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Digital Transformation in Government Issue #81:
Embracing Innovation in Government — OECD report

The OECD report Embracing Innovation in Government contains key information around digital transformation in government for all public sector employees. The report identifies three trends — making the invisible visible, opening doors and a machine-readable world.

Salsa Digital 14 May 2019

About the report

The report has been produced by the OECD’s Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (OPSI), which has been set up to share examples of innovation within the public sector. The goal is to help governments around the world understand what’s working...and what’s not working. The OPSI also provides governments with innovation tools, sharing tools from governments around the world.

Report structure

The report starts off with highlights and an introduction, which provide a good snapshot of what’s currently happening in governments around the world when it comes to innovation.

The report then focuses on three trends:

  1. Invisible to visible — Making government more transparent for citizens and vice versa (making citizen experience more visible to governments). This trend also looks at making invisible factors (e.g. scenarios for the future) more visible for government.

  2. Opening doors — How technology can open doors for more people to access information and valuable government services.

  3. Machine-readable world — How data insights can be used to impact law creation, and how machine-readable data can be used by emerging tech like artificial intelligence and blockchain.

Each trend contains case studies that show the trend in action.


The opening of the report addresses government transformation and how it’s being used to respond to challenges and seize opportunities. This duality resonated with us, because it’s something we’re seeing on a daily basis — working with our government clients to help them solve problems or seize opportunities.

The report then goes on to give some background information on the OPSI and its current focus on tools and resources, before providing a snapshot of each of the trends, with a short definition of the trend, case studies, themes and recommendations. If you’d like to read this very important summary information see pages 6-11 of the report. We also provide a summary of each section below.

The introduction (page 13) discusses the current environment — the changes in the way we work and live, challenges like climate change, and the many positive changes like record-low poverty rates and collective action across governments/countries.

The introduction finishes by explaining where the report’s data has come from, in this case 280 cases from the ‘Call for Innovations’ and 262 cases from extensive research. From these cases, the OPSI has identified three trends.

Invisible to visible

Within this trend, the OPSI has seen four major themes:

  1. “Governments are using behavioural insights and gamification to unlock perspectives and reinforce positive change.” This looks at how behavioural insights can be fed into government policy and can be used to help create change. Gamification refers to government and industry experimentation with gaming to help uncover citizens’ behaviours and needs. An example of this is Carrot Rewards in Canada, which is a wellness app that rewards users for positive choices.

  2. Immersive technology is enabling governments to surface new ideas and inputs.” The report looks at virtual reality and augmented reality as examples. And the case studies mentioned include Finding Places (a Hamburg initiative to find housing for refugees), and the use of VR and AR for planning purposes to show residents planning initiatives and get their feedback (New York) or for citizens to create and collaborate on designs for a public space using Block by Block (collaborative minecraft for town planning).

  3. Citizen science has matured, activating individuals as agents for change.” Citizen science allows non-scientists to contribute to scientific pursuits. A specific real-world example is Phylo, which was a game where users helped align DNA sequences to create better algorithms for research. Another case study is Australia’s Zika Mozzie Seeker, which gets thousands of citizens to use mosquito traps to set up an early warning system for Zika mosquitoes. Many countries have also created specific portals to enable citizen science, such as the US’s, Scotland’s Citizen Science Portal and Canada’s Science at Work portal.

  4. “Countries are using positive deviance to reveal positive outliers.” Sometimes the solution to a problem already exists. As an example, the report outlines a project in Pakistan that studied women who had successfully overcome the barriers to joining the workforce and/or studying to see if their ‘methods’ could be used by other women.

Opening doors

Within this trend, the OPSI has seen three major themes:

  1. “Governments are enabling the circular economy as currency.” This section looks at examples such as the Paris Agreement on climate change, creating a more sustainable and environmentally friendly economy and recycling in general. Case studies mentioned include Indonesia’s GRINGGO, an app that links people with recyclers and provides incentives (cash) for recycling; Mexico City, where people can swap recyclables for fresh vegetables; Ljubljana, Slovenia where the government is recycling invasive alien plant species and turning them into paper; and in Surabaya, Indonesia people can use recyclable bottles to pay for their bus fare.

  2. “Countries and cities are deriving public value from the platform economy.” The platform economy uses an online platform to match people's needs to someone else’s available supply (e.g. Airbnb). Governments are starting to experiment with government as a platform. Examples given here include providing municipal buildings in Amsterdam for use by civil society organisations; a homeshare pilot in Toronto linking students with older adults to give the students affordable housing while providing the homeowners with help for household activities; and in Singapore agencies are using Facebook Workplace to ‘borrow’ civil servants and access particular skillsets.

  3. “New emphasis is being placed on improving access to justice.” The focus here is on a judicial system that meets certain requirements on access, responsiveness and quality. Some examples include a program in Sierra Leone giving prisoners free legal services; a citizen assembly in Ireland of 99 non-elected members of the public, making recommendations to the Irish Parliament; and California’s Clear My Record, which automatically clears people’s records for infractions that were once illegal but have since been legalised (and it uses an open source algorithm).

Machine-readable world

Within this trend, the OPSI has identified four themes:

  1. Open data efforts are making public knowledge machine readable.” The report talks about the power of government open data and says that more countries are focusing on producing data in machine-readable format.

  2. “Countries are rewriting the rulebook with code.” The way governments develop laws, policies and other types of rules is changing...and they’re becoming machine-readable. One example is New Zealand’s Better Rules, a pilot that’s “rewriting laws with machine-consumable code to ensure that the implementation of laws matches their intent.” The project also incorporates real-time feedback loops to help improve the design of the laws from the outset. Another example is Washington DC publishing its laws in GitHub, where citizens can use GitHub’s ‘issues’ feature to engage in two-way discussions about the laws and GitHub’s ‘pull request’ feature to suggest changes.

  3. “Experiments are underway to digitise humans and our surroundings.” In terms of humans, this is noted as an innovative but sometimes controversial trend that uses algorithms to give people a ‘score’. The report provides examples from China where citizens are being ‘scored’ and punished if they’re not good citizens. More positive examples include the UK’s Early Help Profile System (EHPS) that predicts the most at-risk children; and Switzerland’s pilot program that uses refugee profiles and algorithms to predict where in Switzerland a refugee will have the highest chance of successful integration, including employment. Examples of ‘surroundings’ include Australia’s use of machine learning for land-mapping in Queensland, which identifies land uses (e.g. agriculture or housing). The information can then be used for monitoring natural disasters and biodiversity.

  4. “Governments are seeing enormous potential in emerging tech, but risks and adverse effects need to be anticipated.” The report highlights two beliefs when it comes to emerging tech and government — that government should follow the ‘wait and see’ approach, and that governments should be leaders in exploring emerging technologies. OPSI notes that there has been a rapid increase within government to understand and use emerging technologies. Examples given are Finland’s Aurora National Artificial Intelligence Programme; AI use within smart cities in China; and Mongolia’s use of AI and blockchain to track medicine along the supply chain to catch and eliminate counterfeit medicine (up to 40% of medicine in Mongolia is counterfeit).

Salsa Digital’s take

While the OECD’s Embracing Innovation in Government report is a long one, we strongly recommend you read the full report, or at least the highlights and perhaps a case study or two that’s particularly relevant to you and your agency. The report represents the very best of what’s happening with digital transformation in government around the world. And the organisation, OPSI, provides a great deal of information and tools that contribute to the shared effort of governments around the world. You may like to check out OPSI’s toolkits, submit your case study (registration required) or even start by watching the introductory video below.


We’re definitely going to be exploring the OPSI more!

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