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What can England’s new mayors learn from the transformation of Seoul city government?

The Mayor of Seoul has earnt a reputation as one of the world’s leading champions of social innovation. Since Won Soon Park’s election in 2011, he has overseen a remarkable transformation from City Hall into the furthest reaches of Seoul, brought about by a relentless commitment to citizen engagement and catalysing the social economy. As England welcomes the next wave of directly elected mayors to take control of newly empowered city regions, there are some important lessons that can be learnt from Mayor Park’s efforts.

Mayor Park’s election was, itself, impressive in its unlikeliness. He was a political outsider who ran as an independent (he had previously been a human rights lawyer, community activist and social entrepreneur), propelled by effective social media and funded mainly by small individual donations. His campaign slogan “Citizens are the Mayor” captured his promise to keep the voice of citizens at the heart of decision-making and caught the public imagination. He tapped into a public mood that saw innovation and change as essential to addressing many of the difficult social problems caused by rapid economic advancement. Since being elected, Mayor Park has “striven to create innovative ways of governing that are based on cooperation and collaboration”.

Having only emerged from military dictatorship in the 1980s, this has been a big shift in the approach to governing in South Korea. Mayor Park is the story of a radical outsider creating change from the inside.  At Nesta we’ve been following this work closely: we featured the Seoul Social Innovation Bureau in our i-teams report, and the Sharing City Seoul initiative in our work on leading smart cities.

In November this year, I was in Seoul for the Transforming Urban Lives through Social Innovation conference, organised by Seoul Metropolitan Government. There were some excellent presentations, and while I was there I also caught up with a number of the people leading Mayor Park’s work in City Hall.

Despite some obvious differences between South Korea and the UK, many of the challenges facing Seoul are echoed here, such as an ageing population reliant on the state for its care, youth unemployment and rising inequality.  Across the huge number of initiatives Mayor Park has launched, I felt there were some useful lessons we could draw from their experience. In particular, in the context of the current devolution agenda it was a timely reminder that power should travel from the local level to the community and citizen, not just from central to local.

So what can we learn? I spoke to officials in charge of big data, public communication, the sharing economy, and the social economy. I’ve drawn out three examples from Seoul’s experience which English local authorities could find valuable.

Engagement with citizens must be extensive, inclusive and have a visible link to change on the ground

Mayor Park has characterised himself as the ‘Listening Mayor’. He created multiple opportunities for citizens to engage with him, symbolised by the sculpture of a giant ear outside City Hall through which people can record messages for the government. This is an inclusive strategy with the aim of making sure everyone has the opportunity to share their views with government, for example:

  • Online and offline communication channels were simplified – from 31 down to one offline and one online channel - to make talking to government easier.

  • A mobile city hall tours neighbourhoods with particularly acute problems to gather views from across Seoul.

  • ‘One day Mayors’ and Deputy Mayors are selected from all sections of Seoul’s society to give their views.

  • A Speakers Corner was created in City Hall where people can record video messages for the government.

  • A vote is held among citizens on the issues most important to them, which are then ranked.

  • Information is public and open by default, bringing greater transparency across all levels of administration.

But this is only half the story. Engagement, listening and consultation risk dissatisfaction unless there is a visible link to how this leads to changes on the ground.  In Seoul, every department within the Municipal Government is sent all citizen feedback relevant to its work and must consider each suggestion, reflecting it in policy where possible and offering a personal reply.  Since 2011 there have been around 53,000 comments, and around 4000 policy ideas suggested. Of these, between 60-70% have been reflected in government policies. One of the biggest success stories is the introduction of the night bus, which topped the annual chart of issues voted most important to the citizens of Seoul before it was introduced in 2013.

Mayor Park has also given citizens the chance to decide how the city spends its money through the Residents’ Participatory Budgeting System. Currently 2.5% of the total city budget is allocated according to the votes of citizens, with plans to increase this percentage over the coming years. The administration is also extending citizen participation directly to city governance by creating a special team of high-level citizen officials to oversee decision-making.

Big data and technology can result in high quality, cost effective services if citizens’ needs are the driving force

The idea for the night bus came through vocal citizen demand, but its development was a combination of public engagement and sophisticated big data work. Having taken the decision to implement a night bus, the government had to do this on a shoestring and with no prior knowledge of which routes it should serve.  In the end it was implemented quickly and at minimal expense to the city, yet has been extremely popular with citizens. The key to this was in using big data to answer the question of what citizens really needed from a night bus service.

