Tallinn University of Technology

Public Sector Innovation and eGovernance (PIONEER) Master´s programme is an unique programme both for its three study locations as well as its interdisciplinary approach that combines academic expertise with insight into professional cases and national experience. 

Every semester has something unique to offer to the students. For instance, the semester at TalTech offers a valuable hands-on approach in the Public Sector Innovation Lab as it partners up with Estonian public authorities and focuses on solving real-life public sector challenges.

Dr. Veiko Lember, the Estonian coordinator of the PIONEER programme, and Merilin Truuväärt, a member of the Estonian Public Sector Innovation Team give an insight into this vibrant form of study at TalTech.

Veiko Lember & Merilin Truuväärt.
Veiko Lember and Merilin Truuväärt at the final presentation of the PIONEER student's presentations in 2019.

For three consecutive years PIONEER students have been working with the Estonian Public Sector Innovation Team in the Public Sector Innovation Lab course to find novel solutions for public sector challenges. Who is the Innoteam and what makes working with them the highlight of the Tallinn semester?

Merilin Truuväärt (MT): The mission of the Estonian Public Sector Innovation Team is to develop human centered and user friendly public services in cooperation with ministries and other public sector organisations. In order to do so, we rely on design thinking and organise and hold innovation programmes, service design trainings and innovation network meetings for public servants. 

In accordance with the principles of open innovation, we involve users and partners from different sectors and draw inspiration from world practices in order to develop unique approaches that enhance the value and experience of public sector services. Our aim is to develop novel ideas, move borders, experiment, learn fast and iterate quickly - the practices not too common in the public sector. The Innovation Team is part of the Estonian Government Office and our programmes are open to all 11 ministries and their subsidiaries.

Dr. Veiko Lember (VL): We have decided to partner up with the Innovation Team as part of the curriculum so that the PIONEERS have the opportunity to learn methods and contexts on how to implement design-based innovation in addressing public sector challenges from the best practitioners. They bring together different actors inside and outside the public sector through their method and try to make people think differently about the challenges. And that is something we also want our students to experience. 

What does cooperation with the Innoteam look like?

VL: For the last three years, PIONEER students have participated in making Estonian public services more user-friendly and people-centered. Each year, we select one real public sector challenge together with the Innovation Team and a partner organization (e.g. ministries, cities, public agencies). The ‘owner’ of the problem accompanies the students throughout the journey and provides feedback on the process at all times. It creates a different sense of reality: students can take on the real challenge of today, develop potential solutions for the challenge, and they also need to defend their ideas in front of practitioners.

Importantly, during the course the PIONEER students follow the same procedure and methods as do policy-makers in the public sector innovation programs. They are expected to keep their ideas and propositions within the limits of the actual policy context. Nevertheless, the course assumes and strives on students’ creativity as they do field-trips, interview citizens and professionals, make videos and mock applications. Moreover, they can apply all their skills and competencies gained during the entire program.”

What can the students learn from the Innovation Team?

MT: We want the students to experience the full service design process on a practical real-life problem. We send students out to do fieldwork - that means interviews and observations with users. They brainstorm ideas and then develop 1-2 ideas further and test them. Important part of the programme is that the task that the students are given is real - that means that the problem students are solving is something that the Estonian public sector is struggling with and the solutions that the students come up with might actually be implemented in practice. On one hand that is a lot of responsibility, on the other hand it allows students to experience the service design process in a real life context.  

What kind of Estonian public sector challenges have the students been able to contribute to?

MT: In fall 2021, the students worked on how to use public sector dashboards to nudge local governments to deal with local environmental and climate challenge issues. The aim of the project was to go beyond just aggregating better data, so the students conducted interviews and observations with people on the streets, trying to understand how people perceive climate-related information and so on. They also experimented with possible solutions to tackle challenges that arose during the fieldwork and presented them to the officials of the Ministry of Finance working with the dashboards.

VL: In 2020, the previous cohort of PIONEERs were contributing in cooperation with the City of Tallinn to the development of the city’s pollinator highway - Putukaväil - a large scale public green infrastructure project. In 2019 together with the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, the students were experimenting with and developing ideas on how to take tourists beyond Tallinn. 

How have students managed to address these challenges? What have the owners of the problem been able to take with them from the solutions offered by the students?

MT: Students have done a wonderful job! The solutions that they eventually come up with are usually very good. There are some patterns that we have seen from year to year. For example initially students turn to tech-savvy solutions - different app’s, VR solutions etc. But very often if they go back to user needs, they understand that the solutions might be a lot simpler and that also means they are more likely to be implemented. Even if the ideas students come up with are not fully implemented, parts of these solutions and insights from the service design process have proven very valuable to the public sector problem owners.

What is the value of working with students for the Innovation team?

MT: I think the experience and examples that Innotiim can share helps students through the process and encourages them. Even if there are some doubts during the service design process, which is normal in service design, usually students look back at the process as a valuable lesson. We teach the students the same methods that we are implementing in the public sector. I think this is a good practical learning opportunity.

VL: From TalTech perspective, in addition to that the students highly appreciate the opportunity to work with public sector professionals, there are also avenues to learn from policy experiments and the related projects, coordinated by the Innovation Team. These various experimental initiatives - either as pilots, regulatory experiments or randomized controlled trials - can be adopted as use cases for in-class analyzing purposes or for didactic purposes in teaching experimental policy design. Therefore, the cooperation between TalTech and the Innovation Team is progressive and thriving in many ways.

Interested in the programme? The application round for the 2022 intake is open. See more.

The Master of Science in Public Sector InnOvation and EGovERnance (PIONEER) is a joint master programme organized by the KU Leuventhe University of Münster and Tallinn University of Technology. Being an interdisciplinary and international programme that combines academic expertise with insight into professional cases and national experience, PIONEER aims at providing students with specialised competencies about public sector innovation and the role of ICT and technological evolutions in the innovation process.