• Analysis
  • November 12, 2015
  • 16 minutes
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The three principles of public service pioneers

Design thinking, radical iteration and broad partnerships are having big impact

If you talk optimistically about sharing innovations in government, you’ll hear plenty of reasons why it can’t work. First among them: things vary too much. But whether in Baltimore or Singapore, London or Kampala, working on tax rebates or human trafficking, de-radicalisation or job centres, the government innovators we talk with every day are often thinking and acting according to a few strikingly similar and intimately linked principles.

1. Build With, Not For

The idea in brief

Coined by civic innovator Laurenellen McCann, Build With Not For is also often described as design thinking: developing policies based on how the public experiences them. It was pioneered in government in Denmark, where it was used to reorganise waste management in Copenhagen, reduce tensions between inmates and guards in prisons and transform services for mentally disabled adults in the city of Odense. It seems simple and obvious, but requires a radical shift in attitude. As Kieron Boyle, the UK Cabinet Office’s Head of Social Investment, told Apolitical: ‘There’s a kind of humility that you sense from people who’re getting things done. The old idea was that there are experts who know what to do, but who are the experts?’

The idea in practice

The experts, in this case, are the public. Leon Voon, of Singapore’s elite Human Experience Lab, recounts how Singapore introduced a tax benefit for low-income families, budgeted at 500 million USD. But it became clear that the low-income citizens didn’t understand the complex letter explaining their eligibility. Says Voon: ‘It’s like a Monty Python sketch: let’s send all these people who can’t read a nice letter.’ In fact, many worried that they might have to pay something extra.

Voon’s team redesigned the letter with fewer words, big icons, a chattier idiom and a basic, logical sequence of ideas. In short, they made it look like an app. It was, as Voon puts it, what the recipients were ‘cognitively expecting’.

Zahra Ebrahim, who founded ArchiTEXT and has spend 10 years doing design-based innovation for the public service in Canada, says an approach that ‘meets the user where they are’ often works intuitively for public servants. ‘It reminds them why they chose the public service, and why they care.’

Learning quickly from the ‘user’ – and avoiding costly failures – requires a thorough rethinking of how programmes are created. Ebrahim describes how she worked with the Ontario Trillion Foundation to redesign how they awarded grants through a $25 million Youth Opportunity Fund.

It turned out that receiving an email with a notification of a grant opportunity was intimidating to many potential recipients, and stopped them from applying. So instead the foundation invited potential recipients, from small to large organisations, to ‘labs’, to understand the objectives of the fund and to co-design the process of grant awarding. The process was so successful it has been repeated in a second fund. Bringing organisations together in a physical space also produced some unexpected and powerful collaborations among them.

Dr Leana Wen, Baltimore’s Health Commissioner, also partially attributes the huge success of projects on infant mortality and youth healthcare to sincere engagement with community representatives at every stage of policy design.

She goes as far as to ask them: ‘What are the questions we should be asking? We come back to them with our data, we ask them: Are we on the right track? Do you think that this makes sense? What other language do you think we need? We need to be committing to engage them as equal partners every step of the way.’

This depends on finding a trusted channel of communication between state and citizen. Baltimore’s ‘Safe Streets’ programme has ex-convicts walk the streets to intervene in arguments before they escalate into violence. Similarly, when Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti wanted to grow the small business sector, he brought in two ‘Entrepreneurs in Residence’, knowing they could put the right questions to the companies he wanted to help.

How to make it work

IDEO, the innovation consultancy that has worked with several governments on design-thinking projects, cites these seven steps:

  • start with citizens (human centric)
  • forget the ‘average’ (find the few behaviours common across diversity)
  • visualise change (more pictures)
  • simplify (make the systems look less burdensome)
  • prototype before piloting
  • envision a future together (leverage expertise)
  • share the mission (optimism, design is ‘building’ not ‘problem solving’)

The cultural environment also matters. Kieron Boyle says, ‘Design thinking has been around for a while, but I think it’s been accelerated by technology. People are able to see how agile changes can be put into whole systems, not just individual projects.’

2. Continuous experimentation

The idea in brief

If design thinking requires the humility to listen, continuous experimentation requires the courage to admit that your policies may not work, as well as the good judgement to test them at a scale where you can afford to fail and learn. Long since embraced by the startup world, smart experiments and honest evaluation underpin some of the most powerful public innovations.

The idea in practice

The UK’s high-flying Behavioural Insights Team, or ‘Nudge Unit’ – which was itself originally an experiment – recently performed one of the largest randomised controlled tests ever held in Britain. In order to increase the number of people registering as organ donors, it created eight variants on the sign-up message and tested them against each other. More than a million people saw the messages and the most successful variant brought in the equivalent of 96,000 extra donors annually.

