The labs trying to make government more innovative

Culture change, start-up mentality: the forefront of a new kind of public service

Last Christmas, public servants in Denmark were given an advent calendar with an unusual twist.

Instead of a hidden daily sweet or gift, each window concealed a challenge, idea or activity prompting them to use innovation in their everyday work. For a month, government staff were using new words, holding meetings in new locations, or analysing problems in new ways.

“Everyone was running around making small changes to behaviour habits,” Thomas Prehn, the architect of the project says. The idea behind the calendar, he explains, was to change the approach of a whole organisation using tangible objects and small nudges. “The advent calendar would be the artefact. Then you have specific behaviours behind the door. You have the wording, the narrative, the vocabulary. And that’s how we push a culture,” he says.

“That’s how we push a culture”

Prehn is the head of MindLab, the world’s oldest extant government innovation lab. Embedded within four departments and one ministry, it’s working to flip how government works, driving employees to generate new ideas and government to implement them. One recent project, for example, brought a small group of public servants together for ten days of accelerated policy development on problems around employment reform. In ten short days the team developed six ideas: presented directly to decision makers, three were brought to the prototyping phase. “We detached it from the traditional hierarchy,” Prehn says. “We see every project that we do as a petri dish for pioneering new ways to work in the public sector.”

When it started fifteen years ago, MindLab’s story was unusual. But today it’s one of an increasing number of innovation labs in government. The British think tank Nesta has estimated that one opens somewhere in the world each month.

One of the other most interesting programs is in the Australian state of Victoria. Here, a public sector innovation fund acts like venture capital for new solutions to social problems. Organisations working within or with the public sector can win between US$40,000 and $300,000 of funding, as well as extensive support and development from a crack team of experts.

“If people don’t have ownership, it’s difficult to have scalability”

Sam Hannah-Rankin, Victoria’s Director of Public Sector Innovation, believes that early-stage intervention and intensive support has been critical to the success of the project, as well as the support and enthusiasm of public sector workers themselves. “We’re really interested in focusing our resources on those areas of the government that have the drive to engage and to try something different. If people don’t have ownership it’s difficult to have scalability and replicability,” she explains. “It needs to really be embedded in that organisation where it’s going to end up living.”

Of all their achievements, the Victoria team say a system for gathering information in cases of family violence is one of the most important. The project created an app allowing women to safely collect information to secure a protection order, and collects video and photographic testimony to be used in court. The project started small, asking women what they needed and tweaking it according to their feedback. As the system was gradually introduced, court workers, judges and police officers became accustomed to the new processes, so when the time came to scale it up it was already tested and embedded.

“The rollout process was much easier, because everyone who’s involved in it had been able to use it and buy into it.” Hannah-Rankin says. If the innovation had been introduced at a national level first, she says, the process would have first sought approval not from users but the courts and top-level strategists – a slower and less responsive process.

“Start ups can burn a lot of money – the public sector can’t”

But the start-up mentality can’t be adopted wholesale by the public sector, mainly because of two things: risk and money.

“You can have start-ups that burn a lot of money. But if you burn a lot of money in the public sector then it’s taxpayers’ money,” Prehn explains. When projects pilot and test in public there’s always the risk that things will go wrong, and a damning headline is a serious problem when you answer, even indirectly, to voters. Prehn says that instituting change becomes more difficult further up in the hierarchy. “There’s a lot of resistance in trying out new stuff, when we don’t know what the potential results will be,” he says.

So how to get around that? At Mindlab, changing behaviour at ground level – through initiatives like the advent calendar, for example – is important, but so are organisational, structural changes, encouraged through approaches like the ten-day prototype project. “We’re changing the vocabulary and the narrative and also the behaviour… You have to change the enabling conditions,” he says. “As government we have seen ourselves as something that regulates and administrates. But when you see permanent secretaries talking about the public sector they say they should be enabling, and facilitating, being more a service provider.”

“It’s often like: ‘okay, let’s do an innovation thing'”

Hannah-Rankin, meanwhile, believes controlling risk is key. “Our funding models are very much gated and staged. It’s very tightly bounded to make sure that the project has a good ground before it gets too far,” she says.

“Innovation is often something that’s like: ‘okay let’s go and do an innovation thing’ rather than responding to actual priorities and needs. But it has to be useful and to be useful it has to be used. It needs to be developed in the rigours of the real world. If it’s not being used by the people who live their model and challenge it’s not going to have genuine longevity.”

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