Cambodia needs to invest in public sector innovation

Khmer Times, 3 September 2018

Speculations on the members of the new cabinet aside, the main task of the new Cambodian government is to deliver what it has promised, especially in terms of raising the living standard of its citizens, delivering better public services, and improving good governance. A new Rectangular Strategy Phase IV will be adopted to outline key direct government’s reform agenda.

Vision and ideas are plenty. But the main challenge for the government is “implementation”. Some have expressed doubts and skepticism that the sixth-mandate government, after the July 29 election, cannot deliver much due to the lack of leadership, creativity, and innovation in the public sector. It is argued here that public sector innovation is the key to unlock Cambodia’s development potential and to materialise its development vision to become a higher-middle-income country by 2030 and high-income country by 2050.

The government must continually adapt and innovate to address emerging issues and challenges facing the society if it wants to catch up with global and regional trends particularly amidst the uncertainties caused by the fourth industrial revolution. Some countries have already developed their industry policy 4.0 or digital economy strategy to stay competitive. But for the case of Cambodia, public sector innovation matters the most given the development model in Cambodia remains a state-led development model.

The government hence must create a favorable, enabling environment for innovation in the public sector. Here are suggestions for four measures for the government to consider in its efforts to improve its public service delivery through the implementation of public sector innovation.

Firstly, investing in human capital. The government needs to invest more in capacity building for public sector workers in order to transform them to become the catalysts and enablers of public sector innovation.

Short-term training on public sector innovation should be developed, in partnership with development partners, with the aim to equip public servants with systems thinking and project design and execution, such as the capacity to identify and understand the problem and the potential drivers of change, and harness diverse views. It is critical to understand the interconnections and interrelationships and the underlying dynamics of the issues that we are facing, and based on which we can develop more relevant, holistic solutions.

Secondly, building a knowledge regime on innovation. A knowledge regime is an organisational and institutional machinery that generates data analysis and policy recommendations that influence policymaking and public debate. Policy makers need accurate, adequate, and unbiased information to make a responsive and effective policy.

Knowledge and analysis on public sector innovation in Cambodia are very limited and fragmented. There is no institution or platform to document and share knowledge on the issue. Therefore, the public sector, private sector, academic community, think tanks, and media can work together to build a knowledge regime that can influence public policy and multiply policy impacts through open dialogues, information sharing, knowledge building and sharing. As for now, state agencies tend to keep information for themselves, without sharing it with other related stakeholders. And there is no mechanism to share lessons learned among different agencies.

Thirdly, developing innovation-friendly rules and regulation. The government must reduce and eliminate rules that constraint innovation, while creating an enabling environment for creative and innovative ideas to bloom. Rigidity of regulations and formal rules might limit the development of public service innovation.

Fourthly, leveraging partnerships among state agencies and between the public sector with the private sector and civil society. The Cambodian government has created a public-private consultation and used to organize a government-civil society forum to promote mutual understanding, identify issues and challenges, and provide solutions. However, these mechanisms lack substantive consultation and also lack the mechanism to measure their impacts.

The government should empower the existing government-private sector forum and revive and energize the government-civil society forum so that ideational flowers can bloom. These mechanisms can function as a feedback loop to provide policy inputs to the government.

Finally, political will matters the most in promoting public sector innovation. There are some obstacles to overcome and risks to face. Yet as long as there is a will, there is a way. The new cabinet must embrace reforms and innovation in order to meet people’s expectations and to maintain its legitimacy.

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