Lab Legacies #3: The value of a lab

For the third discussion in our Lab Legacies series, Jesper was joined by Andrea Siodmok from the UK Policy Lab and Stephanie Wade, director of the Innovation Teams programme at Bloomberg Philanthropies. They discussed how we are still in the early stages of the innovation agenda; the variety of ways to measure the impact of innovation work; the importance of working with the right people; and how radical change can come through lots of small steps.

Show people it works and they will get behind it

Stephanie: If a public organisation wants to nurture innovation, there seem to be two ways that tends to happen.

The first is they might commission a lab to grow a culture of innovation and train up their staff. This can drum up interest and make people aware of new approaches. But may not actually get used in people’s day-to-day work. It’s not the best way to show people that this will make you better at your job.

The second is a lab that focuses on a particular project, creating and delivering a solution and then developing a culture outwards from that. It’s a powerful way to get people to have that ‘eureka’ moment and comes about because you are directly showing people how it can help solve their problems. You work with smaller groups of people at a time, so building the wider cultural change in an organisation can take a lot more time and work.

We are very much in the foothills of the entire innovation agenda

Andrea: The world of innovation hasn’t been over-claiming. I still believe it has enormous potential to make a difference. But there's been a lot of hype around innovation, design-thinking and labs. You don’t have to go back far to see ‘policy labs’ past the peak of ‘inflated expectations’ on Gartner’s hype cycle. This was never going to be an overnight success. Public servants I talk to have an onus on them to be ‘more innovative’, but there’s still a big knowledge gap to knowing how to do that. There’s a lot of work left to do.

Prove it works and people will follow

Stephanie: Bloomberg Philanthropies funds and trains dedicated innovation teams (i-teams) in cities across the world. Their task is to tackle the big issues facing cities and achieve measurable impact along the way. They are also there to spread these innovation approaches across city hall.

Impact is not always easy to measure, nor is it easy in the timeframes that projects tend to operate in.

But our philanthropic founder, Bloomberg, prides himself on decision-making based on data so it’s ingrained in our work. It forces us to work hard at understanding how we can measure impact. The end product has been useful case-studies that open doors and has built a rapidly growing demand for innovation work. Over five years we’ve gone from two Chief Innovation Officers in the US to 70 today. Mayors across the US are asking for advice on how to hire in this field because we can prove it works.

Start with the problem, don’t rush to a solution

Stephanie: The i-teams we work with have been good at not rushing to an answer or solution, which is not how we are brought up to believe. From an early age, we’re taught that we are smart if we have the right answer. You can see this through school, business and in government.

What we try to do is flip that on its head and start with the question, because there’s not always a right answer. Let’s acknowledge what we don’t know and start from there to figure out what we need to know. I can guarantee that if you have been working in a city on one issue for 30 years, there is still something that you can learn about it.

Using existing metrics to prove value

Andrea: The projects we work on have their own metrics that are determined by the department we work with, and so we are accountable in the exact same way that any other civil servant would be.

We don’t have our own special metrics because we are a ‘policy lab’.

As the Policy Lab is in government, we’re connected to colleagues in a way that makes accountability very felt. If we weren’t proving our worth, there would be no desire to work with us, and people across government would know that.

We measure the reach we have across government as an indicator of our ability to change the process of designing policy. We reach thousands of civil servants each year at events, workshops, policy schools and training. We also do this through our online platform the Open Policy Making Toolkit and our Policy Lab blogs. Some of these have been viewed over 30,000 times.

There is more than one way to measure impact

Stephanie: Our i-teams drill down into impact in three different ways. Output measures, efficiency measures, and outcome measures. The main priority for our i-teams is the project they work on.

Our i-team in LA is doing some amazing work on acceptable dwelling units in response to an affordable housing crisis. What the team does is find homes that have extra unused land on the property and they incentivise landowners to build housing on it. They try to get a proportion of those who build housing to take in homeless people too.

But how do we know that this will actually work?

One way is to measure the number of licences to build that have been applied for, and we’ve seen a 1900% increase as a result of this work. Here, we are asking them to measure a tangible thing around what has changed.

But from a behavioural standpoint, we also need to look at the outcomes, not just the outputs. This will be around affordability of housing overall, getting people to stay in the area and reducing homelessness. They are looking at building 10,000 units overall over the next decade or so and we want to follow the impact over the full lifecycle. If we do not measure it then we don’t know if it is actually working, so why would we do it?

