Building a Culture of Citizen-Led Governance: the Seoul Innovation Bureau | Big Bold Cities

Building a Culture of Citizen-Led Governance: the Seoul Innovation Bureau

three colored squaresBuilding a Culture of Citizen-Led Governance: the Seoul Innovation Bureau


Like many innovation offices, the Seoul Innovation Bureau was created under the mayor’s direct authority and with special flexibility to hire technical experts directly, outside of the rigorous and highly competitive civil-service exam system. Mayor Park Won Soon, a longtime civic activist, has used that talent pipeline to bring in people with public-engagement skills; there are designers, communications people, and grassroots organizers. They are serving a mission of making city governance more citizen-led and citizen-oriented. To engage long-serving civil servants, there have been explicit efforts to expose staff to outside perspectives through shared experiences, and to reframe achievement and failure.

Democratic Challenge

 Government structures and processes that facilitate top-down, government-led development often do not include mechanisms for open and participatory governance. “Mayor Park is highlighting that our administration is built upon a structure of distrust,” the Seoul Innovation Bureau Director General Jun Hyo Kwan said. “So we have to change the structure toward trust and partnership.”

How Did They Do It?

Placing the Seoul Innovation Bureau in context is particularly important for understanding its approach. Democracy is relatively new in the Republic of Korea; Seoul has only elected its local officials since 1995, following the end of military rule. Civic engagement was suppressed or hollowed out during the military period in two ways: a strong central authority built opaque, non-consultative government systems in order to implement rapid, top-down development plans; and rapid economic growth transformed social conditions and relations virtually overnight, partly disrupting traditional communities and increasing social isolation.

Throughout this transition, Seoul’s current mayor Park Won-soon worked as a democracy activist and human rights lawyer. Among other roles, he led an anti-corruption watchdog group and a philanthropic foundation, and founded a participatory think tank. Having never held elected office, he ran for mayor of Seoul in an off-cycle election in 2011 to replace a mayor who had resigned. Park leveraged social media to raise early money and activate a young voting base. When he won, his victory was viewed as a sharp rejection of the political establishment.

According to Jun, the Innovation Bureau’s director, Park’s priority as mayor was to re-orient the public administration toward citizens, as a means of recovering the sense of community which had been lost, and as a means of giving citizens greater power to identify and solve social issues. The Sharing City initiative was part of this, to promote community-building around the distribution and use of urban resources. The Innovation Bureau was also charged with tapping into the activist and NGO communities to generate policy innovation on social issues.

“Cities are faced with many challenges,” Jun said. “In order to solve challenges in a wise way, we need to come up with totally new approaches … In terms of solving the problem of motivating citizens to actively engage, we have to boldly make changes to improve citizens’ authority. The new system should ensure active participation and authority among citizens.”

It started with listening to citizens, sometimes literally, to signal new thinking on who has expertise when it comes to social issues. “The best policy is in the mind of citizens,” said Mr. Yoo Yeon Shik, Director General of the Public Communications Bureau, summing up the mayor’s approach. “The best policy is in the heart of citizens. So we try to hear more and more from citizens.” Some of the early engagement initiatives of the Bureau included:

  • Publishing policy decisions automatically.
  • Establishing the Cheong-Chek (Policy by Listening) Forums—regular, structured deep-dives into specific policy areas—to engage residents and experts in setting policy agendas, generating ideas and identifying relevant resources and expertise in the community.
  • Launching online tools to collect complaints, intelligence and blue-sky ideas.
  • Establishing neighborhood centers to build the capacity of community actors--including formal NGOs, youth groups and grassroots go-getters--to engage productively with city governance.
  • Establishing a youth-policy network, with hundreds of private-sector participants discussing policy, and a youth council, to monitor city policy and make recommendations.

In addition to these public-facing engagement programs, Park was also interested in administrative reform. A governance task force was created at the outset of his administration to develop a plan for supporting grassroots participation and funneling the outcomes from those activities into policy. Procedures and regulations were reviewed and reformed. A hiring process was created to recruit ‘governance advisors’ which would be embedded with city teams to advise them on public engagement. Public-consultation committees which had previously been limited to experts were opened up to ordinary residents and given additional authority. The task force’s function lives on via these committees as well as a three-person governance advisory group, the Innovation Bureau’s Civil Governance Division, and other structures.

Jun said that it was possible to make administrative changes quickly because of the mayor’s strong leadership--but that doesn’t necessarily translate into lasting impact.

“Strong leadership is not enough to transform the administrative culture,” Jun said. “We are not sure whether this will lead to real cultural change. There are some traditional practices within public administration, so …we have to think about how we can encourage self-commitment by public servants.”

The Bureau has put a strong emphasis on staff learning, but not in the sense of technical training on how civil servants can do their jobs differently. Rather, the objective is to expose civil servants to outside perspectives and help them expand their understanding of problems and issues from a resident’s point of view.

“In Korea, the gap between civil servants and citizens is very wide,” Jun said. “The civil servants do not have a direct sense of what is going on in the private sector. We need to help them, and then they can understand.”

