The SSE : an opportunity for social innovation within local authorities ?

October 2017

La 27e Région

The experience of the 27th Region and its vision of transformation within local authorities, presented by Stéphane Vincent, emphasizes the interest of social innovation within authorities in order to encourage the emergence of new ways of doing things and the transformation of bureaucratic tools into opportunities for co-construction.

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The 27th Region is interested in social innovation and more particularly in the transformation of public organizations. How do you view the SSE ?

The logic behind the SSE inspired us a lot when we created the 27th Region almost 10 years ago : putting the benefit back at the center, starting again from its realities and inventing new solutions to problems that are poorly solved by public action.

But unlike some SSE actors, and even if it is a difficult and long battle to wage, we do not believe that we should give up on the ability of public actors to change and accomplish their own transformation towards social innovation. When I created the 27th Region, I saw many friends joining the ranks of the SSE. For my part, I remembered the scholarships and all the help I had received to pursue my studies, all that the public authorities had given me, and I did not understand the animosity of some of my colleagues towards the public authorities. I also saw it as a matter of common sense; for example, today everyone talks about « changing scale »: if you manage to change the vision of the elected officials and the director of the high schools of a region, it is in 300, 400 or even 600 establishments that you will be able to plant the seed of social innovation!

For the Anglo-Saxons, social innovation must reach not only the economic field and companies, but also the public actors themselves.

In concrete terms, if we take the case of local authorities, it is not simply a matter of supporting and subsidizing social innovation, but of transforming themselves through social innovation.

How to trigger this innovation ?

How can this facilitate the implementation of SSE policies? In a way, the subject is no longer innovation, which has become the new catchword in the administration, but rather a systemic transformation of the public policy making.

Of course, this is more difficult than doing digital things here and there, but it is more expected by a growing number of civil servants who suffer more and more from the hyper-managerial approaches inherited from the 1980s, but also from the gap between political promises and the reality of the impact of certain public policies on the ground : on housing, social services, to name but a few.

The traditional cycle of public policy making - crisis, agenda setting, study, implementation, evaluation - no longer works! From the outside, we often see digital technology and smartphone applications as part of this transformation, but the really interesting movement seems to me to be that of all these communities and even governments that are setting up action research functions, user research, and internal social innovation laboratories, whose work aims to re-interrogate the public policy cycle by involving the beneficiary’s expertise further upstream, or by testing with users before deploying a policy.

According to a study we conducted with the European Commission, there are about fifty such approaches in Europe and more than one hundred worldwide. The most emblematic approach is that of the Danish government, which created the MindLab 17 years ago, an interdepartmental innovation laboratory recognized by the global community, and which has shown the way. In France, initiatives are multiplying: Val d’Oise, Loire-Atlantique, but also the University Hospital of Strasbourg, which for the past five years has been home to a social innovation laboratory called the Hospitality Factory, and more recently the structure that brings together all the psychiatric institutions in Paris… For our part, we are conducting an experiment until 2020 called the Transfo, which aims to create such systems within 10 major local authorities, including the City of Paris, Dunkirk, Mulhouse, Occitania, and soon, two new metropolitan areas. The operation is co-financed with the Bloomberg Philanthropies Foundation, which is conducting a similar operation in 25 North American and Israeli cities.

In the future, it will not only be a question of re-interrogating public policies, but also the instruments of public policies themselves: subsidies, calls for projects, public contracts… One of the questions is, for example, to know if these instruments really encourage the cooperation that we need today, or if they perpetuate truncated, artificial or harmful competition between actors.

Another bet made by the community of researchers and practitioners is that it will be easier to build real cooperation between local authorities, SSE actors, but also actors from research and education, once the social innovation gene has grown in local authorities, particularly through laboratory-type approaches.

But to make social innovation operational, it is necessary to increase skills. We believe that the administration must move from an ideal of excellence to an ideal of ingenuity. We don’t want perfect things, but things that work, that may not change everything, but will have an impact. This accounts for the change in posture, where we move from a logic of marketing needs to a logic of understanding dynamics, of reformulating problems. It is necessary to allow oneself to turn a political order around, to reformulate the problem in order to imagine solutions adapted to local dynamics, which will necessarily be transversal.

How do you see the construction of transversality within territorial communities ?

The emergence of the issue of transversality corresponds to the way in which institutions have evolved. Transversality in organizations has become « the grail », the endless quest of general managers. One of the reasons for this is that porosity has developed between the themes of public policies. Today, in order to deal with a social problem, for example, it has become clear that other policies must also be mobilized, such as transport or culture, for example. Individuals do not separate the problems they experience.

It is therefore by reorganizing their operations around people rather than the technostructure that public leaders can hope to develop cooperation in their services. A Danish researcher speaks of the eventual development of a « human-centered governance », an organization that is thought out more for those who live it - agents, elected officials, the public - than for the contingencies of the bureaucracy.

Will the institutionalization of social innovation approaches within local authorities ensure the sustainability of the transformation ?

This is a very delicate question. The approaches that have been institutionalized too quickly are often those that have almost simultaneously lost all critical capacity with respect to the organization, and therefore all capacity for real transformation. Announcing in the press in the presence of your board of directors that you are creating an innovation laboratory is often the best way to nip it in the bud! The most promising approaches are those that advance step by step and create their legitimacy by proving their concept, success after success. In general, it is necessary to start a little under the radar, on the sly, and then show only what has been achieved, without making promises of ill-considered changes. It’s a trajectory, an iterative process where you take one step after another. And all those who have created «  labs  » type initiatives say it: for it to work, you have to have one foot outside to have enough freedom to hack the system, but also one foot inside to have access to the decision making process. It is to understand all these complex mechanisms that the 27th Region is conducting its action-research work