GovLab Cases: Innovation at the City of Amsterdam

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GovLab Cases: Innovation at the City of Amsterdam

Inspiring success stories and best practices

Major innovations are rapidly and dramatically changing society. If the government wants to keep up with new developments and make society a better place to live in for its citizens, it needs to reinvent itself and innovate its own organisations. How does this work in practice? What steps do successful innovators in the public sector take? How to create an innovative mindset within the organisation? In this article we take a closer look at a the case of the City of Amsterdam

Innovation in Amsterdam

Ger Baron is the CTO of the municipality of Amsterdam. A city that aspires to become more futureproof and adaptive to the impact of new technologies, such as solar panels, drones and – again – self-driving cars. The use of innovation, technology and data can help the municipality to improve various societal issues, from city traffic to housing and health conditions (e.g. by measuring the quality of in-house air). Next to that, it is also important that the organisation itself is adaptive, responsive and well-connected to the needs of citizens.

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Dealing with change

The latter can be a challenge for any organisation. In general, people don’t like change. This is also true for people working in public sector organisations. Baron: ‘Initially, innovation – e.g. of traffic lights in the city - is fun. It adds magic without actually impacting the organisation. But when you want to change organisational processes and implement digital transformation, it can be quite a challenge to get people aboard.’ For instance, there is the issue of employment. Will the new way of working result in fewer jobs? ‘Fortunately, that was not the case. We did not have to fire anyone, but we were able to offer a number of people the opportunity to reduce the number of working hours and improve their work/life balance.’

Digital governments

In the past years, the municipality of Amsterdam scored high on lists like the European Digital City index and Deloitte's City Mobility index. Some elements were key to that succes:

1. Teaming

The teams consist of people with various disciplines, such as software developers, data scientists, and product owners – who used to be policy officers. Also, their output has changed from a policy document to tangible products and services. Baron: ‘We started on a small scale but are getting more and more traction, as people start to see how this new way of working – fact-based, data-driven, and more agile and innovative - can be relevant for them as well.’ Working in design sprints added to the success. ‘People like creating and designing. What is crucial, is that they can be dedicated product owners. That can be difficult in public sector organisations, because it dedicated ownership means you can’t do other work – and there is usually no budget to hire other people. But Amsterdam did it anyway, and it worked. The next step is to standardize this way of working, which means that we will have to organise management and politics in a different way.

2. Leadership

Another success factor is awareness and understanding at leadership level. When Baron started the digital transformation of Amsterdam about 2 years ago, a number of people doubted whether this would be relevant for the public sector. That has changed dramatically. The entire leadership has been doing data-driven trainings and seen showcases from other successful organisations, which was very inspiring. On a political level, awareness has improved as well. ‘We have developed a narrative to explain the difference between innovation and transformation. Innovation is great when the impact of a new product or service on the organisation is insignificant, but when you want to change the work processes of hundreds of people, that is something entirely different.’

3. Feedback

In order to improve public services, organising feedback from the public is crucial. This, too, can be challenging, since public servants as well as politicians might have experienced in the past that they promised more than they could deliver. ‘But if you are transparent to the public, they will often understand if the outcome is a little different. And there will always be complaints. If we reroute traffic from one street to another, the people in the second street will not be pleased. But if you have data to prove that overall, the air quality has improved because of the rerouting, the overall response will be more positive.’

Next steps: Co-creation and GovTechs

The municipality of Amsterdam has made a huge transition to open source innovation, open book collaboration and transparency. The next step, according to Baron, will be innovation partnerships. ‘I don’t want to brag, but we do have pretty smart people in our organisation. Companies come to us to ask if we can help them improve their products, without losing our autonomy. The big challenge is collaboration. We might have to reinvent government to a certain extent. Bankers are boosted by Fintechs – why shouldn’t we be working with Govtechs? That will bring so much new energy. We can achieve so much more in collaboration.’

About GovLab

GovLab, Deloitte’s public sector innovator. Major innovations are changing society drastically. Also the government will have to reinvent itself. GovLab brings together citizens, public & private parties and offers solutions based on technological and social innovations to key challenges in the field of healthcare, work & income, education and economics. 

GovLab is active around the globe, bringing international experience to a local level. Drawing on the hands-on experiences of international public and private organisations, we can work with you to set your strategy, and to design, build and launch succesfull innovations. Read more about GovLab

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