The UK’s Policy Lab has spent the past five years using innovative tools to reimagine policy. How do they make it work?
Plenty of public servants are curious about policy labs and design thinking, but governments still aren’t quite sure about them.
The world’s first and most well-known, Denmark’s MindLab, was shut down in 2018 after 16 years.
Yet they’re also spreading — there are at least 26 such public sector innovation units across Australia and New Zealand, and many more across the world.
An unusual funding model
For the UK’s Policy Lab, a self-contained entity under the aegis of the British Cabinet Office, this uncertainty is built into its foundation.
When it was launched in 2014, the permanent secretary commented that “if in a year it doesn’t work, we will shut it down”.
The lab has no budget of its own, behaving as a sort of internal consultancy. To pay its staff, other parts of government commission it to explore a policy problem and find a novel solution.
Undoubtedly, this all-or-nothing approach makes life a little more stressful for staff and opens up the temptation to take on projects just for the money. Cash is especially an issue in election years, when new initiatives dry up, but projects with local government are helping smooth out the lumps. Policy Lab is even working with the United Nations at the moment, working out how to bring the voices of people in this geographically-distributed organisation into early-stage policy design and development.
Despite the challenges, this funding model also provides a strong incentive to remain relevant. Policy labs don’t play the role of disruptor, but rather of a partner who can bring different tools and experience to understanding and responding to a problem. It also means their time isn’t occupied by trying to tell foot-dragging departments to get on board — the people who come to them are already keen to innovate.
Having no money also provides protection — for a non-essential service in a government always looking for savings, if there’s no budget, there’s also nothing to cut.
Not that Policy Lab was put straight into the field to fend for itself. Strong backing from the top helped signal to risk-averse agencies that it was worth investing in: there was an initial agreement by departments to support Policy Lab for two years, and it was endorsed at the outset by the Cabinet secretary, the chief executive of the civil service, and the head of the policy profession.
This has allowed Policy Lab to get plenty done. From one permanent staffer and one secondee, it’s grown to around 21 people, with a mix of career public servants and design experts. Writing for the anniversary of its creation last year, Policy Lab head Andrea Siodmok commented:
“If you had told me four years ago, when I joined the Cabinet Office, that by 2018 we would have worked across 15 major government departments on over 40 policy projects, working with over 6,000 public servants, I wouldn’t have believed you.
“… Over four years, we’ve supported some of the most exciting and intractable policy priorities of both the PM and departments. Policing, exports, homelessness, employment support and the red-tape challenge, to name a few.”
Problems and solutions
Policy Lab’s job is to completely rethink the policy area they’ve been commissioned to consider.
But they don’t just look at the solutions available — Policy Lab likes to go all the way back and re-examine the problem itself. Obtaining a new understanding of the problem can often help break the path-dependency that led to sub-optimal policy outcomes in the first place.
“The temptation is often to run straight to solutions, or solutionism,” said Siodmok on a recent trip to Australia.
“What we’re keen to do in our policy work really early is to open up the range of different possibilities.”
Using the principles of co-design, they conduct workshops with different groups — service users, citizens, stakeholders, and so on — to discover their priorities, frustrations and ideas for how things could be different.
Involving users early in the process often leads to the discovery that either the lab’s conception of the problem is wrong, or its idea for a solution is flawed — but allows for quick adaptation to the user’s actual needs. Visiting an economically depressed rural area to test out a new job-finding app, for example, can help designers to see the challenges run deeper than simply matching unemployed people with listings on the internet — and that even getting internet access is not a given for some.
Policy Lab uses the ‘double diamond‘ method, an iterative approach built around four steps: discover, define, develop and deliver.
“All of our examples are about not running to the answer too quickly. In the first diamond, you’re trying to work out what the problem is, and the second diamond is trying to express a number of different ways you might solve that,” explains Siodmok, whose career started out in design before moving into government.
These ideas take a lot from speculative design, an approach more often used in art, which involves creating objects for possible future scenarios, imagining what a possible future would look like, and then moving through to what’s plausible, probable, preferable and desirable.
Larger projects, such as the one the lab conducted on homelessness, can take from three months to a year and involve working intensively with service designers, ethnographers, data scientists and subject specialists. Video ethnography has been a significant value add, for example in the homelessness case, with the team recording interviews with people with lived experience of homelessness which can then be shown to policymakers, who might not always have much face-to-face experience with the people they make decisions for. Data is an important complement to such qualitative work, backing up anecdote with statistics.
In another project, to explore the possibilities for a national strategy for the maritime industry, the lab built a game to see how different stakeholders would simulate and discuss potential policy outcomes.
Failure, too, is a key part of any innovative endeavour. Policy Lab regularly tests out cutting-edge methods for examining the questions departments bring them — generally one new technique per project, “and we hope no one spots what the one thing is, because usually, that’s the thing that goes wrong”, says Siodmok. Failure is also why it’s important to have a portfolio of projects — while some inevitably don’t work well, others will go on to win awards.
Policy Lab also encourages public servants to reconsider what levers they may have access to, using the ‘styles of government intervention’ grid above. When brainstorming how to respond to a problem, it can be useful to block out the squares featuring the most commonly used tools and see what alternatives might work.
There’s a big difference between ‘best practice’ and ‘next practice’, says Siodmok.
“Best practice, it’s something like you’re building a bridge, someone has built a bridge before. So if you mess that up and you don’t follow the rules, it’s going to fall down. So that’s dumb failure.
“Next practice is typically: it hasn’t been done before, and we’re in new territory. There’s no reference point. In this space there’s a true innovation space. … So there’s this ability to get the solution and the problem to co-evolve.”
It’s business-as-usual versus business-as-unusual — working out how to tackle new problems by creating new knowledge.
Over time these small, evidence-informed experiments can build up to significantly alter the way government works.
“When you look at revolutions in hindsight, they turn out to be a series of smaller, tiny experiments or steps. But they look like a bigger phenomenon. If you want to move from a current state to a future state, you don’t do it all at once.”
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