Phan Hoang Lan, Head of Exploration, UNDP Accelerator Lab, Vietnam

By Yun Xuan Poon

Women in GovTech Special Report 2021.

How do you use technology/policy to improve citizens’ lives? Tell us about your role or organisation.

I’m Phan Hoang Lan, Head of Exploration, UNDP Accelerator Lab Viet Nam. In our Lab, we divide work based on specific thematic focuses. Bringing in the experience of a former government official, I’m in charge of the governance innovation focus within the Lab team. We work with different government partners from local to national levels to help them to listen and sympathise better with citizens’ needs, and based on these insights, design more citizen-centric and evidence-based policies.

Some of the social innovation approaches and methodologies that we use include ethnographic research, citizen-generated data, sensors, behavior insights and policy experimentation, to name a few.

What was the most impactful project you worked on this year?

My most impactful project this year is designing and implementing the first-ever incubation programme for digital transformation of public services in Viet Nam. In my country, digital transformation of public services has been happening in the last few years, and is positioned as a key part of the National Digital Transformation Plan through 2025. However, many of such efforts have been designed top-down and lack a mechanism to integrate citizen’s needs, especially those of the most vulnerable groups.

Recognising such a problem, our Lab has supported our Governance and Participation unit to design a six-month incubation programme to work with three local governments of Viet Nam to make their one-stop-shop portals more user-friendly to vulnerable groups, with a focus on people with disabilities and of ethnic minority backgrounds. Right now it’s only the beginning of the project, but we have been able to engage government officials to experience things they have never done, such as participant observation of how vulnerable people are using their portals. From this process, many of the portals’ weaknesses were revealed naturally to the realisation of government officials.

What is one unexpected learning from 2021?

During the Covid-19 waves, UNDP donated several robots to the Ministry of Health to support health facilities to reduce the risks of cross infection among patients and between patients and healthcare workers. I was in charge of this initiative and wrote a blog on the first phase of the robot experiment. To be honest, I didn’t know how the robots would be used on the ground because they were designed from the US and might not fit the infrastructure and digital capacity of Vietnamese hospitals.

The worry came true. Although some hospitals were able to utilise the robots very well, some others were not able to use them at all because of problems that sound very minimal but are actually really critical. For example, departments within the hospitals might have different wifi systems and the robots would stop working while traveling across these areas, or the hospital floors are not flat and a bit bumpy so that the robots can’t cross.

But the most unexpected learning for me is that when I shared these stories with other robot makers and hospitals, they said this is the first time they can learn so much about the real situation of service robot application in healthcare facilities. In fact, most of the robot makers made their robots based on assumptions and actually never had a chance to test them in a real hospital! So although some of the experiments didn’t show the best results across all donated hospitals, the very detailed learnings from our experiments really helped robot makers and hospitals alike understand so much more about each other and how to make the service robots fit hospitals better.

What’s your favourite memory from the past year?

My favorite memory in the past year is related to having many new members in the Lab. Among the three Heads of the Lab, five months ago we had a new Head of Experiment, who is older and has a lot more experience in working with development agencies than us two other Heads. Two months ago, we also welcomed two Lab assistants that are very young and different in their characteristics. As a team, our ages range as far as almost 20 years apart.

I’ve realised that learning from such a diverse team helps us to see problems in such an interesting and multi-perspective way. It’s also quite amazing how being different brings us closer together. I guess in social innovation, as long as we are open to diversity and put beneficiaries’ needs at the center of our work, everything is possible.

What’s a tool or technique you’re excited to explore in 2022?

The tool that I’m most excited to explore in 2022 would be anticipatory governance (AG). Even though we were able to explore this topic through training and workshop sessions before, we haven’t been able to find a partner that is interested enough to test out the approach in a real case.

However, just recently we’ve received some interest to test this approach in a project whereby the government is interested in applying AG to carry out poverty reduction planning at the provincial level. This would be a really exciting opportunity for me to apply the AG approach on the ground.

What are your priorities for 2022?

My most important priority for 2022 is packaging our experiences working with different government partners into a special governance innovation incubation program. From that, it will be much easier to engage with different government partners and scale our impact.

The topics of governance innovation could be anything ranging from digital governance, night time economy to circular economy. In such a programme, we want to help build governments’ capacity to really understand the problem space, in particular citizen’s needs, and run experiments to generate concrete evidence before jumping into making any policy.

Who are the mentors and heroes that inspire you?

Even though my grandfather passed away over 10 years ago, he was the mentor and hero that really inspired me. As a judge, he dedicated his life to the work of finding justice for people. In the war time, he didn’t have a chance to go to any official schooling but gathered all of his knowledge from self-learning. His perseverance, love to learn and will to contribute to the common good has always been a model for me to follow.

What gets you up in the morning?

It would be my gym session and the thought of meeting all the lovely and energetic members of my team at the office.