Who you work with is more important than what you work on

Andrea: We are naturally drawn to the part of government that already wants to innovate. That is good for us because we get to work on exciting projects with people who are really up for it. Work with the willing because this work is difficult.

Very early on we meet with policy leaders to get a sense of whether they have the leadership qualities to drive innovation through. They need energy and commitment to the project. The innovation process is hard, and so while we can guide and coach them they must realise that they will be taking on more work. They don’t just hand over their project to us and we come back with the answer for them!

The downsides of working in this way are that you work only in pockets of government, so change can be quite uneven.

Someone must take ownership of a project

Stephanie: At the national level (as part of the OPM Lab in the US federal government), it was about tying yourself to the big things that were really visible and having the right partners. When we began doing this work at a federal level it was about finding somebody who would give this a try.

Our first clients said, “we’ve been dealing with this project for 10 years, we do not know what else to do, we are willing to try anything”

These are the people you need! Somebody who has control over resources is senior and motivated. They can become the advocates to start building change across a large organisation.

At the city level in the US, the Mayor's priorities shape the resources and focus of government and therefore the projects you work on. For that to work, you need to have all the different components of an organisation connected. You need the leadership at the top to be bought in. You need the grassroots level and the mid-level managers too because this is often where innovation can fall apart.

Someone needs to own the project. It can’t slip between the bureaucratic cracks. Our innovation teams are not the ones that solve the problems and deliver them on their own - they are there to facilitate collaboration around an issue. Whether a department or an individual with resources, you need a champion to keep the process moving forward and who is empowered to do the delivery. Without this ownership, you can go through the whole process, come up with great ideas and see them go nowhere.

Connecting the strategic and local level

Andrea: The nature of the Policy Lab team is that we can work with any of the 17 or so major government departments and beyond. We are a connector between strategy and delivery. We do that in two ways:

First, is detailed ethnographic work. We are out and about across the country directly engaging with citizens, with users of services and the public to understand what their issues are and get them into the early stages of policymaking. It reminds us why we are all in public service in the first place.

The second is about getting the right people together in the room. We get everybody around the table - politicians, academics, policy wonks and the public - and that is crucial to ensuring that the policies are informed by people that know what is going on. Policymakers do not have a monopoly on wisdom, and in a changing world, we need different voices around the table.

Bold innovation through a thousand tiny steps

Andrea: We call what we do ‘incremental radicalism’. We don’t tell people ‘we are going to disrupt you’. People are under enough pressure as it is. We find the place that could make a meaningful difference and work there. Each step we take builds on the last step we took and builds trust along the way.

Stephanie: There are things that just need fixing. It is not new, it is not sexy, it is purely incremental. It is essential because it makes people's lives better fast. Let's do those things we know we need to do. It builds a foundation for bigger challenges. Get that right and you start to raise the ambitions of a government. It gives you a solid place from which to start flipping the notion of what governments can do on its head.

It can be quietly revolutionary without ever feeling that way.

Stephanie: There are things that just need fixing. It is not new, it is not sexy, it is purely incremental. It is essential because it makes people's lives better fast. Let's do those things we know we need to do. It builds a foundation for bigger challenges. Get that right and you start to raise the ambitions of a government. It gives you a solid place from which to start flipping the notion of what governments can do on its head.

Labs will stop us from getting complacent

Stephanie: The lab should be at the junction between citizens’ needs, strategy and policy decisions. They should be the hubs of best practice and constantly push what is possible and what works best. But really, there shouldn’t be a solitary ‘lab’ in the future. The approaches labs today believe in should be embedded across organisations, with ‘experts’ scattered throughout departments championing their cause.

The reason there is a role for a lab in the long term is that this is a craft. No-one will be finished learning about this, it’s not a field that will stop evolving. We can’t have people adopting an approach and applying it without something there to keep moving the field forward. We need to check if we’re still having an impact and really nurture a culture of innovation.

About the Lab Legacies series

We all know that innovation in government is hard. It’s messy and beyond the scope of any one particular method or tool. As part of our ongoing Lab Legacies series, we want to move beyond glamourous case studies and instead share the practical experience of embedding innovation in government. Explore more from the series below.