Not 'peak lab' yet: public sector innovation units keep booming

By David Donaldson

April 17, 2018

New research reveals what Australia and New Zealand’s public sector innovation units are focused on and how they’re going about it.

Public sector innovation labs are popping up all over the place, but until now it was unclear just how many there are.

There are now at least 26 public sector innovation units across Australia and New Zealand, survey results released by the University of Melbourne’s Policy Lab have revealed.

And despite claims a few years ago that we had reached ‘peak lab’, that number is growing quickly, with over half of the 26 having been established in the past two years.

This suggests “a vibrant public sector innovation landscape is emerging in Australia and New Zealand,” believe the report’s authors, Michael McGann, Jenny Lewis and Emma Blomkamp.

Mostly they either sit within government or are substantially government-funded, and in most cases they are pretty small, with almost half employing six or fewer staff. Perhaps, for this reason, they also tend to frequently draw on external expertise through contractors, consultants and secondments.

More than half of the labs work in the field of social issues, housing and welfare, while other prominent policy areas include public administration and governance, education, health, and Indigenous and Maori issues.

Within these policy sectors, the researchers identified three distinct domains of innovation that PSI units are involved in:

  • Policy development and reform: involving identifying or scoping problems, consulting with stakeholders, scaling and spreading new approaches, supporting and developing partnerships, developing policy proposals and reforms, and working on systemic change;
  • Evaluation and systems improvement: based around evaluating programs/trials/pilots, incorporating technology into public administration, organisational change management, and business systems or process improvement; and
  • User and customer-experience: understanding users’ experiences, generating ideas, piloting/prototyping solutions, and service or customer experience (re)design.

The survey also revealed something rather odd: a significant minority of units reported never communicating with an individual member of the public or a representative from a community interest group.

“The lack of engagement with citizens and community stakeholders is particularly surprising in light of the very strong emphasis that PSI units seem to place on understanding citizens’/users’ experiences, consulting with stakeholders, and service or customer experience (re)design in terms of how they describe the domains of innovation that they frequently work on,” say the report’s authors:

“This raises the question of how PSI units are consulting and engaging with citizens to understand their experiences and co-design new approaches and services with them, if many never actually communicate with individual members of the public or representatives of citizen interest groups.”

The approaches of PSI units were focused around three methodological frameworks, of which human-centred design was the most common:

  • Human-centred design: associated with the use of interviews and/or empathy conversations, focus groups, ethnographic methods, citizen/stakeholder engagement through workshops, walkthroughs, and other collaborative approaches, user testing or prototyping, and systems thinking or mapping;
  • Evidence-based: associated with the use of randomised control trials, behavioural insights, survey research, research or evidence reviews, and the analysis of existing (big) data sets; and
  • Agile methods: associated with the use of design sprints, agile or lean project management, and challenge prizes, awards, and open innovation programs.

The survey is the first phase in a broader research project that the Policy Lab is conducting supported by a research grant from The Australia and New Zealand School of Government in 2018.

The research team will continue this project and build on the survey results by carrying out five case studies of PSI units working on various policy and innovation domains at different levels of government.

The case studies will provide richer insights into the governance and operations of the selected PSI units, their relationships with other actors and institutions, and the methodological approaches they apply.

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