Disney’s Pinocchio had the top hat-wearing, tailcoat-bearing Jiminy Cricket who followed him around as his conscience. Jiminy kept Pinocchio from many unwise acts, but most governments have less overt ways of guiding decisions towards public good.

One team in Portugal has taken up the task. “We see ourselves as a conscience for digital transformation,” says Jorge Lagarto, Director at Portugal’s public sector innovation unit LabX. It seeks to make government services more inclusive and accessible as new tech comes to the fore. A big part of its strategy is engaging citizens to ensure any changes serve their needs.

The unit started in 2016 under the Administrative Modernisation Agency, where it works alongside two other units to redesign public services. The Agency is now operating under the Secretary of State for Digitalisation and Administrative Modernisation, in the direct scope of the prime minister. This will give LabX more freedom to coordinate across public agencies, and is also testament to the impact of its work. Lagarto shares its strategy for designing citizen-centered public services.

Design inclusive services

LabX is prioritising inclusivity as it redesigns public services. “It’s very important for us to make sure that the Portuguese services are universal and they are available to everyone,” Lagarto says.

One big lesson from the pandemic was the need to provide public services through the telephone, on top of physical and online channels. “We have this very old population in some parts of the country, that when the physical services closed during the pandemic, they don’t have the ability to use the digital services,” he explains.

The team is looking to make services more accessible next. It is considering how to publish information so it remains accessible for the visually impaired, for instance.

Lean on community partners

LabX relies heavily on citizen engagement and feedback when improving services to ensure they meet real needs. But it’s difficult for one team to be in touch with all demographics within the country.

The team works through a “belt of amplifiers”, consisting of associations and civil society groups for this. “It’s very important to bring them to the centre of the design process for policies and services, because they are points of contact with the citizens,” says Lagarto.

Community associations are particularly important when LabX trialled new citizen services. It has set up living labs where public officials test new services with the public for two weeks.

It’s crucial that these pilots engage a wide range of citizens. But budgets often run tight in the public sector, and LabX doesn’t have the resources to recruit on its own. It found associations were helpful in bringing in diverse crowds, Lagarto shares.

This approach was helpful as well when calling for donations of specific blood types. LabX partnered with Islamic and African community leaders as the nation was lacking supplies for those groups, he says.

It also worked with the Portuguese Institute of Youth and Sports to study how to incentivise young people to use digital public services. More than 90 per cent of public services are digital, but only about half the population uses them, he notes.

Predict

The unit is keeping the future in mind whenever it implements changes. One of LabX’s next big projects is to overhaul 25 public services, Lagarto shares. The team is now in the process of finding out which services are most relevant to citizens. It will examine how many users each service has, and how often it’s used.

For each of these services, officials will study possible consequences and make mitigation plans. “Five years from now, what are the evolutions of society or the evolutions of the users? Are there security problems that we are not foreseeing?” he asks. This will help the team ensure the services are sustainable and don’t infringe on any fundamental rights.

LabX has developed a set of methods for this approach with the Observatory of Public Sector Innovation. The Anticipatory Innovation Toolkit seeks to equip public officials with basic foresight skills, such as defining the problem.

Convenient services

Portugal will also make its public services more convenient. LabX is building a “catalogue of seamless services”, Lagarto says. “If we know that people will have to consume some of our services, we must be proactive” in bringing these services to them.

For instance, people can now renew their citizen card automatically. The Institute of Registries and Notary will send a text message when the card is about to expire. Citizens authorise the digital payment, and receive the new card at their doorstep in just five days, he shares.

The country has also implemented a similar process for driver’s licence renewals and tax declarations, he adds.

Scale

The LabX office has a poster on its wall that lists eight ways for a lab to die. One of the ways is to have nobody understand its work or motivations.

“We understand that we need to spread this way of work[ing],” Lagarto says. LabX is teaching teams across the country to use their approach. It has mentored similar units in the municipalities of Lisbon, Coimbra, Loulé, and Valongo, as well as the tourism and police departments in central government.

The unit is now training four new teams, including one from Brazil. It will walk them through the process of implementing a project and evaluating the results in the span of a year. All labs will also meet in June this year to explore opportunities for direct collaborations, he says.

LabX’s influence in the public sector is evident. “Five years ago, when we were created, no one knew what co-creation meant. Now, it’s widely used by everyone in the public sector”, including in a national digital transformation strategy paper. “It’s a win for us,” he smiles.

“Putting the citizens in the centre of the [public service improvement] process was a very new thing” to most public agencies, Lagarto says. LabX is working to bring more inclusivity for citizens and to build up teams who will replicate its approach across all levels of government.

Featured image by LabX.

Correction notice (17 June 2022): A previous version of this article stated that LabX was no longer a part of the Administrative Modernisation Agency and was moved under the direct scope of the prime minister. It also mentioned that LabX was in the midst of implementing the automation of tax declarations. These have since been corrected.