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IDB report recommends ways public sector innovation labs can improve impact in Latin America and the Caribbean

The Inter-American Development Bank presented a study on innovation labs in Latin America and the Caribbean, identifying key challenges such as low tolerance for failure and narrow public sector operational mandates.

The report was issued during the IDB’s Third Open Government Dialogue of ministers and high level officials from the region, held on October 13 and 14.

“Innovation is a necessary ingredient to make public sector institutions stronger and more modern,” said Carlos Santiso, the head of the Division of Institutional Capacity of the State at the IDB. “People want better government services and these labs can accelerate the incorporation of innovative ideas. But we have to know how to best use these labs.”

The study was based on 24 surveys of the heads of innovation labs, two case studies (in Uruguay and Brazil), private and public documents as well as impact evaluation projects. The report includes a theoretical framework that identifies factors tthat help bring about more innovation, drawn from best practices worldwide.

Innovation labs in the region seldom rigorously evaluate their results or resort to random controlled experiments. “It is absolutely essential that labs be shielded from sanctions in case something goes wrong,” said Nicolas Dassen, an open government specialist at the IDB and one of the authors of the report. “The laboratories need to generate more capacity in design experiments and impact evaluations,” he added.

Many labs are relegated to the fringes of the public sector. To gain more credibility and relevance, the study provides concrete recommendations to navigate not only the inherent risks of trying out new things but also the potential political downsides of innovating.

The study recommends that labs strengthen their capacity to process large amounts of data and position themselves before other government entities as innovation champions. The heads of innovation laboratories need a legal mandate to access information they require, and they must take into account the political and budgetary sensibilities of other government institutions. Starting out with easy wins also helps build credibility.

The Third Open Government Dialogue was was organized by the IDB together with the Secretary of Transparency of the Presidency of the Republic of Colombia.

The meeting was inaugurated by the President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos, who made a forceful call to end public sector corruption. “Every time a public sector employee abuses his power to usurp public sector resources, he puts the wellbeing of citizens at risk and threatens their basic rights,” said Santos, a Nobel Peace Prize winner. “It is for this reason that corruption is one of the worst of evils and crimes.”

Camilo Enciso, Transparency Secretary of the Presidency, said the "evolution of computer technology has allowed us to provide tools that citizens, from their computers and mobile phones, weigh in on the decisions taken by their governments”.

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The Inter-American Development Bank is devoted to improving lives. Established in 1959, the IDB is a leading source of long-term financing for economic, social and institutional development in Latin America and the Caribbean. The IDB also conducts cutting-edge research and provides policy advice, technical assistance and training to public and private sector clients throughout the region.