Government innovation labs: The success or otherwise in improving how governments deliver their work

By Josh Forde

Tuesday February 18, 2020

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Josh Forde takes us through what a government innovation lab is, why the sudden proliferation of them, what — if anything — is new, and what challenges are emerging.

Being based in Wellington, I get exposed to lots of discussions on innovation policy — much of it angsty! Having participated in a fair few innovation projects, incubators, prototypes and getting my hands dirty, I’ve noticed trends emerge and re-emerge and it gets difficult to understand what programs mean. It’s also difficult to get a wider perspective on the meaning and achievements of innovation programs — certainly many great people take part in govtech efforts and they routinely come up against big challenges working in the public service.

Emma Blomkamp is an Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne whose recently published paper is a useful read to define and understand what innovation labs do and what they mean as a shift within government. Emma has worked as a researcher involved in co-design and service design across New Zealand and Australia so I enjoyed reading her paper (I have met Emma personally not her collaborators). Except where quoted, these are my comments and interpretation of their work.

What are innovation labs?

Innovation labs are efforts within government agencies to create an experimental physical space and develop professional teams that collaborate on a project that is intended to deliver benefits to government or agency interests. The typical examples span from a potential new or improved service (like a rebate on your rates bill or making digital access available to underprivileged households) through to changing policies (like identifying why youth don’t participate in high numbers of government consultations). The opportunity of innovation labs is that through breaking established organisational structure, government can deliver improvements that are better and faster than existing services. I think we all readily accept government change is difficult and seems very expensive so this is an exciting goal with real value if it delivers. Additionally, society is changing and putting significant pressure on government meaning that existing services may be infeasible with key shifts in future.

Principals such as Pia Andrews locally or other international digital service agencies like 18F and Gov.UK point at a wider goal of transformation — a cultural shift in public service to be more consistent and effective. Government as a Platform is worth some internet research, for example, to grasp these ideas. Global examples develop government digital standard services that streamline the delivery of digital infrastructure like payments so that high-quality citizen services can be developed for the cost of a conventional website (i.e. 5 or low 6 figures rather than multiples of this). They offer the benefits of centralisation to offer agencies a consistent service quality.

What are the limiting factors?

What the paper points out is the wider public policy shift that this operates within and that many technologists lack perspective of. They highlight important trends. There’s a shift of government agencies to get policy advice/creation from private market providers, thinktanks, and consultants. This aligns with HR policies of using independent contractors rather than permanent staff so that many civil servants are rolling through positions as well as having private sector participants creating ideas for government.

It’s hard to untangle trends here — innovation labs versus wider efforts to deliver co-creation and to access private-sector delivery philosophies like lean.

In many cases, they are also reliant on political patronage, which puts them at risk of being dissolved or having their funding reduced as ‘political priorities change’

Factors they highlight include:

  • Vulnerability to political support and shifts.
  • Short-term initiatives and risk aren’t well received in government regardless of how impactful they may be.
  • Issues of mandate and being limited in the scope of workstreams by agencies with ‘control’.
  • Seeing many initiatives delivering ‘insights papers’ and small prototypes and not being supported beyond discovery which is not necessarily distinct from standard issues discussion that occurs within traditional government structures.

However, the study found that a significant proportion — if not the lion’s share — of labs’ activities were concentrated at the discovery stage of problem-solving.

  • Questions about codesign and whether the public really receives power in participating and what the long-term receptiveness to participate will be if their influence is trivial.
  • [more my concern than what is stated in the paper] Many projects are dealing with minority communities and issues of unfairness and inequity in government dealings. I worry if these themes are used to ‘pigeonhole’ wicked issues in agencies into innovation labs and separate them from core service delivery priorities. I worry that with only a mandate to prototype this is a mechanism to sideline or paper over valid considerations of state inclusion and repression.
  • My take from the recurring frustration in government about funding approvals is that financial administration significantly hobbles decisionmaking, planning and confidence such that money policies significantly lower the quality of innovation and delivery projects. The paradigm of financial planning puts innovation and ICT projects in a false dichotomy of project vs product style spending plans, requiring budget bids right through to purchase order approvals. Similarly, contractor costs can be calculated within a project, rather than permanent staff whose value is less easily measured or submitted to a budget bids process

Where are the success stories?

