Lab Legacies #2: How to position an innovation lab

In our second debate, Chelsea Mauldin from Public Policy Lab and Giulio Quaggiotto from Climate-KIC joined Jesper Christiansen for a wide-ranging conversation. They discussed how to broaden the spectrum of problem-solving; the core value of a lab; piggybacking on the digital agenda and why the in-or-out of government debate is a distraction.

Watch the full debate video above, or read on for our overview of the key insights.

Where should labs be placed to make the most difference?

Innovation labs can be successful both inside and outside of government. The short answer is: there are pros and cons to both. This isn’t really the crucial question. Whether a lab is inside government or outside, its main role should be to change the way government functions. How this is done is the more important aspect to consider. That is more about strategy, purpose and managing the politics of getting something done.

With that being said, below is a non-definitive list of the pros and cons to working inside or outside of government as we see it. If we’ve forgotten any or you think we’ve got it wrong, tell us.


The positives:

  • You are ‘officially neutral’.
  • Can see things that others don’t.
  • Can say things that others can’t.
  • Work across a variety of projects and areas.
  • Can bring outside news to different departments and policy areas.
  • Network across government more easily than if you were in government.
  • Usually have space for more radical solutions.

The drawbacks:

  • It can be a constant hustle for new work and new projects.
  • Don’t always have access to ‘inside’ data.
  • Can’t always see projects through to completion or implementation.
  • You might not be able to sufficiently influence government innovation capacity to sustain solutions and support skills development
  • You’ll miss out on important informal conversations.
  • Can be seen as ‘cool’ and a detached from the day-to-day reality of government work.


The positives:

  • You often have easier access to strategic decision-makers, and are better placed to influence core political agendas.
  • You often have a better understanding of the internal politics.
  • You often have financial stability.
  • You often have ownership of the solutions you create.
  • You often have a wider remit to grow innovation capacity across government.
  • You could function as a hub for cross-department collaboration
  • You can often work with more flexibility than an outside organisation.

The drawbacks:

  • Less knowledge of outside progress or news.
  • You might spend your time responding to internal demands or ‘trends’ that aren’t helpful.
  • You might not have enough influence over recruitment and team design.
  • You might have less influence on selecting and shaping projects.
  • You might have to compromise on which innovation methods you can use to navigate the existing red-tape.
  • You might not be able to work on the scale that the complex challenges call for.

Are we at peak lab?

If we see a new lab as another “ribbon-cutting ceremony” then yes, we’ve reached peak lab. It serves no purpose other than to create the illusion of looking at problems in a new way.

But, if a lab starts a genuine discussion about doing things differently in government then it can be a very effective thing to do. It’s more of an art than a science to discern between these two, but either way, a lab shouldn’t be more focused on its own survival than on having an impact.

What’s more important, bureaucratic or political support?

Political support is powerful in the short term. Politicians can focus energy and attention to make something happen, even if the institution they run is less enthused about the changes they want. However, it’s harder for them to affect long-term change because most politicians simply aren’t around for long enough to see those things through.

That tends to make bureaucracy more powerful in the long term for whole systems change. While politicians move on, the operational leadership, middle managers and frontline staff will still be there. Get them to believe in the work you are doing together and the skills they learn will come good in the long run.

Advocating the right way

Of course, you would rather not choose between bureaucratic or political support - you want both. Getting civil servants and the elected officials to align their working takes deft advocacy work. Find who will be interested in a certain project and shape an environment to get the right people together and onboard. Understanding what story you are looking to tell and understanding who you need to convince plays a large role in getting something to happen.

"Find who will be interested in a certain project and shape an environment to get the right people together and onboard."

Quick fixes don’t exist

Establishing that there are no easy answers is crucial in public innovation. It is both a matter of managing expectations and the hard reality of this kind of work. If it was easy, it would have been done by now. Building a strong relationship with your partners in government means that they can understand this too. That way, neither of you are expecting to have the answer.

What you do is start on the same page and design a more structured process to develop, test and prototype a variety of solutions. You have to explore where the gaps are before you design what you want to plug those gaps with.

