Our Perspectives

Drivers of public services and policies of tomorrow – the role of government innovation labs

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Kolba Lab, run by UNDP and the government of Armenia, held a mapathon of accessible places in Yerevan. Photo: @gorkroyan

What comes to mind when you hear the term ‘innovation’? The public sector? – Thought not. But we are working on changing this.

Over the last three years, UNDP has set up innovation labs in five countries to support governments in designing the next generation of public services and to embark on experimental policy-design and another one is being set up right now. From Brazil, Colombia and Canada to South Africa, Israel, Malaysia and Singapore – the world map of labs is constantly growing. Government innovation labs, sometimes referred to as change labs, social labs or design labs, have been opening up in more and more places since the early 2000s.

What are Public Sector innovation labs and how do they work?

Government or public sector innovation labs are teams that combine expertise in innovation methods and public sector reform to improve policy design and the way governments deliver services to the public. Another important role of the labs is to help governments reframe challenges and to broaden the perspective of policy makers by bringing in the perspective of users. Labs help governments in creating better solutions based on citizen feedback and inputs. But ideally they are more than quick-solution delivery machines.

Labs can help governments rephrase challenges as sets of hypothesis that need to be tested before rolled out. A radical shift that implies moving away from policy as a solution to a problem and regard social challenges as problems that constantly evolve. Accordingly the solutions need to evolve too, especially to reach the most marginalized. Problem-solving as an iterative cycle. 

Denmark’s Mind Lab is considered to be a pioneer in this space. In the early days, most labs focused on redesigning public services and brought user-centered design to the public sector.

A recent initiative in Georgia is one example of how a design approach with a focus on better understanding the perspectives of users and prototyping solutions. UNDP worked with government partners on the challenge: how can we redesign the emergency services to make them accessible for people with hearing and seeing disabilities?

To solve this problem, we brought together policy makers, people with disabilities and activists for three days to jointly develop solutions. User-centered design tools such as User Journeys helped to better understand the problem and to design first prototypes. Fast-forward one year and the exercise resulted in a redesigned emergency service that won awards for its inclusiveness. This work also paved the way to establish Georgia’s Innovative Service Lab within the Ministry of Justice. Other labs focus on engaging citizens in designing solutions through Open Innovation Challenges, for example Armenia’s Kolba Lab or FYI Macedonia’s Social Innovation Hub

In recent years, many labs have incorporated additional approaches, especially data science and behavioral insights. This also extended the scope from public service improvement to policy design and institutional reforms. In particular an experimental approach to policy design, often based on randomized control trials, is gaining prominence. In Moldova, MiLab, a Social Innovation Lab jointly supported by UNDP and UN Women within the Prime Minister’s Office, is currently running a randomized control trial to find out what works to drive innovation among small and medium-sized enterprises. The results will inform future public policy.

This example is a testament to how labs help UNDP and partners to transform from an ‘answer delivery system’ to a ‘solution-generating system’. As there are no universally applicable ‘best practices’ to drive innovation for economic growth, an experimental policy design to find out what works in different contexts is the logic answer. 

What does the future hold for government innovation labs?

Successful labs have to walk a thin line: they need to deliver solid results in service and policy redesign and at the same time avoid becoming a top-down solution-delivery outfit without sufficient influence to create larger changes in the public sector. We know that senior leadership support is important and that the organizational home of a lab matters. Yet, there is no single answer to the question: where should we establish labs? Some countries have set up central units, while others have opted for a decentralized approach with labs in ministries or departments.

Many have created labs outside government too, hosted by non-profit organizations. In Canada, the Privy Council Office runs a Central Innovation Hub that acts as a resource for all federal government departments and agencies, connects innovators across the system and works with departments to support them with designing solutions to their sector challenges. Meanwhile, a number of departments have their own innovation labs, including the Innovation Lab at Employment and Social Development Canada, INspire at Natural Resources Canada and more.

Successful labs also need to find ways to embed innovation in the way things are done. This includes business processes, competencies and institutional reform. In UNDP, we are tackling these challenges as well. And as innovation seeks to change entire systems, starting with an experiment at a time, we are taking the next step in moving innovation from a weekend sport to a daily practice.

Making innovation the new normal

At the ‘Istanbul Innovation Days’ from 17 – 19 October we are bringing UNDP Country Office innovation champions and managers from all regions together with partners. There we will launch our Project Hacker Kit. This kit embeds a set of entry points for innovation within our programming guidelines and helps us look at planned activities as a set of assumptions that can be translated into experiments. Innovation, for us, is primarily about testing hypotheses and designing ethical experiments that show us what works and what does not. It is about the change we want to achieve, not the solution.

We know from independent evaluations that UNDP Country Offices that embraced innovation in their work have been able to design new services, embed new skills within their own teams and those of their clients and mobilize new funding. Our assumption is: if we embed innovation in our business processes and strengthen the support system for our colleagues to rethink linear development programme design, we will make a big step forward to innovate for the 2030 Agenda.

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