This post has been published in English (by Policy Lab UK) and Spanish (by LabGobAr). A link to the Spanish version will appear here shortly.
We are lucky to have such a vibrant global community in government innovation. Every day we learn of new Public Sector Innovation Labs (#psilabs) and different ways to tackle complex policy challenges. But rarely do Labs get the opportunity to go into real depth, putting our own methodologies up for each other to challenge. As Policy Lab UK turned 5 years old and LabGobAr 3, we wanted to co-create a learning experience that moved beyond thinking models, guiding principles and theories of change. We needed to get into the real detail of how labs operate.
In November 2018, the Argentine government’s laboratory, LabGobAr, hosted a representative from the UK Government’s Policy Lab (Vasant). This visit was supported by the UK Embassy in Buenos Aires as part of the UK’s ongoing bilateral cooperation with Argentina in the area of modernisation and policy innovation.
During the visit, both teams were shocked by the similarities in our work, hopes and frustrations – not least the similar layout of our offices, presentations and challenge statements.
We would like to share some of our learning. Here are four things both labs learned from this exchange:
1. Labs can take more of their own medicine
Government Labs are in a constant search for new tools to help other teams solve their policy problems. Sometimes we are so focused on our partners’ challenges that we forget to find the time and space to practise the same type of exercises on ourselves. It can sometimes be a case of “do what I say, not what I do”.
Encounters like this ‘Policy Innovation Exchange’ are useful to re-think procedures, roles within the team, methodologies and ways to generate empathy with partners. It provides an opportunity for us to submit ourselves to the kind of critical challenge that we are so good at serving out to others!
Three days were enough to see that, even in very different contexts, there is much more that unites us than separates us. Therefore, it is important that public sector innovation labs around the world collaborate, share experiences and best-practices and tackle common challenges.
2. Prototyping: a strategy for early interaction with partners, as well as a research method
‘Learning through failure’ is not a commonly used phrase in the public sector – and it is rarely promoted as a theory of change. Methodologies used by government labs can be a novelty, and like everything new, they raise suspicion at first. Convincing a potential collaborator to face their problem with a different methodology is a challenge itself. Labs have different strategies to do so.
In their early engagement with policy teams, Policy Lab often run what they call a ‘Lab Light’: this is a workshop where they get to know the partner team and understand the policy challenge. Throughout this workshop the Policy Lab team collects initial ideas from the partner team – aware that teams always walk into engagements with some idea of what they think they should do about a problem. Those ideas can be quickly mocked up, turned into visual provocations (or ‘provo-types’) and used to spark conversations on what might work. This serves to either prove to the partner that a different approach is needed, to quickly discount unworkable ideas or to focus the investigation in the first place.
LabGobAr, uses prototypes in both the delivery and research process. In the first case, the objective is to test public interventions quickly as well as analysing and documenting their performance to communicate the results to the partner. In the second case, prototypes are a way for the team to learn directly from users and design real policy – not from a comfortable desk, but from where policy is delivered.
3. Evaluation: registering outputs or measuring outcomes?
Delivering value through evidence based policy is ever a trending topic in public sector discussions.
Both teams shared similar frustrations regarding the lack of effective evaluation tools for some types of policy innovation. Every time there is a discussion about this topic, hundreds of questions from labs around the world arise. After all, we both work in the early stages of policy development and idea generation. We can often say more about the ideas we have proved do not work (through really early and cheap methods), than about ideas that were a success. Where ideas have been successful, it’s hard to say whether it was a result of our intervention or other factors (especially high-performing delivery teams, who might be predisposed to using innovative methods).
As part of our exchange, we co-delivered a specific workshop, inspired by Mindlab’s approach to determining how much we align with our aims and drew up our own impact parameters (Mindlab was a Danish innovation lab – a picture of their cards is below).
You can view an English write-up of a co-designed policy evaluation matrix at this link. We would welcome comments on the approach we have taken: looking at the ‘stages’ from failure to success.
4. We are ready to help teams explore global challenges
Government labs around the world are finding ways to improve the decisions that public officials take. We are generating evidence that enables co-creation of public policies, we have an interdisciplinary perspective of problems and we prototype before implementing in order to reduce risk.
But we need to remember that our efforts are part of something bigger. Labs are changing the paradigm of thinking, designing and implementing public policies.
Perhaps it is time to move from labs learning from each other, to labs working together and executing projects jointly? This is the next step both Policy Lab and LabGobAr are looking forward to exploring in the next year.