Creating the space for new ideas

Getting an institution to improve itself to tackle the new challenges of the day requires a steady back and forth between its purpose, its approach and what it learns along the way. To do this, organisations need to create the space needed to try new things and learn from them.

The difficulty for most organisations - like governments - is they have made their decisions based on a quantitative logic. This assumes that what worked before might be a good predictor of what might work in the future. It doesn’t allow for that space needed to think more broadly about how you approach a problem, especially the complex ones that governments face.

A ‘portfolio logic’ for the big, complex issues

This is where a variety of different approaches proves useful - call it a portfolio. You have a rigorous discussion in your organisation about what you want to achieve, what your purpose is and then you have a variety of projects that fall under those parameters.

Some of these projects will not achieve what they hoped to achieve, and some of them may seem pretty left-field. This is ok as long as you learn from them. Use that learning to improve the next set of projects or to shift the entire focus of the organisation if that is what you have learnt is needed.

You can justify a wide variety of work if it is tightly wrapped by a coherent portfolio and prove that you are improving and learning along the way. As long as it is clear that you are not learning for the sake of learning, but learning so you are a step closer to taking action that makes a difference.

Embed this approach in an organisation and it should not need a whole-system change again, from then on the organisation would be renewing and updating itself in an endless cycle of improvement.

"As long as it is clear that you are not learning for the sake of learning, but learning so you are a step closer to taking action that makes a difference."

Help problems and solutions find each other

Good problem solving might mean looking far from the mainstream pool for ideas. A similar problem faced by science funders in determining the ‘most useful’ scientific research, the New Zealand Health Council designed a lottery system to select which applicants to fund. Awarding grants at random has come about precisely because it is simply too hard to choose between ‘useful’ and ‘useless’ research.

This is an important role for labs to play to enable problems and solutions to find each other - especially when they may come from very different places. A lab is often in a unique position to support this broad spectrum of experimental problem-solving.

Build trust with small projects

In government, there is a mix of people who are desperate for a quick fix, and the many, many civil servants that understand that these areas are often extremely complex and won’t come with an easy solution.

For the latter, it’s been fruitful having conversations with partners in government around small-scale investigations. No one is pretending that the solution is going to come without a complicated set of gears all shifting together. Explore what might be possible in particular areas rather than committing to full-blown systems change. That will come eventually, but the idea that you start with something modest has been a relief to government partners who are wary of easy answers to problems they know to be complex.

"No one is pretending that the solution is going to come without a complicated set of gears all shifting together."

Everything constantly changes

The context that you begin the work in is not the one in which you complete the work (if you get to see it through to completion at all). There will be times when what seemed to work a few years (or months, or weeks) ago simply won’t apply anymore. That could be because of political change, or it could be something like a natural disaster, like an earthquake or a hurricane. You can’t predict these things. Nobody can predict these things. Which means you have to be continually responsive to the world you are working in.

Building this resilience or the ability to renew a service or system should be hard-wired into all government projects. It is the only way to maintain a relevant and functioning government.

How to piggyback on the digital agenda?

The digital agenda can be a huge asset, after all, we want a government of the internet and not on the internet. Digital has brought huge benefits to the way government works but it has never been the solution on its own. It can only be part of a solution. To get to a place that really tackles a particular issue takes a lot of understanding and thought about what people need. Designing a useful digital service often means people have engaged in this discussion and explored how a system works and how people need it to work.

However, the digital agenda often fails to consider the underlying logic of how a system functions. We don’t always need a nice shiny app to solve all our problems. In some respects, digital has been a big distraction. It gives the impression that there are simple solutions to complex problems. This is can be an easy sell because there are people desperate for a quick-fix.

Labs put people first

There is a tension in the way that governments want to see each citizen the same way, even if their needs vary hugely. We’ve ended up with a system that cannot reflect the individual needs of its population - a one size fits all approach.

Labs have been hugely influential at reminding government that it needs to think about actual human needs, in all the shapes and forms that takes, and put people first. Labs are a big reminder of the scale of impact that government can have on people’s lives. And importantly - you do not have to throw out the whole system! We can show that government can be flexible enough to adapt to the needs of the public.

"We can show that government can be flexible enough to adapt to the needs of the public."

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.

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