Inside Brazil’s labs to rebuild trust

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

A network of local government innovation labs is helping to “create a new mindset” among public servants.

Image: LAB.Ges

Brazil has just elected a new President, Jair Bolsonaro, who is mired in controversy. Against this backdrop, the federal police is carrying out Operation Car Wash, a criminal investigation which has uncovered widespread corruption and convicted almost 100 people.

Today, “citizens are ‘unbelievers’ in government”, lacking trust and confidence, notes André Tamura, Executive Director of WeGov. This local startup works closely with government to build innovation labs through its HubGov programme.

The need for trust is “the most important issue for Brazil right now”, adds Marilia Assis, Sub-secretary of Innovation at LAB.Ges, an innovation lab in the State Government of the southeastern state of Espírito Santo. By creating spaces for innovation to take place, it creates a “very important opportunity to connect people and citizens with these public actions”, she tells GovInsider.

Uber for police cars

WeGov works with local and federal governments to build innovation labs within the span of four to six months. The intent is to equip public servants with “core skills for public sector innovation”, such as “iteration, data literacy, user centricity, curiosity, storytelling”, says Tamura.

Communication is a huge theme for local governments currently. For instance, the Military Police in Santa Catarina, the southern state where the startup is based, wanted to help citizens communicate with police officers better. In a design thinking workshop, participants came up with an idea for an app where citizens could quickly report incidents, such as domestic violence and traffic accidents, in real-time.

“Like Uber, where you can see the car coming, the citizen can see the police car coming to the place,” Tamura explains. After testing a prototype last year, the app was launched this year, he adds.

The startup has also led design thinking workshops with the Superior Electoral Court in Brazil, also around the need to improve communication. There is a new regulation in Brazil that all citizens need to register their biometric information to vote, according to Tamura, and the government used behavioural insights to encourage more citizens to do so. “Just a simple ideation session and research to identify the most important issues,” says Tamura.

200 design thinkers

LAB.Ges, which has been in existence for a year now, was set up in partnership with WeGov to “create a new mindset” amongst public servants, says Assis. “It's very difficult because people in the Espírito Santo state where LAB.Ges is located, they're really not used to these innovation issues,” she notes.

Rather than include only management-level public servants in these design thinking workshops, the lab wanted to “work with everybody”. “We ran a programme for almost 200 people and all of them, from the most basic function to the managers, are design thinkers right now,” says Tamura. “This is a great impact. You can see all the human resources secretaries are now design thinkers.”
"We do this monthly meetup with different subjects. We talk about design thinking, agile methods, AI, big data."
The lab hopes to introduce new concepts and technologies to public servants to “change the way that the department sees innovation”, adds Assis. “In the lab, we do this monthly meetup with different subjects. We talk about design thinking, agile methods, AI, big data,” she explains.

The physical space of the lab itself is markedly different from the rest of the government office it’s housed in. It is colourful and bright, creating a fun space for public servants to meet and share ideas, she explains. “People know that if they go there, they will be able to do different things,” she continues. And it has growing impact: “It's like a wave - every time a new person comes, the next time she brings two others that work with her.”

Her latest project is an “innovation prize”, where the best ideas will receive money and support from the lab to make them a reality. The lab has received 250 submissions so far, and the results will be announced this month, according to Assis.

Reaching out to local governments

While the federal government has a centralised government initiative for innovation - born out of a partnership with MindLab in Denmark, considered the original innovation lab - it faces several challenges in reaching out to local governments, Assis notes. “They are doing a good job, but the limitation is that they can't reach, for example, the justice system or the states or the municipalities, and we can reach this place,” she says.

WeGov brings value by developing a network of local innovation labs across the country, with support from private sector and academia. It helps to plug the gap that the federal government so far is struggling to address - where “the servants are worried that with a change of government, we will lose all these work”, Assis explains.

She continues, “It’s very interesting because it's a movement that's not from inside the government. I think it's very important we have this because it's more sustainable - we don't depend only on the governor [at the time].”

There are plans to bring the HubGov programme abroad to Mexico, Chile and Dubai, adds Tamura. “We are trying to shift a little bit to go more ‘outside’ the government - directly to the services that government provides.”

Brazil features frequently in international headlines for corruption scandals that implicate notable figures, politicians and even presidents. Trust in government is shaky at best.

Perhaps one solution lies in creating spaces for public servants, to inspire and be inspired to build a better future.