Lab Life: An interview with Juan Felipe López, Executive Director of Laboratorio de Gobierno, Chile

Juan Felipe López is the Executive Director of Laboratorio de Gobierno (LabGob), Chile - a government innovation lab set up by the Chilean Government in 2014. Ahead of LabWorks Global Labs Gathering, 9 July, Sophie Reynolds interviewed Juan Felipe to ask him about his thoughts and insights on lab life so far...

Can you tell us a little more about Laboratorio de Gobierno and why the Chilean Government decided to establish its first public innovation lab?

The Chilean government has had a long tradition of reforms, modernisation and innovations since the 90s, but today we have a different mandate: to address the challenges we face as a country. And as President Bachelet has said, we have to go one step beyond modernisation, actively promoting an innovative state. To this end, the government has moved into a new political phase of radical changes and reforms. This means finding new ways to approach public issues that allow us to put the citizen at the centre, and developing systematic innovation processes that go beyond specific interventions. However, this requires a controlled space, permission to take risks, and more direct engagement with the diverse actors connected to public services so that we can co-create and test solutions.

It is in this context that the Laboratorio de Gobierno appears as a space to carry out this agenda and to develop new and better public services, more closely connected with the needs of citizens.

You were hired as LabGob’s Executive Director earlier this year. What were your first tasks and priorities in the job?

My first task was to build a service model. There was a consensus — thanks to the president’s support — that it was necessary to deliver better public services, but how to go about doing this wasn’t clear at first. With assistance from the task force set up with implementing the team, we defined a model with three streams of action: Innovation Projects (an area of LabGob who would work to reframe, experiment and implement the most in-demand public services), Innovation Skills (ensuring the Laboratorio works to spread practical knowledge on innovation skills inside government, but also outside) and Ecosystem Management Investment (attract private talent through challenge prizes and civic engagement to solve public problems). These three lines combine to form a complete and complex offer that the Laboratorio makes available not only for public servants, but also for different actors inside and outside government. The second task was to define how this model would operate and with whom. Finally, once the service and operating model were in place, we had to form the team that would become part of the Chilean government’s first innovation laboratory.

Part of the Innovation Projects Team

You’ve steadily been recruiting to build up the team over the past few months. What skills and competencies do you look for when recruiting new staff? In what ways do these skills differ from those typically possessed by public servants?

We had a long selection process that lasted 3 months, where 2,758 people applied for 16 positions. Since our laboratory has 3 lines of action, the team that we had to recruit needed to be diverse in skills. In the Innovation Projects team we have designers, engineers, developers and anthropologists. In the Innovation Skills team there are designers, public administrators and organisational development experts. In the Ecosystem Management Investment, we have economists and architects and our Communications unit is made up by publicists, journalists, production staff and art directors.

More than opening positions that related to particular fields, we offered interdisciplinary jobs based around certain skills that would complement those that are already the most common in government, like lawyers, engineers and public administrators.

Damaris and Elisa from Innovation Projects Team

What does an average day look like for your team?

Our daily routine is made up of four elements: sense of urgency, creativity, open mindedness and a lot of practice. There is high interaction between our staff in order to solve problems trying to balance the pressure for our goals and the necessary time to think in a different way. At the same time, we spend a great deal of time interacting with different agents like public servants, users or the private sector.

Planning for the month ahead

What do you think are some of the biggest challenges faced by LabGob? How do you overcome them?

As part of Laboratorio de Gobierno’s mission to understand and solve public issues, Laboratorio de Gobierno will work to instill a new culture in government. It will work to create a movement of people that can take up this new culture and make it their own  both inside and outside government; and it will work to imagine, design and support the implementation of changes in public services that are perceived by the citizenry as relevant and useful. The ultimate challenge for us will be to move from promise to implementation in each of these areas of work.

GobLab has been mandated with enabling a certain number of prototypes to scale. What areas of public services will you be looking at first and how will your team work to achieve your goals?

We started our work with a demonstrative project in the health area, in a district called Recoleta, in Santiago de Chile. This has been taking shape and now is one of our core projects. In parallel, we have been prioritising scoping out new projects. For the past four months we have been identifying and refining these priority areas and deciding how our team can most effectively work as change agents on behalf of our public services.

Our strategy is to create more lasting and sustained impact beyond the scope of any singular innovation project. To achieve our goals our team will work to support and equip Chile's public servants and our stakeholders with the tools, skills and foresight needed to effectively tackle our most pressing challenges.

What advice would you give to other governments executives thinking of setting up an innovation lab of their own?

The most important thing is to have a model of governance that guarantees that the decisions that are being taken in the Lab are in tune with government strategies. In this way, the Lab will be empowered to imagine and experiment with the new services of the future, in the highest priority areas of government.


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Sophie Reynolds

Sophie Reynolds

Sophie Reynolds

Former Senior Researcher - Public and Social Innovation

Sophie was a Senior Researcher in Nesta’s Policy and Research unit. She is now Director of Sophie Reynolds Research & Consultancy.

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