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Service très public: the administration of the future is being developed in the staatslabor  

“staatslabor walk-in: introduction to agile methodology” workshop. Photo: John Patrick Walder.
“staatslabor walk-in: introduction to agile methodology” workshop. Photo: John Patrick Walder.

Switzerland enjoys its position in international rankings that list it as the most innovative country in the world. But because administrations work well here, there is less pressure to be innovative in the public sector than in other countries, believes Alenka Bonnard, one of the founders of the staatslabor. So what is to be done? Found a lab where things can be tried out; a platform in which new ideas can be exchanged on how the apparatus of state administration could work in the 21st century.

Blockchain and administration?
For example through a blockchain. While the concept has not yet really reached the general public – and if it has, only in connection with the ominous bitcoins, the currency for the digital age – alert minds have been aware for some time that the technology can do much more than just revolutionise banking. 

A concept that can make transactions transparent and trustworthy, without middlemen (or women)? This calls for additional fields of application. Isn’t every signed contract, every agreement a kind of transaction – even if it doesn’t necessarily include a transfer of assets? And doesn’t every citizen enter into a series of “barter transactions” with the state? This business could all be handled by blockchains in a way that is radically different: more direct, faster, less bureaucratic – and in no way be less reliable.

“staatslabor à table: blockchains and administrations” event.
“staatslabor à table: blockchains and administrations” event.

This soon became clear during a round table discussion in Zurich’s Zentrum Karl der Grosse, at which the staatslabor recently brought together visionaries in the field of blockchains with representatives of government authorities. After a few input presentations and some good food and wine, the discussions soon became quite heated. The land registry? Probably soon won’t be necessary anymore. Voting? Could also easily be done via blockchain. It quickly became apparent that it’s almost impossible to keep track of the technology’s potential. 

Defining possible spheres of activity
It was too soon to settle on many concrete ideas, especially for the specialists from the administrative sector, but that wasn’t the point. The staatslabor is interested in that potential for innovation and collaboration that has not yet been exhausted, that has not yet even really been investigated. It sees its mission as being a place for exchanging ideas. During the initial phase, the staatslabor is concentrating on defining possible spheres of activity in a way that is open to all sides. The aim of the lab is therefore still more or less pure research – but always already with an eye on application. Consequently, ideas that show a lot of promise will then be worked out much more concretely with the appropriate partner. 

The first real result is already in the works: concrete collaboration with a federal office has been developed based on a workshop at the Impact Hub in Bern on agile project management – the federal human resources department has expressed great interest in learning more about this subject from the more innovative private sector, an area in which the staatslabor can deliver valuable input. Because the competition in finding the best minds is intense: “We want to make sure administrations also hold good cards in the game of personnel poker,” says Bonnard, adding that it is damaging when good people switch to the private sector, because the federal government’s structures are too inflexible. And so, within a week, a relaxed meeting over lunch turned into a close collaboration. 

"Engagement Migros sets loose ideas that otherwise would not be implemented."

The staatslabor’s own way of searching for collaborative innovation makes it a showcase project for Engagement Migros, says Stefan Schöbi, head of the development fund. He especially likes it that the founders want to have an effect on the public sector with this project, given the fact that “Switzerland already set standards in this area 150 years ago.” He sees in it the perfect “point of contact” for young initiatives that want to revive this agility in the area of political operations and administration. He also considers the way the staatslabor was founded to be almost “classic” for the work that Engagement Migros does. While scouting for projects, Engagement Migros became aware of the founders and the project was then jointly developed. “In this way, Engagement Migros sets loose ideas – providing consulting as they develop – that otherwise would not be implemented,” says Stefan Schöbi.

Alenka Bonnard, co-founder of the staatslabor. Photo: John Patrick Walder.
Alenka Bonnard, co-founder of the staatslabor. Photo: John Patrick Walder.

And this is more or less also how the staatslabor works. It has an eye towards the future, even as it networks and is anchored very much in the now. It knows which options digital change offers. For example, it wants to figure out what kind of effect swarm intelligence could have. And it wants to investigate how the public sector can be more strongly oriented toward the user, because in the 21st century, even administrations are used to talking about “customers”. To this end, the staatslabor takes innovative methodologies and technologies from the private sector and develops them further to create added value for administrations as well.

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