Frugal innovation: 5 low-cost innovations any agency can adopt

By Jennifer Guay

June 20, 2019

Picture: Getty Images

If your department is underfunded and overworked, reading about other agencies’ ambitious innovation projects can be overwhelming.

But most government innovations aren’t built with big budgets or flashy technology.

More departments are using innovation tools, from human-centred design to behavioural science, in simple projects designed to make their offices and the public services they offer run more smoothly.

The same can be done in any agency, regardless of its headcount or funding.

From offering innovation office hours to incentivising skills-building, here are five high-impact, low-cost improvements any department can implement.

Think of it as government innovation for beginners.

1) Leverage your most innovative staff

Smaller governments are often too stretched to have more than a person or two focused on innovation full-time.

To better take advantage of those who can dedicate their time to it, New York City Mayor’s Office of Economic Opportunity (NYC Opportunity) began holding government-wide office hours this year.

In the Service Design Studio, as the open office is called, any city employee can ask members of NYC Opportunity’s design and product team questions about innovation: how do you develop a prototype? Find people for user research? Get stakeholder buy-in?

It proved wildly successful, with over 100 office hours held over August to October 2018. Soon, the Service Design Studio was getting requests from outside New York City’s government — from California and Rhode Island to Denmark and Thailand.

While NYC Opportunity likely has more resources than smaller agencies across the globe, a pared down version of the Service Design Studio — where employees well-versed in design, data or digital government answer others’ questions — could go a long way in improving cross-team innovation.

2) Use students to supplement staff shortages

In Vancouver’s CityStudio, students work directly with public servants on city improvement projects like neighbourhood rejuvenation schemes and bike repair stations.

The collaborative classroom is embedded in City Hall, where officials can oversee students and provide advice and insight — similar to a teaching hospital, but for public policy.

One group of CityStudio students successfully implemented a public piano project that the city had initially dismissed

Local colleges and universities send students interested in urban design and public policy to CityStudio, where they pitch ideas for projects to public servants, then design, prototype and test them independently.

The students gain invaluable work experience, and overburdened public servants get help launching creative projects designed to delight citizens. The program’s success has inspired at least five other CityStudio iterations, from Atlanta, Georgia to Adelaide, Australia.

3) Get smarter about the projects you put out

People are blinded by their own biases, which can make it difficult for public servants to see how a policy or program they’ve worked on could fail.

Often, what we need most is an outsider’s perspective — which is often impossible in a small department. Behavioural science tools can help public servants see their work from a different point of view.

The UK’s Behavioural Insights Team, for example, uses a strategy borrowed from the military — collaborative red-teaming — to rewire the way they see their own work. An appointed “red team” is tasked with finding a policy’s weaknesses and examining worst-case scenarios, which helps crystallise all possible outcomes.

Australia’s Behavioural Insights Unit takes a similar approach.

To fight bias, they run “pre-mortems”: discussions in which the team imagines that its project has already failed, and asks why it was unsuccessful and how failure could have been prevented.

They also require employees to make arguments against their own position.

4) Incentivise small acts of innovation

The City of Louisville, Kentucky was finding it difficult to encourage employees to be more innovative in their work.

The idea behind Louisville’s badges is to ingrain innovation in all government departments, rather than concentrating efforts in data and digital

The city changed its work culture with a tactic that seems straight out of a kindergarten classroom: it began rewarding public servants for small acts of creativity with digital badges.

Employees earn these badges by taking a class, collaborating with other departments on projects, crowdsourcing information from citizens or creating an open dataset.

The rewards are small — stickers, access to a multimedia room and LinkedIn recommendations, among others — but they have proved enough to incentivise behaviour change. Uptake has been high across departments and Louisville says it is slowly but surely adopting a government-wide culture of experimentation.

5) Encourage a culture of life-long learning

One of the biggest public sector trends of 2018 is governments encouraging their public servants to go back to school.

Singapore, for example, began offering government employees free access to over 2,500 classes at the country’s Civil Service College in July.

Argentina’s Design Academy teaches public servants skills that will be integral to the future of government work

Argentina set up its own government innovation school, the Design Academy, where public servants get points for taking classes on data, design, evidence-based policymaking artificial intelligence and other emerging fields.

By making the points a prerequisite for promotions, the government has incentivised some 15,000 employees to take courses.

These are sweeping policy changes designed to affect entire civil services — but it’s easier than you think to launch a learning revolution in your own department.

This piece was originally published on Apolitical and is reposted with their permission.

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