Denmark’s recently-shuttered MindLab and Harvard University.
Civil servants can take intensive training sessions, short courses and virtual classes, which are the most popular: 54% of all courses taken are online.
The Academy also sends teachers to conduct training in provincial and local governments, to disseminate its teachings as widely as possible.
A training session conducted in partnership with Argentina’s Project Unit in Bahía Blanca, a port city west of Buenos Aires, for example, helped reduce the time in which the average local factory meets environmental standards for operation from two years to three months.
The Academy has trained 140 municipalities and all 23 provincial governments in innovation methods.
It’s a bit more difficult to measure the impact courses have on individual public servants, however.
Participation surveys show students are enjoying the classes: 46% said they rated their value as very high, and 38% rated it as high.
Thirty-four percent said they are likely to use the methods they learned and 34% they are very likely to use them.
But it’s hard to know whether this is actually translating into more creative, efficient work.
One way the Academy hopes to show impact is by creating communities of practice that encourage collaboration between public servants once they’ve left the classroom.
“We’re trying to innovate in how people connect in government,” said Borrmann. LABGobAr has done this with meetups, conferences and “innovation marathons”, which bring alumni together for an intensive day of training in different disciplines.
The goal is to create a culture of continual learning in government.
“They’re used to having basic training: Excel, Microsoft Word and so on,” said Beun.
“But all of a sudden, there are all these cutting-edge trainings and tools out there.
Today, innovation is not just for a handful of people. Everyone can innovate.”