The task for the big data team was to figure out where people were most likely to need to catch the night bus, and where they would need to go. The big data team worked with telecoms companies to analyse call data to see where mobile calls were made during the hours of midnight and 5am. The telecoms companies matched this to the billing address of the callers, anonymised and aggregated the data, and then passed it on to the city government. This data was analysed to find the routes of expected heaviest demand for a night bus. These routes were then optimised to ensure they could serve as many people as possible.

The result is a night bus service which covers 9 routes, using just 30 buses. This compares with 7,500 buses in operation during the day time. This comparatively small provision has the ability to cater for 42% of total demand, and following its introduction women have reported feeling safer and are now more likely to socialise and travel later into the night.

In addition to this, Seoul has used big data approaches to respond to other citizens’ needs. Data analysis optimised the location of support centres for employment opportunities, and leisure centres, for older/retired people. To improve the city-provided taxi service for citizens with disabilities, data science helped optimise the routes each taxi takes so that it spend less time without passengers. This has reduced the average waiting time from over 30 minutes to 23 minutes, without adding any more taxis. To have made this improvement by adding new taxis would have cost an estimated $1.5m a year. Again, these are examples of problems well-defined by what citizens said they needed, and answered by intelligent use of big data.

Government must play a proactive role in nurturing the social economy to have the best chance of solving complex problems

Seoul’s social economy and social innovation landscape was, until recently, in its infancy. Mayor Park recognised that in order for social entrepreneurs, charities and social enterprises to work alongside government to solve problems there was a significant role for the city government to play in supporting them. A multi-faceted strategy was developed, which is underpinned by a c.£35 million Social Investment Fund composed of public and private sector contributions. The fund makes loans for social projects, supports the development of a social investment infrastructure, finances social economy enterprises and, in future, will invest in Social Impact Bonds.

The Investment Fund is being used to develop a supportive ecosystem for social enterprises, via 8 designated ‘Social Economy Special Zones’. These are formed around theme-based clusters of social enterprises, such as for social care, co-housing, solar power or school co-operatives. The city recognised that companies are not efficiently connecting to the community or to each other, so the fund is being used to create a network that creates cluster economies within the districts. Special coordinators spearhead cooperation between businesses and provide consultancy support. Financial support comes in the form of project-specific investment, contingent on companies forming new partnerships with each other. Within the districts there are also projects to co-locate similar businesses, and to provide social entrepreneurship support (such as the Root Impact and D-WELL programme ‘Community House for young changemakers’ in Seoul Forest).

The Sharing Economy in Seoul has also been heavily supported by the government. Initiatives to make better use of resources and specific projects range from the successful SoCar car sharing scheme through to websites like Billiji that help people share things with their neighbours, to schemes that match students struggling to find affordable housing with older residents who have a spare room. City Hall has public space which can be used by citizens and organisations, and 800 other public buildings can also be used by the public when not in use.

Hopes are understandably high for the Social Investment Fund, though it is too early to assess whether some of these schemes have been a success. The level of thought behind the strategy, and the scale of political and financial support being given to the social economy, was impressive. However, it’s clear that rigorous evaluation of impact will be a crucial aspect of the programme for both Seoul and other governments with ambitions to grow their social economies.  

More generally, the work in Seoul is by no means complete. The city continues to face difficult urban challenges, and not all of Mayor Park’s initiatives are popular with the public (such as the current debate about the adoption of a Youth Guarantee, modelled on a similar scheme in France). There is still some way to go before the culture of public institutions can be said to have truly changed. There remain bureaucratic and financial inflexibilities which stand in the way of bottom-up innovation within the city government, frustrating some officials. Creating more of a fundamental change in the culture and operation of the city government should be a longer-term aim of Mayor Park.

For now, this shouldn’t detract from Seoul’s achievements. It is a demonstration that social change can happen quickly given strong leadership from a visible, popular mayor with a mandate for reform. Seoul’s experience also underlines benefits of finding ways to amplify the voice of citizens to uncover their needs, and then putting these at the heart of a wide range of initiatives around, for example, big data, technology and social innovation. This is becoming a recurring theme in much of Nesta’s government innovation work, and is something we will be continuing to explore in 2016.   


With thanks to Jin Man Kim, Jinwoo Jung, Ki Byoung Kim,  Seon Ae Kwon, Hwi-Jin Han and Kyungsun Chung

Photos: Tom Symons


Tom Symons

Tom Symons

Tom Symons

Deputy Director, fairer start mission

Tom is the deputy mission director for the fairer start mission at Nesta.

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