David Halpern, the experimental psychologist who founded the Nudge Unit, used the phrase radical incrementalism to describe his approach of continually making rapid prototypes – rather than ten-year trials – and further refining each success. He says, ‘The dirty secret of almost all government is that we don’t know whether we’re doing the right thing. Whether what we’re doing is helping the patient or not helping the patient, or even killing him.’

Here lies a paradox of public sector innovation. Innovative solutions are abundantly necessary. But if they fail and fail publicly, they can be dangerous to the careers of the people who back them. And if they fail and fail silently, they can be dangerous to the people they set out to help. Radical incrementalism allows bold ideas be tried in a controlled way that is safe for both innovators and the public.

Cheaper and faster overall than traditional policymaking, the incremental principle works even in the most difficult situations. Dr Fatima Akilu gives an example from her scheme for deradicalising captured Boko Haram militants in Nigerian prisons. The militants are given a basic education, including things like literacy, but close observation of the classes revealed many refinements to the process. She says, ‘If things are not working, we have dropped them, even during the pilot. We realised we have to do things like anger management, which we didn’t have initially.’

The idea of prototyping and iterating is not new in government’s digital services, explains Lucy Kimbell of the University of the Arts London, who spent a year embedded with the UK’s Policy Lab. ‘Where it’s new is in the world of policy making – the bit that is often quite separate from delivery. Instead of coming up with an analysis, making recommendations and then going with one, policy teams are able to rapidly explore several concepts in parallel. The focus on people’s experiences and the many iterative cycles make prototyping different to the usual way of doing things.’

The momentum is growing behind this kind of approach. This year 19 US states collectively put more than 150 million USD into programmes that include numerical frameworks for success.

How to make it work

Prototyping is at the core of successful iteration. Andrea Siodmok, head of the Policy Lab, has outlined the three essentials for using a prototype:

  • make ideas tangible
  • make them shareable and discussable, so they can be improved upon
  • make it a collective activity that many people can contribute to

Zahra Ebrahim also says the process can be easier than expected. ‘Many public servants are already used to making stuff happen despite bureaucracy. What a lot of public servants don’t give themselves enough credit for is that they are in a constant cycle of prototyping and testing.’ She says, however, they are used to a different language. ‘They are often empowered by shifting from “prototyping and testing for feedback” to “piloting and evaluating for success”.’

Again, the cultural environment matters. Andrew Rasiej, founder of Civic Hall, a community for civic-minded tech companies, told Apolitical that the shift towards experimentation and evaluation in policy has been enabled by the much broader movement towards open data.

3. To solve your problem, solve someone else’s

The idea in brief

While this sounds somewhat Pollyanna-ish, there is a sound underlying logic. As Kieron Boyle explains, ‘There’s been a greater and greater acceptance of the limitations of the public sector as traditionally defined to tackle the most complex problems. People realise that these things are much bigger than a government department. And I’ve noticed people being more fine with that, saying let’s start from there and build out, without the need for a universal solution.’

Making this happen requires working across otherwise siloed departments as well as with the private sector, and getting such collaboration requires persuading others that working with you is the best way to solve their problems.

The idea in practice

A strikingly effective example comes from Baltimore, which successfully tackled shocking infant mortality rates by co-ordinating more than a hundred bodies with an interest in the issue. Health Commissioner Dr Leana Wen stresses: ‘We need to relate our message to everything that may be important to that other person. So if there’s a legislator whose focus is education, I’m going to be talking about health as it relates to education. If a child can’t see, how can they learn?’

Such collaboration is spurred by ever tighter limits to resources, but it is also down to a growing realisation that a deep integration of departments is the key to systemic change. The idea has been taken to an extreme by Dr Fatima Akilu, whose de-radicalisation projects are actually carried out by the prison service, the education ministry, local councils, NGOs, community leaders and even the military. In order to get the buy-in she did, her promise was to fully embed the work in the day-to-day running of other departments, so that her whole programme would make itself redundant after five years.

Meanwhile, to expand his work, David Halpern has turned the Nudge Unit into a private company half-owned by the state. And one of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Entrepreneurs in Residence, Amir Tehrani, is exploring setting up a private venture capital fund to further accelerate small business.

How to make it work

In a paper on the subject, Professor Patrick Dunleavy, from the London School of Economics, identifies three crucial elements:

  • Reintegration of services. Persuading many partners to collaborate on doing one thing once, rather than doing similar things many times
  • User-oriented redesign. Re-imagining a whole government function, end-to-end, from the client’s perspective
  • Digitalisation. Sharing information allows quick co-ordination and the stripping out of redundant processes

Again, Professor Dunleavy emphasises the importance of digital information in allowing agencies to collaborate and providing the evidence for where things could be done more effectively. He has even coined the term ‘digital-era governance’ to denote the step-change since the advent of the internet.

In all these endeavours, Kieron Boyle stresses the power of the public sector: ‘You ask who are the various actors who can play a role here. How can we see where assets lie and deploy them for greatest impact? There’s a unique role for the public servant here, as a convener of the discussion.’

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