• Opinion
  • October 15, 2018
  • 9 minutes
  • 2

Meet the French innovators pioneering agile, experiments and user-centrism

Opinion: Here's what we've learned from 10 years transforming French bureaucracy

This opinion piece was written by Stephane Vincent & Sylvine Bois-Choussy from La 27e région. It also appears in our government innovation newsfeed.


For 10 years, La 27e région has been working with public administrations across France, helping them question and recast their approach to policy to become more user-centred, to focus more on “trial-and-error”, and to adopt a culture of agility, experimentation and horizontality.

Neither a lab within a government, nor a private consultancy, La 27e région is an independent non-profit that can be described as a think-and-do tank, as a lab facilitator, as community of practitioners…

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To know more about our programs and actions, please check our website! Celebrating our 10th anniversary this year presents this opportunity to put into perspective the choices we have made and to draw some lessons for the future to share with the public sector innovation community.

We are makers

Our work is inspired by philosopher John Dewey, promoter of the pragmatism movement and the “theory of inquiry”, but also by a designer called Victor Papanek, the first to point to the political role of designers in the 70’s. That’s why we develop experimental projects based on field tests to build knowledge with stakeholders and to foster transformation.

Our experience is based on more than 50 field projects run in metropolitan, suburban and rural areas. In 2009, we launched Territoires en Résidences, a cycle of immersive weeks inspired by ethnography and design, centred on challenges such as medical exodus in rural areas (Auvergne, 2009) and the future of city halls (Paris, 2016).

In 2011, we wanted to explore if and how this kind of approach could be embedded within local governments: the La Transfo program has been tested in five regional governments and seven cities, including Paris and Dunkerque, and is now run in partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies.

We’re transforming bureaucracy by reshaping its main rituals

In 2014, we launched Les Eclaireurs, a program aimed at digging deeper into the transformation of bureaucracy by reshaping its main rituals (e.g.: public procurement, assessment, planning…) and creating improved methods through future scenarios and field tests.

We are activists — for human-centred governance

La 27e région was first born as a reaction to administration-bashing. We wanted to change the way citizens consider public sector administrations, to look at them from the inside, in their full complexity and diversity. We aimed to reveal their ingenuity and skills, to show that many employees were waiting for a new vision, and to prove that obsessions with budget planning and performance indicators were not the best ways to mobilise these resources.

We have shown that it is possible to recreate meaning and trust in the public sector

Ten years later, we have been able to show that it is possible to recreate meaning and trust in public sector organisations. One of the conditions of doing so is to change the balance of power and encourage a real dialogue between those with diverse experiences and expertise (users, elected officials, agents, technicians — not just top management). This grants more room for flexibility, trial and error, but also for doubt and criticism against “innovation-washing” practices.

It also creates a culture of empathy, in which, for example, the first benefits of automation are not simple cost-killing, but rather quality of human relationships. Although such an approach still seems on the margins of other ultra-managerial approaches to change, this vision, placing ethics and responsibilities at the heart of organisations, is emerging as an alternative in France and elsewhere.

We create knowledge

We use our practical experience to produce knowledge through multiple forms: three books published over 10 years (e.g. Chantiers ouverts au public in 2014), various handbooks and tools, academic research (e.g Formes d’innovation publique, FIP Explo), a documentary series, many podcasts, hundreds of events and learning workshops and continual blogging.

Among other tools, we have designed a step-by-step process theory of change for local governments, a guide to help local governments find their way in the meanders of innovation, and a world map of the main players in the field of design in the public sector (in partnership with Nesta). We’re part of many boards, including schools, innovation events and festivals such as World Design Capital 2020 in Lille. We share knowledge both at local, national and international levels, for instance through State of Change that we co-initiated in 2017 with Nesta UK.

We think “commons”

La 27e région is not only a small team of 10 people, it works as an ecosystem, in close cooperation with our members — 30 governments and institutions and 30 individual practitioners — and a community of a hundred professionals. Rather than strictly commercial relations, we have developed associative governance and a network of members.

Openness and cooperation have allowed our work to be widely disseminated

We also work in an open manner, documenting and sharing everything we do, with everything accessible and reusable under “creative commons”. This principle of openness and cooperation has allowed our work to be widely disseminated and to influence many public agents and professionals; we have contributed to the creation of new agencies and inspired many communities and governments in France and around the world — as much as they have inspired us.

The governance of our projects matters! We systematically search for multiple partners and co-financing to develop our programs. Convincing our partners to share investments allows for better cost-effectiveness than comparable programs financed by conventional public contracts. It also gives us more room for experimentation, a form of independence and a critical capacity that we would not have found otherwise.

We look ahead

Recently we have built new alliances to strengthen our actions and influence. We are now behind the birth of two spaces in Paris — SuperPublic and Les Halles civiques — which allow the communities of public innovation, democratic innovation, civic tech, architecture and urban planning, arts and more to share their practices and develop their links.

Our goal is to learn how to combine our disciplines into a more systemic approach to change, to deepen public transformations, to improve our impact and to be more accountable. — Stephane Vincent & Sylvine Bois-Choussy

(Picture credit: La 27e région)

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