I think we should acknowledge various projects that are standout successes and teams that deliver real value in lab programs. I think much of the heroic progress has been quietly implemented, well away from pitching contests and demo days.

We also need to acknowledge the pain from passionate teams who have their labs defunded or find their project sponsors being less than supportive when their successes are worth significant supporting investment. Failure is part of experimentation, however, when projects are validated, they deserve fair treatment by large agencies who have sought small innovations under the tacit understanding of ongoing support.

The long-term question is about the success or otherwise in improving how government deliver their work. I reckon that success is ultimately going to be measured in significant institutional commitment to these methods and connecting insights into full-scale services delivery. I haven’t seen it myself, but I believe it could happen.

Who is seriously looking at power dynamics in public sector innovation labs?

This isn’t the first academic paper to study emerging approaches to improving government. There are some interesting questions that need to be asked about innovation labs.

Painting the bike sheds and the park benches. In software, ‘bikeshedding’ is a metaphor to keep group decisionmaking free from distractions and avoid the tendency to argue over trivial decisions. ‘What colour should we paint the bikesheds… I think blue! No, I think green…’. The problem is that when opening up and bringing the public to participate in decisionmaking that we only offer innocuous decisions. Activists should be careful to avoid organisational capture and consider whether the terms of codesign really pass agency over and are accompanied by a commitment to make politically uncomfortable changes. We need to move past pigeonholing interesting themes rather than inviting disruptive change. I learned that this is called ‘the park benches problem’ in public policy.

Funding patrons and the limitations of being today’s one-hit-wonder. If a government minister is enthusiastic about innovation labs, this can quickly be seen as a short-term trend to be de-funded when decisionmakers move on.

Potential isn’t enough. Innovation labs need to be given both the mandate, commitment and accountability to deliver real change (and measure it). I suspect too many have a mandate to experiment and no more.

Consider what the goals are of innovation labs. Labs themselves may be a smokescreen for the need of the public sector to transform from current delivery to respond to the futures of the pressure. The opportunities remain significant:

  • Funding ongoing change within tight accountability of public spending.
  • Overcoming inertia in organisations capability and speed to implement enhancements.
  • Redefining a culture to show what is possible within public sector organisations.
  • Using participation to ‘catch up’ with the service expectations of the modern citizen.
  • Providing a framework to develop responses to system shocks and fundamental challenges — e.g. climate change.

My opinions

1. Codesign as a community needs to explore the space to impact policy and government more deeply than service delivery. But its impact in delivering large scale disruptive and innovative services is still unproven.

The literacy of codesign or participatory approaches is low. Additionally, codesign isn’t limited to expert practitioners so consistent language is tough. Currently, there is little ability to report this spend as a high performing investment — this will only be accepted when it achieves truly transformational reforms within government organisations.

2. Be cautious about overpromising impacts — both for participants and for supporters/sponsors. Labs that deliver real results will have more credibility than more utopian claims. (e.g. solve a wicked policy problem in 12 weeks with three contractors who met each other last week). Participants should be wary of any private or public sector lab that lacks clear funding commitments or at least understand the risks.

3. Guard the language of public service delivery. Co-design may be too ‘greenwashed’ as a term that is meaningfully distinct from generic project approaches in government now.

4. “Innovation labs purportedly follow ‘an approach based on open innovation, experimentation and citizen participation’.” This statement tells me that firms with substance need to dig a bit deeper to show authenticity than using industry jargon about project philosophies. I can imagine large consultancies plugging these terms into their digital ad-spend. Government agencies are awash in claims of innovation and collaboration from their suppliers. How do high-quality providers have the ability to ‘show not tell’ the quality of the innovation they claim.

5. Incentives need to be established to push codesign and service research to collaborate more deeply with operational delivery of service insights. Silos between infrastructure and change management are too high. Policy appears expensive and time-consuming to create. But services lack an understanding of customer needs, a perspective on inefficient processes, and a sense of prioritisation of opportunities.

I’ve commented on the limitations of innovation labs and more broadly where government considers service design. That said I do believe labs offer a great model for improving government services. Like all fads, many organisations are signing up for the sizzle, not the steak. If agencies don’t engage with labs with real intent, we risk more promises and distraction instead of delivery. And the public risk more empty words and cynicism.

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