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A Three-Month Internship at the Observatory

Compare that to a lifetime, and three months is not much – a short-lived experience before heading back to the routine of a university student. A short stint over the summer to get a better feel of what working life entails before diving back into homework, exams, papers and study groups.

OPSI Office setting

My time at the OECD’s Observatory of Public Sector Innovation comes to a close after a three-month internship. A drop in the bucket, soon-to-be-forgotten… or will it really? Is it just a mere detail in the greater whole that I will be building as I finish my Master’s degree at the London School of Economics? Will it remain in the ‘internship’ subsection of my CV, ready to be buried under the ‘work experience’ chapter, full of flamboyant position titles and longer term experiences?

It would be incorrect to say that my time at the OECD has not had a powerful impact on the direction of my career. Below is an informal recap of my experience and takeaways – and why the OECD was not just a mere internship.

The Observatory shines a light on a topic that is far-too-often ignored when it is not joked about: public sector innovation. This, in my mind, translates as the ability for the public sector to adopt a forward-looking logic and think ahead of its time – in terms of what citizens will want in the future and what they may need now that has never been tried before. Notice the use of the verb tried, not to use interchangeably with done. Indeed innovation aims to try out new initiatives and constantly redefine the landscape of possibilities for public servants and public service beneficiaries. The success of innovation lies in innovators’ abilities to experiment, deep dive into a subject-matter and find options never thought of before, even if they fail or head towards a dead end. In other words, innovation is embedded in a culture of risk, where road blocks and obstacles are accepted. Innovation is about being fully able to build, deconstruct and change goals and aims in light of experimentation and evidence - a specific topic I had the chance to interview two experts on.

The Observatory does just that: bringing to the fore initiatives that break away from the normal way of doing things in Government – to better function, to provide a service in more efficient manners, or to enhance communications across agencies and with citizens. Public sector innovators do not necessarily question institutions. Rather they question the status quo within such institutions and think of new ways of approaching an issue. They have this power to think outside the box.

The Role of the Institutions

Innovation is not just about public servants and individual stakeholders / actors. Innovation is also about the narratives government agencies are ready to provide around the possibilities of trying new things and new ways. This is something Alex Roberts and I have investigated; that is, how much is done by government as administrative entities to define the innovation landscape of possibility for, and with, public servants. It is a constant dialogue between government representatives, public servants and citizens-at-large. This is easier said than done, but examples abound across the world to prove that such dialogue is possible; that it can be perceived as a political opportunity; and that one does not need a crisis for new things to see the light of day.

Political willingness, and more largely the willingness to change things – people’s habits and comfort – may not always be there when one needs it. Sometimes, it is solely due to electoral reasons. More-often-than-not however, constraints seem to be systemic – it is the system that automatically blocks change. Indeed, it may be so clogged up and siloed that cross-agency coordination becomes extremely hard to do. Many are those within a national administration that are unable to see the bigger picture to better provide systemic responses to systemic hurdles – due to a lack of time, of resources, of patience, or the three put together. I can only conclude that an effective administration is one that is not only open to change, but one that also trains its servants to be innovators, to challenge the norm, in turn making the very institutions more malleable and responsive.

Blockchain Unchained

I have had the chance to work on a number of tasks during my internship, but one will certainly stick in my mind for a while yet – an investigation of Blockchain technology, and its implications for the public sector. You do not need to do much reading on the topic to understand that complexity awaits. Deep-diving into the technicalities and subtleties of the technology, while making sense of its advantages and limitations for the public sector, is a challenge… especially with close-to-zero knowledge in coding or mathematical computation. Two months in, I doubt I have fully grasped its intricacies and, as I try to explain the technology to a friend, I always draw the conclusion that I should revise a little more. Yet I have had the amazing opportunity to meet extraordinary, future-looking, actors from Ghana, Sweden, France, the US, Estonia and Singapore. They have shared their knowledge and passion to build something that does not yet exist: a comprehensive guide for public servants to best understand what the technology is, what real-world examples exist today, and what to look out for in the near future. The challenge became, quite unexpectedly, a genuine interest in the field…

None of this work could have been done, however, without the help and support of a powerful and multidisciplinary team. The role of a team comes at different times: at the bare beginning, when you suggest an idea and the answer you receive is “try, show me something and we’ll see from there” – which translates to a motivating yes before no. It also comes when you struggle to find the contact information of a former Minister, and your colleague, in his nonchalant way, tells you he had dinner with the Minister’s former Chief of Staff a couple of days back. It becomes rather useful when you lose yourself in the structure and cannot find any way out on your own. It is there, finally, to come with constructive comments on what you have done well, what can be improved and how to go ahead. This is the type of team I had the honour to find at the Observatory.

I am not too sure I am able today to draft a concise list of what I have learnt in the past three months at the OECD. Most of the knowledge has added to what I have already studied and experienced in different agencies within the French administration – including the National Assembly, where I worked for just under a year. However, working at the Observatory gives you this amazing sense that national administrations do not stand idle in the face of large changes that our public sector experiences. As state prerogatives change, so does the State itself. Its relationship with beneficiaries, the level and type of public service delivery or even its internal HR recruitment standards have taken radically different forms in the past few years – and they will not stop changing for a long while still. This is perhaps the most important takeaway of my time at the OECD – that indeed, in spite of people’s beliefs and frustrations, the public sector can be a dynamic, exciting and forward-looking environment. For every hurdle there is an enabler. Public servants want to see things change, and any initiative that is supported by the institution and the hierarchy brings hope and energy. It is also a clear indication that only innovation today actively shapes the public sector of tomorrow – maybe a place where I want to start my career?