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Government as a platform, or how open innovation can help modernize public administration

The public sector has long operated in isolation, developing methods and solutions of its own. In recent decades, however, interactions with the private sector have increased, whether through the growing role of consulting firms or in the form of public-private partnerships. Today, this collaboration is taking on a whole new dimension by integrating other stakeholders, including the users of public services. The emergence of open innovation models is redefining the methods and spirit of public action. Government is reinventing itself as an innovation platform.

June 2016
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Executive Summary

In contemporary societies, accustomed, as they are, to a high level of service and responsiveness the public service is under pressure. It is not merely a question of modernizing and improving efficiency, but also of taking advantage of digital technology. The challenge is to integrate the world’s increased digitization, not only as a source of constraints, but also of new possibilities.

Across the globe, public agencies are playing catch-up by undertaking major digital transformation projects.

Even if these transformation projects are usually supported by specially dedicated units, the modernization of public action increasingly calls upon our collective intelligence. Public administration is mobilizing all stakeholders to devise solutions for improving the quality and efficiency of the public sector. These solutions often provide pragmatic responses to specific problems. Collaborative processes are allowing for the development of new services and more efficient modes of organization, but also for the development of new tools and new methods.

France provides a textbook case of this process of modernization. Known for its technocratic, top-down organization and centralized administration, France was not the most likely country to engage in shared innovative approaches and the joint development of new services. But the large projects of digital transformation that were launched as part of its “platform government” policy by the Secrétariat général à la modernisation de l’action publique (General Secretariat for the Modernization of Public Action) are unmistakable signs of a real cultural revolution.

Two examples may serve as illustration.

The first is particularly symbolic. In his book The Age of Multitude (2012), co-authored by Nicolas Colin, Henri Verdier developed the idea that the state is meant to reinvent itself on the model of a platform. By taking over the direction of Etalab, a structure created to support the powerful movement toward the opening up of public data, Verdier became, in effect, the country’s Chief Technical Officer. Open data is recognized at the highest level of administration as a development issue, with the state striving to put data sets back into circulation in order to benefit both the economy and society as a whole.

The second example concerns user participation. France Connect, an identification and authentication mechanism allowing the user of public services to be recognized by all public agencies, is a lean startup project that has been guided from the beginning by use. Its design incorporates the feedback of future “clients”: citizens, governments, third parties... Citizen participation is crucial, because one of the challenges of France Connect is to allow citizens to exercise control over data when it is exchanged. The value and quality of future public service strongly depends on citizens’ ability to make it their own. Taking an active part in the construction of public service is the best way to guarantee this.

Open innovation, for instance, is so much more than a fad. It reflects a profound evolution in the concept of public service, which is increasingly conceived as a co-production of public administration and citizens as active participants. For this co-production to be as effective as possible, product design needs to be open to future users.

A quick look back on open innovation

The idea of open innovation was popularized by Henry Chesbrough in his book Open Innovation: The New Imperative for Creating and Profiting from Technology (2003). The author opposes a classic, linear mode of innovation – in which R&D activity is organized in a closed loop – to open innovation, which is brought about in collaboration with partners and leaves room for innovative applications or, at the very least, unexpected ones. Employing a now well-known simile, the author compares the process of innovation to a perforated funnel, which lets in good ideas and technologies from the outside while permitting secondary inventions to find practical application.


Because innovation is not decreed, but nurtured by shared experience and the exchange of ideas and talent, open innovation is widely recognized as an amplifier and a driver of innovation. The creation of value is increasingly based on the capacity of all parties to work together.

This phenomenon is illustrated by free software communities. The same spirit of co-creation is transferable to other types of immaterial production – as shown by the Wikipedia encyclopedia, which is produced through the participation of a wide network of contributors – but also to processes or material creations whose technical descriptions can be widely exchanged in digital formats, thus giving rise to the concept of “open hardware.”

Open innovation is generating an increasing number of initiatives and taking multiple forms in the public sphere. Here are a few striking examples.

Innovative communities

The Wiki spirit. Open innovation in the public sector is above all a state of mind: one that strives to be receptive, to identify the needs of all stakeholders, in order to create solutions that bring real added value to users and to be open to their suggestions.

Many governments have already implemented this type of approach. Take, for instance, the “solutions factory” of the Secrétariat général à la modernisation de l’action publique (General Secretariat for the Modernization of Public Action): a collaborative space for building simple solutions, working on a document, making recommendations on a specific theme, and nourishing ministerial work. Users are encouraged to make proposals, and, in the case of the most motivated ones, to participate in discussion workshops involving experts and public officials. There are many subjects at hand... and the administration is never afraid to ask hard questions... such as: what administrative procedures irritate you most?

Another example is the initiative of the National Gendarmerie to launch an internal Wiki, in order to centralize suggestions from all its agents, but also to put out calls for contributions to address real needs; yet another, the mission of participative innovation of the Ministry of Defense, which is proud to have supported over 1400 projects proposed by public officials since its creation in 1988.

Partnerships. Per an innovative approach, especially when it comes to developing new tools or technical devices, one needs first to check for existing solutions within the public sector or on the market, but also to take account of the potential contribution of private partners to developing new solutions. In this regard, the “innovation partnership” launched in September 2014 has opened new perspectives. This mechanism allows a public actor to develop an innovative solution in collaboration with a private actor and then to buy it, if the agreed performance and cost criteria are met, without requiring a new tender process.

The creativity, expertise and agility of private economic actors provide significant advantages that are complementary to the internal innovation potential. Some public players have understood the challenge of developing partnerships to this end. The National Institute of Geography (IGN), for example, has created an incubator of innovative projects called IGN FAB, which accepts proposals from companies wishing to develop new technologies to exploit its geographic data and create innovative services. In a similar spirit, the Direction de l’information légale et administrative (Directorate of Legal and Administrative Information) launched the “Open Law” competition to stimulate innovative projects involving access to legal and administrative information. Another exemplary initiative, the Pôle Emploi Lab, tests innovative solutions proposed by start-ups via its network, but also opens its database to third parties so that they can conceive new services by way of challenges or hackathons.

