Learn more about how governments and public institutions can open from the inside by enabling open government innovations. Raúl Oliván, a civil servant and the founder of Aragon Open Government Lab, has been hacking the public system for over ten years. At the age of 27 he had a personal and professional crisis and decided that nothing would be worse than a government doing the same things for the next 30 years. He has been creatively dynamiting it ever since.

Oliván currently directs the LAAAB, a Trojan device that opens public institutions from within. Its work covers civic participation, new technologies, capacity building, activism and real-time accountability in a region of 1.3 million inhabitants.









What is the Aragon Open Government Lab (LAAAB)?

LAAAB is a government laboratory designed to experiment, co-create and reflect on public policies in a different way. I like to say that laboratories work like Trojan devices that open institutions from the inside, like drawbridges that connect worlds that used to be walled, and find a mixed space for exchange. In practice, our most important line of action is the co-creation of public policies and laws. When the regional Government of Aragon works on a draft law, it adds a collective intelligence layer through civic participation that improves and legitimises the law. We also have other projects linked to social innovation such as CVOL, a digital platform that recognises volunteering capacities; the Social Impact Academy, a project acceleration school for young activists; Visual Gob, a new real-time accountability tool, and Future is Now (FIN), which is a project comprising new technologies applied to democratic innovation.


How did LAAAB emerge?

My previous experience with Zaragoza Activa (ZGZ Activa), a municipal ecosystem for entrepreneurship and social innovation, was the seed for LAAAB. I coordinated that project over the course of ten years and learned that society had changed, that the new digital citizens needed to relate to institutions in a different way. At that point, Spain was suffering from ethics exhaustion resulting from postmodernity and the way it stimulated individual competitivity and acceleration. These feelings gave way to a new common ethic where the community individuals have a need to belong somewhere, to identify with their peers. At the LAAAB we work to transform the public administration by adapting it to this new reality.


How did you manage to get the support of the public administration and the citizens for the project?

Following the 15M citizen movement in 2011 in Spain, the public institutions saw the pressing need to innovate our democracy, to apply social innovation postulates to their own architectures. They longed to speak their citizens’ language. At the time, the existent mistrust crisis in our society led ZGZ Activa to start working on the convergence of those two realities: on the one side, the institutions willing to speak the citizens’ language and on the other, citizens eager to be listened to and participate in those institutions. Today, LAAAB is the continuation of that work, the bridge between those two realities and we feel that we have the support of both sides. 


How did the LAAAB adapt to the complex demands of democratic innovation?

Little by little, we produced our very own model using both old and new things. For example, we were inspired by the only model that seemed valid at that time: Silicon Valley and the Anglo-Saxon entrepreneurial ecosystems. However, replicating those in Spain was senseless. So we set our eyes on Greece and Argentina, places where the crisis had awoken more imaginative alternatives for cooperation. We also adopted inverse innovation, a tactic that enables you to innovate in an agile and low-cost way, as well as foster unexpected itineraries.

We also used prototypes that provided quick wins that helped to illustrate the change of model we were seeking. Prototypes can be scalable without much risk – you learn by doing and can study the scalability of the projects. A clear example is how we co-design public services using a methodology that co-creates policies, also at a micro level. Today, in collaboration with the CADI (Aragon’s Centre of Industrial Design), we bring citizens and designers together with civil servants to redesign, for example, an employment office. This prototype has already enabled us to see how the methodology works to, subsequently, publish a more ambitious call. This is now a reality and 13 regional departments have presented their projects to be redesigned in a collaborative way.  


Was the LAAAB an unexpected itinerary?

Although I had always had a clear vision of where I wanted to go, I understand laboratories as mutant devices that escape from univocal definitions, a place where things flow. Network Theory proves that a certain degree of randomness, of freedom and chaos, results in a bigger collective creativity. It is not possible to have innovation and creativity in a hermetic, closed, pyramidal and hierarchical context such as public administration. It is necessary to leave some space for improbable connections. 


What have been the most important challenges and how did you overcome them?

Getting your team to share a common vision is a must. I believe I have achieved this with passion and the conviction that what I am doing is the right thing. I have also tried to develop a complementary team that integrates people who know much more than me about certain topics. I have strongly involved them and when a lack of faith, mistakes or tedious bureaucracy arise I strengthen the leadership and underline the LAAAB’s goal as clearly as possible.

On the other hand, whenever we speak about hacking we always forget the enormous potential that the public sphere has. It usually entails a high percentage of the national GDP, and a small change in the way that civil servants work, for example, can be radical for citizens. However, innovating in governments is less sexy and more costly. In addition, if something goes wrong, someone will be ticked off and the relevant government punished. My experience is that you must take risks and not be afraid of failure. I made this decision when I was 27 years old following a strong professional and personal crisis. I thought there would be nothing worse than a government doing the same thing over the next 30 years, so I have chosen to creatively dynamite the administration ever since. 


What is next for the LAAAB? Can it scale up?

The LAAAB is very soon going to take a giant step. After two years of work we are opening a new physical space in town to meet, debate, play and experiment where citizens will be able to join and help us co-produce government. We will also be launching a Mobile Lab very soon that will take our participation processes to Aragon’s regional localities (more than 700 villages and towns). On the other hand, we put a lot of effort into documenting our work in the Blog LAAAB, aimed at liberating code and allowing our work to be copied for free. I believe that we should modify the European law so that everything produced with public money should be open-coded, not just software but also manuals and methodologies. It would be revolutionary if the knowledge of all civil servants could be thought of as a common good, just like the internet, rivers or beaches. Open to every individual.

In addition, we are constantly directly or indirectly assessing other administrations through conferences, meetings or emails from Spain and Latin America especially. For example, our Easy Government project, which will provide transparency and participation to young disabled people but has yet to be launched, has already received some interest from another administration.


How do you manage to hack the system?

The Hacking Inside Black Book that I coordinated some time ago covers precisely this issue: how to open institutions from within. I am now working on the document Institutions that learn, a dissertation that includes six vectors that help to hack the system: to open, go mainstream, to prototype, digitalise, co-create and accelerate. Put simply, at the LAAAB we change the system by opening barriers, we go mainstream by mixing knowledge, we co-create through collective thought or crowd logic, we accelerate by reducing time and distances, we prototype to illustrate change and digitalise to enable access.


What advice would you give to someone that has a social innovation in mind?

I would encourage him/her not to be afraid of failure, and to have lots of fun by experimenting!

Interviewed by Pilar Balet Robinson

Pilar Balet Robinson is a communication consultant specialising in social innovation. Together with Raúl Oliván, she has worked on different public projects involving civic participation, transparency, public accountability, collaborative economy and entrepreneurship.
Founder of La mar de gente Comunicación and current Communication Coordinator of Stone Soup Consulting, her goal is to optimise the communication of organisations and companies focused on their social impact.

Social media handles: Twitter | LinkedIn

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