interview  | 

How can we adopt a startup approach in the public sector?

Interview with Aura Cifuentes, Director, Digital Government Directorate at Ministerio de Tecnologías de la Información y las Comunicaciones

Tags: 'Aura Cifuentes' 'Colombia'


Reading Time: 12 minutes

Aura Cifuentes coordinates the Public Innovation Team (EiP) of the National Planning Department (DNP), whose mission is to connect different actors with public innovation initiatives and mechanisms and to strengthen experimentation capacities in the public sector. She graduated with a degree in Government and International Relations from the Externado University of Colombia and with a Master's degree in Public Affairs from the Institute of Political Studies in Paris – Sciences Po. Her professional career includes working as coordinator for the Transparency and Anti-Corruption Observatory of the Presidency of the Republic of Colombia, acting as a consultant in charge of open data for the office of the French Prime Minister, and advising the multinational Gfi Informatique on the topic of smart cities.

What motivated you to go into the public sector?

Since I was very little I knew I would love to work with people and to work for my country. And I think the public sector is a great place to be when you want to do that. I studied government and international relations in Colombia and was motivated to do my masters degree in public affairs. My first job was in France working in the Prime Minister’s department for open government and open data. And I fell in love with the public sector. I think when you do things well in the public sector, they can be sustainable and they can have a great impact on the country. That’s why I love doing what I do.

What is the DNP (Departamento Nacional de Planeación) and what do you do there?

The DNP is a ministry level agency or national public body in charge of public policy. We monitor and we follow up the public policy documents with public actions. When we have a new president in Colombia, he or she is in charge of elaborating the roadmap for the four years of that government, something called the Plan Nacional de Desarrollo and for the first time in the history of Colombia we have a chapter regarding public innovation. The fact that we have a public innovation team in that public body is very important right now because we are trying to dynamize the public innovation ecosystem. We are trying to lead the action not only in the public sector, but also in the private sector, working with entrepreneurs, civil society, and academia. Public innovation is trying to solve public problems, not just in the public sector.

Let's talk a little bit more in deep about what public innovation is. That's your expertise. What is public innovation and what's its aim?

The first thing is public innovation is not the same as public sector innovation. That affirmation is very important because we are trying to say that public innovation is trying to solve public problems.  It’s an approach, but the public sector is not the only actor.

If you want to solve public problems, you can be an entrepreneur, you can be a researcher, you can be a citizen, or you can be a CEO.

What we need is a mindset and a clear public innovation approach in public policy in Colombia. What we are trying to push is that this approach is based on experimentation. In the startup environment we are seeing that you need to iterate a solution, you need to prototype, you need to cocreate a solution with your users. This is very different to the traditional mindset in the public sector. For example, we used to create public policy and solutions based on a lot of ego and thinking that we knew the final solution without including citizens in the process. When you think about it, we are using public resources so experimentation is a good approach because you can fail on a much smaller scale. You can iterate and include the user or citizen from the beginning, not only once the solution is found. Citizen participation is not the same as co-creation. These are two different approaches. That’s what we’re trying to push.

Sometimes in the public sector and in Latin American countries, we think experimentation and improvisation are the same. But we can experiment with a rigorous approach, with methodologies, and with tools that are already approved by the private sector.

How does public innovation benefit the country and its people?

We are trying to make the government or a country’s public institutions more legitimate. Sometimes the relationship between citizens and what we call the government is not good because we have corruption cases and problems regarding budgeting, work and health, for example. Public innovation is a means of engaging citizens in public decision making, which is normally done by the government. We are trying to enhance that relationship, to strengthen it. We are also trying to show that technology can be a solution. A way of allowing citizens to be a part of the process. We need the user experience designed, for example, in a way that closes the gap between citizens and the government. We’re trying to say that we can expand public resources better, more wisely and in a different way. It’s difficult because the main issue is that we need to change the mindset and behavior. 

I think it benefits everyone. It benefits the government, it benefits the ecosystem, it benefits the citizen, but the thing is that it takes time. Innovation takes time. In order to innovate we need resources, we need people, we need time. Sometimes people think public innovation, or just innovation, is a bunch of people posting post-its on a wall and saying something is cool or awesome. But the reality is that it takes time, it’s difficult. You need to have political will. You need to have resources to hire people, to do things, to prototype, and to fail. We need to have the license to fail.

When it comes to public innovation, where does Colombia sit on the global scale?

I think we are in a good place right now on the global scale.

The fact that we have a public innovation chapter in our public policy document is a huge step for a country like Colombia. We talk a lot about about experimentation and trying to embrace what it means to have the right behaviors, skills, attitudes, what are the competences of that approach in a team or a public sector institution.

