Project X: experiments in tomorrow’s government

The head of the world's longest-running government innovation lab says that today's fashionable ideas of design thinking, user experience and rapid prototyping are already outdated – and will in their current form fail to help the state cope with the increasing strain on our societies.

The head of the world’s longest-running government innovation lab says that today’s fashionable ideas of design thinking, user experience and rapid prototyping are already outdated – and will in their current form fail to help the state cope with the increasing strain on our societies.

In an incisive and plain-spoken interview, Thomas Prehn, Head of Innovation at Denmark’s MindLab, told Apolitical, ‘If the thing that we do is to have any meaning or any impact at all, it should be much bigger. And I’m not talking about a bigger budget.’

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Bigger, in Prehn’s mind, means people: changing the mindsets and culture of men and women across government. ‘I’m trying to see if there are more allies,’ he said, speaking of his latest experimental project, LabRats, launched a fortnight ago. Its aim is to connect the innovative public servants in mainstream departments with one another, and to use them as bridgeheads from which to propagate a totally new institutional culture.

If a radical shift does not occur, he said, stretched governments will find themselves providing not ‘more for less’ but ‘worse for less’.

Prehn wants to provide ‘different for less’. He intends for MindLab, which pioneered bringing the tools of innovation into government, to now pioneer disseminating the mindset of innovation across government. To set this challenge in context, the US government’s annual employee survey regularly finds that only around 35% think their agencies reward creativity and innovation.

The lessons and limits of the lab

Since Denmark created MindLab in 2002, dozens of equivalents have sprung up around the world, from the OPM Innovation Lab in Washington to the Laboratorio Para La Ciudad in Mexico City, La 27e Région in France and The Human Experience Lab in Singapore.

The work of these labs usually consists of quickly developing solutions to a particular problem in collaboration with the mainstream department responsible for it.

For example, MindLab worked on the Danish government’s ‘Away With Red Tape’ initiative, which aims to simplify and digitise dealings with the state, such as tax returns or applications for benefits after an industrial injury.

MindLab's fieldwork

MindLab’s fieldwork

The methods they used are typical of such labs: first they interviewed people about why they weren’t using the online services, even when they were young enough to be digital natives. By doing so MindLab identified what changes would improve these people’s experience of the service. Far from relating to the traditional metrics – such as the time taken or the number of rules – MindLab found that these changes were things like giving people a clearer idea of how their cases would be handled; improving the usability of the websites; and co-ordinating all those working on a particular case so that the citizen wouldn’t be confused by being passed from one official to the next.

We have reached a point where if you do more for less, the quality will be less

The re-orientation to user experience and iterative prototyping is demonstrably effective. But MindLab only has around 20 employees, whereas the ministries and municipalities it works with have around 20,000. So its capacity to effect change is tightly constrained. Prehn refers to the Lab’s methods as ‘second-generation’ ideas. The next step-changes in government – the third-generation – would have to come, Prehn believes, by inculcating MindLab’s methods and approaches into those ministries so they can do it for themselves.

This is urgently needed because, ‘The agenda, at least in Denmark and I know in various European countries as well, is “More for less”. We have to provide more services for less money because the welfare system’s under so much pressure, and I think that we have reached a point where if you want to do more for less, the quality will be worse.

‘I think you should be able to do different for less, and that requires a new way of thinking, a new culture within public administration and a leadership that nurses the different ideas – I’m not saying crazy ideas, just different approaches, and that will at least let them live a little bit longer than it does today. Otherwise, you will see “More for less” but it will also be “Worse for less”.’

Bad structure drives bad culture

The barriers to widespread creative and innovative work that are consistently mentioned by leaders in the field are two-fold: structural and cultural.

The former will be familiar to anyone working for the state: a new initiative needs to go through so many stages of approval and pass so many layers of oversight that it can be stymied by the process. As Prehn puts it, ‘That we have to be accounted for in everything that we do ties our hands in trying new stuff out. And putting that experimental or that iterative process within the way we work will help, but it’s so counter-intuitive to this system.

‘Because the moment that you say, “This is not something real, it’s just something that we’re trying out”, the guy who actually has to decide, the permanent secretary or the minister, they won’t be concerned with it because it’s not for real yet. And you won’t be able to put it out in the world. But in order to do a beta test, you have to make it public, and then you have to be accounted for already.’

The system benefits the ones that comply with the system

Prehn’s belief is that the expertise and understanding which is needed to come up with new things often exist at the base of the administrative pyramid. The structural problem is that those people don’t have enough freedom to act outside of what is expected. ‘It will never be an experiment once it reaches the top because it’s been through so many gates that every small bit of innovation is just pulled out of it. And then you have something very straight-up, something that aligns totally with what the permanent secretary probably could have come up with by himself.’

 

MindLab in discussion

MindLab in discussion

What has grown around that structure is a culture that Mr Prehn characterises by its deep aversion to mistakes. ‘The fear of failure is dominant. And it’s because the way we think of failure is wrong. If you have a paper circulating within the administration, and it’s just a hypothesis – can we do this in a way that’s kind of different from what we did before? – and it turns out not to be right, it’s seen as a failure. But to me it’s not a failure, it’s just trying out new stuff.