Communities. Relying on external communities can prove extremely effective in facilitating innovation processes, as some public agencies, such as the Directorate General of Customs and the National Gendarmerie, were able to experience first-hand. The latter has created a consumer application (“Stop Burglary”) with the support of an engineering school. Highly appreciated by citizens, this application was first tested at the local level, then improved, and is now available in 40 departments.

In the spirit of free software, public hospitals, for example, decided to unite in the Colibris community (“Communauté du Logiciel Libre de Santé” – Community of Free Healthcare Software), in order to develop, in collaboration with companies in the healthcare field, a software solution for hospital management that has been released under a free license: Crystal Net. New upgrades or modules are shared by all members of the community, whether public or private.

These examples illustrate how public actors can provide innovative solutions to both co-produce and promote the emergence of new services that are useful to the community.

But today the question is to go further.

The challenges of dissemination

The open innovation movement within the public sphere is underway. The challenge now is less to foster initiatives than to develop them.

An important issue is how to disseminate such initiatives within the public sphere. Experience shows that sociological factors often prevent the generalization of a successful pilot project. This question does not arise in a private company, wherein the criterion of profitability is used to decide whether or not to generalize a process, a pilot operation, etc. In the public sphere, a special effort has to be undertaken in order to disseminate new methods, by pooling what has already been accomplished by precursors and capitalizing on feedback.

But it is not only about the public sphere. Innovative solutions create even more value when they find practical applications beyond the organizations in which they were conceived. Why not go further and share innovations with third parties: companies, developers, associations, citizens? This is all the more meaningful inasmuch as these third parties have often been involved in the design process, and the concept of “common good” enables a shift from a restrictive vision of intellectual property to a much more open approach.

Let us consider technical innovations. Many public agencies develop methods, processes and technical solutions. Originally developed to meet their own needs and to facilitate their public service missions, these innovations can also be of interest to other public actors; they can be enriched and perfected within the framework of partnerships; and they can be re-appropriated by private actors for new purposes. The “open innovation” scenario is not just about the involvement of stakeholders in the development of the solution, but also its dissemination, appropriation and reworking by third parties.

To better understand the most appropriate mechanisms for promoting the dissemination of these technical innovations, the Agence du patrimoine immatériel de l’État (Agency for the Intangible Heritage of the State) has undertaken a study of a sample of innovations in collaboration with the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior. The aim was to suggest spin-off scenarios and promote innovations induced by the contributions of third parties, whether public or private. The results are instructive: They show that almost all the projects have found support in ecosystems wishing to make them their own. An interesting point: Scenarios for achieving this aim vary greatly depending on the nature of the innovation, from the transfer of “traditional” technology by patent license to broadcasting in open source.

The next step is to stimulate the exchange of good practices, the pooling and swarming of technical innovations. This goes hand-in-hand with a wider opening of public agencies to their external environment. These agencies do not just provide a service. They aim to create social and economic value: To develop the “intangible heritage” that constitutes their field of expertise and the solutions devised with and for the public. The very idea of ​public investment has thus been revitalized.

Alongside the traditional valuation methods of R&D results, such as patent licensing, new avenues, based on the free software world, also need to be explored. A free and open mode of dissemination can help optimize the socio-economic impact of innovation, promoting broad ownership by other actors (both public and private) and, where appropriate, leading to a chain of innovation by generating secondary inventions. The software suite developed by the public hospitals is a great example: Its free dissemination enhances its value by creating new applications and transforming it into a standard of reference.

In some cases, depending on the degree of maturity of an innovation, its technological level and the value chain of which it forms part, swarming according to the principles of open source may prove more effective. The open hardware strategies adopted by some companies or associations show that this observation is not limited to software. A site like GitHub, the first global platform for open software dissemination, is increasingly used to deliver technical drawings, procedures, electronic circuits... and to allow third parties to reproduce an invention – for example, an urban wind turbine – under a TAPR open hardware license.

The digital world is an essential vector for duplicating, distributing and sharing innovations. But this “push” approach to dissemination is hardly sufficient on its own to trigger co-creation processes. Rather, it needs to be accompanied by physical meetings between stakeholders, in order to build trust, promote exchanges in an informal setting, and boost collective thinking around shared interests.

The emergence of co-creation spaces such as Fab Labs or Living Labs responds to this need.

Public agencies can surely benefit from this type of approach. A public body may initiate exchanges in innovative communities by organizing competitions in the form of challenges (on the model of the platform launched by the Obama administration a few years back) or hackathons, such as the increasingly numerous hackathons that have developed around open data.

It can also bring together stakeholders around a specific theme during meet-ups: informal meetings convened to develop exchanges among members of a given community. French authorities increasingly resort to this type of event, including those involved in the opening up of public data.

Heritage can, in effect, be seen as a stock that needs to be protected and developed. This is especially true of the patents model – and beyond a defensive and somewhat static vision of IP – aiming at the regulation of the flow of innovations. By adopting an open platform strategy, the focus is bet on flows rather than stocks.

This is a very profound evolution. On one hand, we have a traditional Hegelian conception of the prominent place of the state in society; on the other, the fate of the public sector is dependent on a recovery plan and the sharing of “the commons” that come from a totally different tradition.


Openness, informal exchanges, innovative communities... Open innovation contributes to an increasingly open and collaborative conception of the state. By rethinking itself as a platform, the state interacts better with society and economic actors. New initiatives will undoubtedly create new reflexes!