We are trying to talk in the public sector language because sometimes it’s very technical to say public innovation, experimentation, iteration, or prototyping. We are trying to say to the public servant that, yes, it takes time. Yes, you need money. But you can do it. You don’t need a public innovation lab. What we’re saying to all the public officials in Colombia, the rural ones, the European ones, is – you can do it because you can have the right tools and you can embrace your learnings. We can share that knowledge, we can send that message. I think that’s what a lot of countries in the world are recognizing about what we are doing in Colombia. 

The public innovation chapter in that public policy document was released in April 2019 so we have had a few months of implementation and we have done a gov tech diagnostics about the gov tech space in Colombia.

We want to insist that public innovation is not public sector innovation. Startups and entrepreneurs play a key role in that ecosystem and can be solving public problems based on technology, based on digital solutions.

But to say that and to prove that we need a diagnosis, a benchmark, to know which are the startups that can be labeled as GovTech, and we need to have the evidence, to look at recommendations and look what are the next steps in terms of implementation. This will be published in the coming days. We have a new index. We are trying to measure the skills, aptitudes and capacities of public institutions in Colombia regarding public innovation. Sometimes there are tools, sometimes there are methodologies, infrastructures. Infrastructure plays a key role when you are trying to innovate. We’re trying to create a ranking on a national and local level. We are also trying to put all these people in the same conversation by making a committee, and having digital or analog tools to make that conversation happen. I think it’s the most important thing that we are doing right now because sometimes the public and the private sector don’t communicate, they don’t talk about public innovation, even less startups, civil society or academia. That’s the main role that we are playing, trying to put those people in the same conversation and showing them the evidence and results of what we are doing. 

Colombia led the 2030 agenda for sustainable development that was adopted by all the UN members in 2015. What was this agenda and which global challenges were included there?

That was a huge step. Public innovation is at the core of that document. The importance of the agenda is not only to have 17 sustainable goals, but to map out all the interconnections of that agenda. When you think about the rural agenda, you have to talk about rural woman, for example. Health, education and gender are very complex problems with a very high level of uncertainty. That means it’s very difficult to solve a specific problem.

You shouldn’t be taking the traditional route. You need a new approach. You need to know which solutions didn’t work and why they didn’t work.

We often think we can solve problems in Colombia as we see them solved in Sweden, for example. Sometimes countries think that if a solution works over there it will work in Colombia, but the 2030 agenda shows that this is not the case. It is not only the umbrella, it’s also the evidence of what does or doesn’t work. So to answer your question, we are trying to follow up all the indicators in this agenda in Columbia, at the national and local level, and we have a strategy relating public innovation approaches to three sustainable development goals (SDGs) at the center of that agenda.


Let's talk about innovation versus regulation. In fact the DNP is said to be embracing experimental approaches. For example, Colombia is learning from startups to get the public sector going. What are the experimental approaches that you have implemented and how can we take more of a startup approach in the public sector?

In Colombia right now we are trying to talk about smart regulation. At the moment we are trying to act more like startups.

A startup is not just a small enterprise, it is a mindset. And that’s what we are trying to do in the public sector. We are trying to develop the agile methodology and innovative mindset that startups have in their DNA.

The public sector is very traditional, they are not so experimental. Startups have a lot of preconceptions regarding the public sector, but it’s the same the other way around. Sometimes we think people who work for startups are too young, they don’t know anything about Colombia or the reality of the public sector and its problems. That’s why we need the startup and public sector to work together. They can complement each other. So we are learning about the startup methods and the startup world. What we are trying to push, not only in the public innovation labs, but all across the public sector, is that we already have entrepreneurs in public institutions. It’s not that easy because we have a lot of regulation. But even if they fail, it’s okay. Innovation and regulation need to be on the same page. At the DNP we have a smart regulation team and we worked very closely with them.

It's tough for governments to keep up the pace of regulation alongside the rapid advancement of technology. What methods are being used?

The difficulty regarding regulation and technology is sometimes technology is more advanced than regulation and the public sector.

We are not moving as fast as technology, that’s for sure, but we have a public policy regarding blockchain and artificial intelligence, for example. We even launched the 4th industrial revolution center in Colombia six months ago, which is the first of its kind in Latin America. The public sector may not be as innovative as technology, but we are trying to figure out what we should be doing by developing public policy documents, growth strategies, diagnoses to push us to be at least on the same level in 10 or 20 years. 


How can we build a more equitable society?

I think we can build an equitable world if we are humble. This is very important because in the public sector we have a lot of ego. For example in the public innovation team, we are trying to say to public officials, “Hey, we need to be humble and have an experimental mindset, which means that it’s good if you don’t know the solution, it’s good if you don’t know the outcome, it is good if you failed.”

And I think that if we change that in the public sector, the biggest entreprise in a country or the biggest sector in a country, when you change that, I think that we can have more equity in the solutions, more equity in the public resources, more equity in the expense. Sometimes we are very focused on the big cities and in countries like Colombia the rural areas make up 80% of the country. So I think when we push that experimental mindset, when we say you need to be humble, you need to have a more rigorous, innovative approach, we are trying to also push equity. The public policy that I’ve been talking about a lot, actually, the name is equity in Colombia, so it makes all the sense.

