Turkey’s public sector still has a lot to prove

By Sinem Guravsar Gokce

September 23, 2020

Kadikoy district, Instanbul. Adobe

For almost two years now, commuters in Istanbul have been paying for their metro and bus fares using plastic bottles and aluminium cans. The city has been using what it calls “reverse vending machines” located at metro stations and schools to price and recycle materials and transfer their value onto citizens’ travel cards.

It isn’t all that common to find examples of innovative public sector projects in Turkey. The sector tends to see itself as the funder or buyer of innovation, not its originator.

In its 2019 report, The Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (OPSI) collected and analysed examples of public sector innovation under three trends defined by the OECD as “invisible to visible” (making government more transparent to the public and opening up government resources), “opening doors” (improving citizen participation) and “machine readable world” (building open government data programs that serve as the basis for decision-making).

Turkey received only one mention in the report for the reverse vending machine project. Yet the country has achieved other examples compatible with OECD definitions. Here are some worth sharing.

Invisible to visible

In Turkey, the percentage of citizens who report confidence in their government is only 24%, according to the World Values Survey. But there are some efforts, especially by municipalities, to make the sector more transparent to the public in order to foster trust and encourage innovation.

Ankara Metropolitan Municipality realised its own efforts by broadcasting public tenders live from social media accounts of the municipality. Of course, companies and intrigued individuals took an interest in the tender, but so too did thousands of citizens. This turned what is conventionally invisible to the public into an accessible online process that proved to be in the public’s interest.

Opening doors : improving citizen participation

The importance of opening doors to everyone, especially to underserved groups of people, has certainly become more apparent throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the innovative applications that recognises this is the “askıda fatura” (suspended/pending billing) campaign of İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality. This online aid campaign brings together citizens who, because of the pandemic have difficulties paying their monthly bills, with charitable citizens who want to pay these bills on their behalf.  As of September 2020, the amount of paid bills has reached a total of 24.639.074 TL (approximately €3,223,330 USD). This statistic shows that, with the right tools, people will help each other in hard times.

Another important example of opening doors to everyone is the SDG Impact Accelerator (SDGia). Designed for impact entrepreneurs, SDGia tries to break down silos within organisations to mobilise different stakeholders for the purpose of quickening progress towards the achievement of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. The pilot phase of this accelerator program was completed successfully in January 2020, and the model will be used next in Bangladesh and Uganda.

Machine readable world

The machine-readable world starts with data collection, yet this is where Turkey falls shortest. In Turkey, data that is collected is neither open to the public nor used by the owner to understand the past or present, or predict the future. However there are still some public sector efforts to provide open data.

İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality already shares data via its open-source data platform. As of September 2020, the platform includes 139 datasets in different categories such as economy, governance, disaster management, environment, energy and so on. This platform is open to citizens, researchers, entrepreneurs, academics, students and civil society organisations.

Municipalities have started to understand the importance of open data to solve social problems and conduct data science for the public good projects. Ankara and İstanbul Municipalities have been conducting one such project alongside social enterprise KodluyoruzTED UniversityZemin İstanbul (a creative hub) and the University of Virginia in the US. This is actually not a global level innovation but it still can be an inspiring example in terms of its mission, the tools it uses and its collaboration model for similar moderate innovator countries.

There might well be many other examples of public sector innovation in Turkey, but the number and impact of them still settle far below the country’s full potential. Turkey has a population of 83 million, 15.6% of which is young, including 13.9% are university graduates. The number of civil servants exceeds 4.5 million, and there is a vastly greater number of people working for the government under contract.

Turkey’s human resources are sufficient enough to accelerate the country’s track record in public sector innovation. What it most conspicuously lacks however is a public sector that understands its role in the innovation ecosystem. Given that it is central to that ecosystem, it is clear that the sector will need to take a more active role in the coming years.

This article is curated from Apolitical.

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