‘But that’s it, having experiment in the heart of innovation, knowing that it’s an iterative process. If you have to do a whole reform, start off small, have big vision but start off small and just get some learnings and then implement it gradually instead of just having that one big one-off.

‘And the system kind of benefits the ones that comply with the system. In that sense, if you’re an ambitious young woman or man, you will comply. And once you comply, you lose at least the disruptive and radical innovation, and then you just have small, evolutionary innovation.’

The LabRats

Prehn, whose background is in consulting on innovation for corporate clients as well as the public sector, does not think training is much use. ‘I don’t think you can do a training programme and then people are innovative afterwards. It’s really about a mindset and an approach rather than skills.’

He sees a clear development in this mindset and its dissemination. The first generation of MindLab was ‘the crazy place. You came down as a civil servant, you loosened your tie, you took off your jacket and you did crazy things like… brainstorming. The first period was about introducing the creative side of working. And then with the user-driven innovation and design thinking, it became more professional, more of a process than a method. That’s the second generation. And now the time has come for it to become a culture.’

A MindLab working room, shaped like an egg

A MindLab working room, shaped like an egg

His new prototype, LabRats, aims to propagate this culture by connecting the innovative people in other departments. MindLab has picked and invited 25 people so far into this network, partly because of the realisation that a crucial element of any successful project is finding allies on the inside of the mother-organisations.

These first 25 people will recruit the next round of LabRats. All the LabRats will be nurtured with new insights, talks and meetings, and by sharing approaches with one another. But each will also have a hotline to MindLab itself so they can ask for help with what they’re working on.

‘So instead of one consultant at MindLab having perhaps five projects, you can have maybe ten or fifteen projects. And then you can actually scale. So I think having more people work the way we do, more people in touch with the design-thinking processes, I think that’s another way to disseminate culture as cultural practice and leadership.’

The rats abroad

MindLab already has a network of other organisations it works with worldwide, and its head of research, Jesper Christiansen, wants to apply a similar principle of embedding individuals to foster more innovation.

At the moment, it collaborates with organisations like the Red Cross, the UNDP and a large number of public innovation labs. MindLab tends to work with those organisations on inculcating processes that foster innovation, rather than on frontline projects. So for example it has run workshops for the UN Development Fund, which led onto helping Eastern European countries set up their own innovation labs.

Says Christiansen, ‘One learning has been that we meet with other innovative public servants and lab practitioners around the world – for example at conferences – and have interesting conversations, but what we always end up agreeing on is that we really want to make it possible to actually do something together.

‘What I’d like to see the possibility to have someone on board for enough time to actually embed their ideas. So imagine someone working in Canada in the field of mental disability, doing really interesting work. Yes, we can look at that idea and say, let’s try to bring that on in Denmark. But in terms of actually making that happen, thinking about how that would work in this context, what we would need to scale it, the process, all of that, there’s always an underestimation of the resources you need to make that happen.’

Christansen, who just spent one month with design agency InWithForward and previously spent three months with NESTA in the UK, says: ‘One thing you can certainly invest in is freeing up people’s time to actually work with each other.’

Project X

Culture and mindset are, of course, necessarily amorphous, intangible and difficult to define. So MindLab is also testing something called Project X, which prompts employees to engage in specific actions that cumulatively amount to this different mindset.

At the moment, Project X is being tested – experimentation in practice – on MindLab’s own employees. It has drawn up a list of these actions, such as ‘Forrest Gump: Admit that you don’t know everything and ask one of your colleagues for a special insight’, ‘Frequent Flyer: Change where you sit’ or ‘Globetrotter: Book a meeting outside MindLab’s premises’.

It’s not making a poster or powerpoint slides

The way it works is that each employee was given four tokens. To score points, they had to carry out the actions associated with the tokens they’d been assigned. Doing so brought them new tokens, and their points were recorded on a chart.

Although Prehn emphasises that this is still a very new prototype, he says, ‘It’s not making a poster or powerpoint slides and saying: you need to be more innovative. I don’t believe in that kind of way of disseminating a culture. You have to ask people to do something very concrete. It has to be something that you cannot avoid recognising, so, “What’s that new thing on my table?” Pick up that red phone and you get an insight from a user, for instance. It’s something that will only stay for a week or two weeks, and then you’ll take it away and repeat it, but in a different way, in a new physical form.’

The ‘best job in the world’

Prehn joined the public service to take over MindLab only ten months ago. Before that, whenever he ran training sessions for public servants and ‘I talked about innovation, they would say…  you don’t know the world we’re in. And I was like, OK then, I’ll give it a shot.’

Although he emphasises that his experiments are still in their infancy and the challenges are enormous, he says, ‘I would love to change the way we work in the public sector to be much more agile and adaptive and iterative and experimental to be a much better public service and have a better welfare system and to provide much more value for the citizens and businesses. That’s really why I’m in it and that’s – I think it’s fair to say – a fairly big ambition. But at least I’m giving it my best shot.

‘I think it’s very fun. I think I have the best job in the world. I think that we do important things every single day and it’s something that ties into almost every citizen’s every day. And I think that’s so fulfilling. Of course it’s not the easiest job in the world in terms of changing the way the system works, but to me that’s the challenge. We’ll see in a few years who won the battle.’

Follow Thomas Prehn on Twitter

 

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