Equity and listening to the citizenship also involves taking a look at what the society is and that includes gender gap. In fact, the index of global gender gap in last year in 2018, ranked Columbia in the 14th position with a gender gap of 72.9%. How is public innovation facing that problem?

That’s a very good question because you cannot talk about public innovation if you don’t have a gender focus. One of the main principles and values of public innovation is inclusion. So if you don’t try to close those gaps, you are not being innovative. You are not pushing the public innovation agenda. In our public policy regarding public innovation, we included strategies to close the gender gap, which makes all the sense in the world because women and a lot of LGBT sector groups have been not been taken into account when they built public policies. When you ask in a training or a citizen meeting, do you have trans woman here? The answer is often no, because people making that public policy don’t take gender into account. What we are trying to say is, “Hey, you cannot say that you have a public innovation approach if you don’t take that into account”. I am a woman, I am feminist, so I have this lens all the time. Some people disagree of course, but I think when you don’t have a gender focus, you are on the discrimination side. This year in March we have international Open data day and gender was on the agenda. We have a lot of open data in Columbia.

So we need to have programs regarding gender and public innovation. That’s why I founded a network of women, 4,000 in Latin America, and what we see is that of course you have a gender gap, so we have to work to close that gap. 


What are the ethical issues governments face when it comes to technology and public innovation?

I think we are failing when it comes to ethics regarding the use of personal data. Sometimes we are not very transparent about the use of that data. We have a lot of forms, a lot of surveys, a lot of instruments capturing our personal data. And a lot of scandals regarding Facebook or even some elections in other countries are showing that sometimes governments are part of it. I think what we need is to have principles. In Colombia we have a public information law, and in that law you have passive transparency and active transparency. You can open some data sets that are beneficial and don’t have sensitive information. But because it’s a government it has industrial secrets, medical histories, personal information and that kind of data shouldn’t be open. If you don’t have data governance, it’s very difficult to have ethics, to have principles, to have values.

Data is the new oil. If you have data that means you have information and power. So you need to establish effective regulation. In Colombia, we have public policy regarding information, openness, and the use of data. Even with that, we have problems. It’s a big issue, you have to regulate when you have personal citizen data.

Building fast and embracing transparency is very similar to preventing corruption. In fact, Colombia, according to the global barometer in corruption in 2010 that was released a couple of weeks ago stated that 95% of citizens identify government corruption as one of the most serious problems. And also according to the Índice de Medición de Reconciliación, 86% of Colombian citizens do not trust public institutions. Knowing that can the public sector use innovation to reduce corruption?

Yes, absolutely. Actually I was leading the transparency anti corruption observatory in Columbia two years ago and what we saw was the importance of public innovation in those strategies because sometimes the fight against corruption strategy in a lot of Latin American countries is saying that if somebody is corrupt, I will have the sanction for that: jail, their own patrimony, whatever, but I will punish them. So it’s a punishment strategy and not a preventative one. And I think public innovation is trying to be more on the preventative side of corruption. You’re saying if you have a good process, if you co create that with citizens, if you are open, if you are accountable, we’re going to prevent the risks of corruption because we’re trying to do things right. The corrupt cases are because they’re not open, they are not accountable, they are not working with citizens.

What we need is to empower citizens. We need to take them into account at the beginning, in the middle, at the end. Public innovation is a vehicle and the goal is having open, more transparent, less corrupt governments.

Some people are so skeptical about the advancement of technology and in particular Artificial Intelligence. And they are really frightened that that will be the end of humanity. What are your thoughts on this?

I don’t think it will be the end of humanity. I think humanity and human behaviour is changing since we have technology. The internet was the first one. We are changing, the public sector is changing and the way we are doing public policies it changing too. I think it’s good. But technology is not always the solution. Because we live in a digital world and we have social media and we have a cell phone or a computer, we think technology is the best solution for everything.

But public innovation is not technology. Public innovation is a mindset and an approach. And you can have that in every sector because public is not governmental innovation. Public innovation is trying to make better countries, better societies, better communities, better cities.

When you understand that, the big question regarding that fear of technology disappears, and there are other solutions, other problems that cannot be solved with technology. One of the main skills regarding innovation is empathy. You need to train for that, you need to learn and that’s the most human concept of innovation. It doesn’t involve technology at all. So I don’t believe that technology will be the end of humanity. I think it is actually a good tool and I think if humanity uses well, we can really change the world. But if you don’t know your user technology doesn’t serve the needs. 

Trying to do things differently will always be challenging. Even more so if you work in and represent the public sector, because we are living in a world with a lot of corrupt governments and presidents that are not very popular. We are in an era of lack of trust, we have lost hope in the world, but we can change that. Everyone can change their reality if they have the right approach.