What's Wrong with How We Run Public Service? What Is the Mission of Public Service?

Petra Dzurovcinova dissects the challenges within the public sector of the Bratislava region while unveiling innovative solutions. She also highlights that the problem definition is key and that without precisely defining the problem, the solution is not coming our way.

As is often the case with the public sector in our region, citizens have very low trust towards the city when providing services. 

Among the most impactful books I’ve read in the past years is Mariana Mazzucato’s Mission Economy. It takes us back in time to the 1960s and President’s John F. Kennedy’s speech on taking humans to the moon. It was a great vision for the US and an incredible boost for innovation, research and economic opportunities. At first it was a dream everyone aspired to. There were so many unknowns and dead-end streets along the way, but all the way down to the last janitor, everyone worked towards the mission. Workers were not making bolts, they were putting a man on the moon. 

This analogy is a great example on how we can join together to tackle climate change, digital revolution or growing inequalities. These are so-called wicked problems that are not simple to solve, might not even have a straightforward solution and need to be divided into smaller problems tackling specific aspects of the problem. 

When the Problem Definition Is Key

It is often said that Albert Einstein would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes coming up with a solution. Starting in the city of Bratislava more than 4 years ago, I quickly learned that public servants are not these evil beings wishing residents a hard time, but are hardworking and caring. However, sometimes they do not understand the complexity of the problem. At the very beginning of our work, we had to define what innovation is for the city of Bratislava and what the most crucial problems are which we can tackle first. As is often the case with the public sector in our region, citizens had very low trust towards the city when providing services. There were some digital systems in place, but they didn’t reflect the needs of residents, the opportunities digital offers, it was simply a digital version of the paper process. 

The Invisible Work

As with Einstein, we have dedicated a large portion of our efforts to defining problems we are solving for and with residents. We have started with our own problem definition based on quantitative data and the first interviews and observations with residents. My team went to the front office, listened in to what residents asked for and what front office staff needed and missed. Then we came up with the first prototypes that have been tested and improved. This process is not linear, sometimes it is incredibly frustrating to come back to the drawing board, but at the end of the day, the simplest solutions are hardest to achieve. You have to cut down all the unnecessary fluff to keep it important and relevant. Steve Jobs famously said that he wants everything on the iPod to be reached in 3 clicks. That was our mantra, from simple and easy language, to a predictable user journey, to an easy way to reach what you came to do, we have simplified and tested every step of the way. 

Secret Ingredient

One of the key elements of success are people, public servants doing great work. As Eric Ries suggested in his book The Startup Way, you can draw benefits in mixing different skill sets in public service. Being able to attract talent and use the spill-over effect of the structured business world or innovative startups, you can bring out of the box solutions to problems challenging administrations today. 

Think Big, Start Small

There is no silver bullet solution that will make all your problems disappear. In the mission economy and in innovation practice, you want to fail fast and have multiple ideas ready to be tested. When we started our work on digital services, we spent six months on research and preparing prototypes to be tested. With every round of testing, we have narrowed down the number of prototypes we would develop further.

One of the hardest parts of innovation work is killing your ideas, simple because after some time you fall in love with them. However, you need to razor focus to be able to deliver, implement, evaluate and scale.

In our digital services work, we knew from early research that residents didn’t know and didn’t care about which department or agency provides the service, they want consistency and efficiency as they are used to in the private sector. 

We have found a need for one umbrella, which we have called Bratislava ID. Before we invested time and money into building a huge service, we mocked the experience with one of our key services – property tax payment. It affects over 210,000 residents, who have to pay the tax every year. Before our intervention, the process was paper based and required residents to visit the post office, pick up an envelope and pay. It was cumbersome and ineffective. We decided to create a safe and simple residents’ zone, where residents after validating their identity could see and pay their taxes. This service has been improved year over year and consistently reached a Net Promoter Score of about 90. On top of resident satisfaction, we have also improved payment discipline with over 50% of residents paying within 3 days. As Mike Bloomberg said, in God we trust, everyone else brings data. We have decided to measure and consistently improve on metrics that are relevant to residents (user satisfaction) as well as the city hall (payment discipline). 

Defining Success

Digital transformation are big words, but they mean different things to different people. During our ASPEN Young Leaders Program, we spent three hours defining the meaning of the words we use and understanding that we all come from different backgrounds with different life experiences that have shaped our understanding of the world, the same way we can see in the diverse residents of the city. Our goal was to define the first principles we adhere to and how they are reflected in our everyday work. The principles for us were transparency, working out in the open, being inclusive and resilient. 

Change is not always welcome, since it brings uncertainty and removes the comfortable status quo.

Digital, Resilient and Just City

Looking back it seems straightforward and simple. Change is not always welcome, since it brings uncertainty and removes the comfortable status quo. The majority of our work concentrates on people, technology is often the easier part.  

We have to challenge the current systems and always ask why and sometimes why not.

Any great change requires a holistic approach and connecting the dots. I attend a lot of conferences and sometimes I see this industry blindness. For example, when you look at the World Health Organization’s goals on priorities for healthy people, they are the other side of the coin of sustainable and active mobility goals in the city. They both aim at healthier air, more cycling and walking infrastructure, safer cities for pedestrians and children, slower traffic and streets for people.  These are complex, but beautiful problems to solve. 

The trust we have been able to build over the past few years through our digital services could be scaled to help Bratislava with resident engagement when facing the climate crisis. Bratislava ID could help us engage residents across different demographics, interests and locations and empower them with targeted participatory actions. 

Co-creating the Future

Coming back to the Mission Economy, for all this to work you need to have a strong and competent government. You need to have public servants that are equipped with new skills, willing to test and fail and be a good partner and guide to the private sector and researchers. The vision to go to the Moon didn’t start with a visionary entrepreneur, but with the President of the strongest nation in the world. It has focused public funding, engaged researchers and private companies to come up with new solutions to problems ahead of them. They failed, worked together and came up with solutions we are still using today. 

Engaging residents and other stakeholders in the process also increases trust and removes the feeling of despair we can so strongly feel in our society. It is one of the most powerful tools for democracy and debunking myths that are raging in the public sphere.

It requires a systematic approach and long-term commitment. When we are spiralling into despair, it is always good to remind ourselves that we are the richest and happiest of human generations. Taking some inspiration from Hans Rosling’s work, it is always good to equip yourself with data and add a human layer to it, so you can explain and educate your stakeholders on the wonderful world we live in. 

What does it mean for us? It means daring to imagine a better future, designing policies that would allow for that future to be probed, tested and put to life. As with any concentrated innovation activity, it will attract creative minds and have spillover effects we cannot predict now. Let’s start dreaming together with razor focus. 

Petra Dzurovčinová

Petra Dzurovčinová is an experienced strategist, business designer and innovative thinker driving digital transformation in the capital of Slovakia. In her free time, she co-hosts a radio show about cities on Slovak National Radio. Petra is also the founding CEO of the Slovak Alliance for Innovation Economy. She lived in Adelaide, Australia, helping promote science communication and co-organized various TEDx events in Adelaide and Bratislava. She participated in the ASPEN Young Leaders Program.

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