The Bureau wants to bridge that gap by creating shared experiences among civil servants, private-sector professionals and residents. The Bureau’s public-engagement programs are one vehicle for these shared experiences. But the Bureau’s own hiring practices and the staffing of its neighborhood centers are another important source of cross-sector collaboration. Like the mayor himself, Jun and many of his colleagues came directly to city government from careers in the private sector, bypassing the standard civil-service process.

“Seoul Innovation Bureau is unique in terms of composition,” Jun said. “We have people who came from the private sector and when we established neighborhood centers, there are many people there who have private sector experience. These people can serve as intermediaries.”

How Is It Going?

The Seoul Innovation Bureau’s governance programs were well-positioned to support and channel an uprising of civic energy from the Candlelight Revolution of 2016-17. The programs provide mechanisms for newly minted political and community activists to engage on local issues, and people affiliated with those programs have run for office and started new political parties.

But in spinning up or supporting programs around community organizing, policy development and sharing resources, officials and observers have identified deeper structural issues or trade-offs that need thoughtful approaches. These include:

  • Regulating for innovation. The Bureau’s leadership believes that Seoul’s regulations and legal frameworks are insufficient for supporting innovation activities--a common complaint among civic innovators. For example, civil-service discretion is very limited, with rules and regulations governing behavior down to the micro level. A more flexible structure could allow for public-private partnerships and vest more authority in committees or other deliberative bodies.
  • Accountability. The incentives and accountability mechanisms that govern civil servants’ behavior have not kept pace with what city employees are being asked or expected to do with regard to innovation and citizen engagement. “This is what public servants say a lot--they can make a decision with citizens, but if something goes wrong, [the public servants] are responsible for the failure,” Jun said. “It seems as though we have not equally distributed powers among different actors within society.” Jun suggested that a bilateral committee of government officials and citizens could create shared accountability, as well as continuity across different political administrations. In the near term, Seoul is discussing how to build cooperative governance into the job-performance measures for civil servants, so that working more closely with residents would boost one’s chances of recognition and promotion. Conversely, failing to engage residents would have negative consequences. “Mayor Park emphasized that the employee who fails in his work can be tolerated, however the public employee who fails in engaging with citizens cannot be tolerated,” Jun said. Independent researchers have proposed that up to 40 to 50 percent of an employee’s evaluation should be tied to the amount of effort put toward involving stakeholders in governmental processes.
  • Breaking down silos. Civil society engagement often raises a key policy insight -- that real-world issues are not delineated according to tidy specializations (e.g. transportation, education, sanitation) but must be addressed holistically. However, managing effective coordination and collaboration across government departments is a widespread and ongoing challenge. In Seoul, embedding governance advisors within city teams was well-intentioned, but not as successful as hoped. According to one metro official, teams which were familiar with public engagement didn’t experience much value-add from an advisor. And for teams where effective cooperation and coordination were required to improve engagement, the advisors lacked sufficient authority to make it happen.


  • Continuity. Mayor Park is not the first leader to push a civil-service reform initiative. In the previous administration, there had been a focus on ‘creative administration,’ with incentives for civil servants contributing creative ideas. The new focus on engagement for social innovation is welcomed by civil society, but it leaves both activists and civil servants wondering how long it will last, and what may come next.
  • Managing expectations for outsiders. One Innovation Bureau director, who was a longtime community activist before joining the Park administration, said that she is still adjusting to the slow, incremental nature of government work. Activists lack resources, she said, but they are accustomed to seeing immediate results. Upon joining government, one’s sense of achievement and satisfaction has to adjust accordingly.

Innovation Point of Contact

Mr. Jun Hyo Kwan
Director General
SMG Seoul Innovation Bureau

Who Else Is Trying This


The Civic Innovation Project of the Ibero-American General Secretariat (SEGIB) and the Santa Fe provincial government’s SantaLab, in partnership with the Innovacion Ciudadana regional network, organized #LABICAR, a 10-day prototyping sprint on the theme of Sustainable and Inclusive Communities. The event unfolded in three stages. First, 10 projects were chosen from a global call for project ideas. The selected ideas included products or services addressing the needs of indigenous women, artists, people with Down Syndrome and Cerebral Palsy, transgender people, and children with visual impairments. Other projects proposed new technologies for aquaponics, seed pelleting, and citizen participation. In the second phase of #LABICAR, the organizers issued a call for collaborators and selected 100 people from a range of disciplines. In October 2018, the participants came together in Rosario, Argentina to collaborate on prototypes of the 10 projects. There was also an open agenda for citizens, with free workshops, lectures and trainings, and more than 750 citizens attended. Read more

Boston, United States.

The Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) is one of the oldest urban innovation labs in the U.S., and it has remained committed to a vision of improving the experience and well-being of city residents. That means prioritizing people in housing innovation, experimenting with user-centered design for school-age children and their families, infusing public space development with democratic values, and using technology to build trust. The result is a multidisciplinary research-and-development shop that takes on cultural and bureaucratic change as the cornerstone of civic innovation. Read more 

New York City, U.S

In October 2018, New York announced the appointment of the first Chief Democracy Officer, Ayirini Fonseca-Sabune. The position will focus on voter registration, civics education and innovation in citizen engagement, and Fonseca-Sabune has an extensive background as a community activist.