The future of innovation labs: accelerating social movements or convening solutions ecosystems?

Friday, July 31, 2015

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

At the Global Labworks conference in London a few weeks ago, Charles Leadbeater and Bill Eggers put forward two very different views on how innovation labs ought to position themselves in the future. Leadbeater argued that innovation labs ought to graft onto / align themselves with a social movement and use that movement / help that movement to scale. Eggers on the other hand argued that innovation labs ought to position themselves as the conveners of the solutions ecosystems. Both talks are embedded below.


The difference in theory is slight albeit important.

First, I have difficulty imagining a world where government run innovation labs could align themselves publicly with a particular movement while maintaining their public service neutrality. Neutrality is key and while in practice their is always a brokering of ideas within the civil service, directly espousing a particular position would risk politicizing the civil service and turning an internal innovation lab into a lobby group (think regulatory capture). Now it is very much worth pointing out that this is not a concern for privately run labs that operate outside traditional government controls where neutrality isn't an issue.

Second, if you are sympathetic to the idea that governments are losing their traditional monopolies, incumbents are struggling to remain relevant, and innovative upstarts are growing exponentially in both numbers and impact then you are also likely sympathetic to the idea that the emerging role for governments is to use their convening power to help influence a larger ecosystem in favour of their citizens.

The difference in practice is more apparent.

If labs were to join movements than in the field of transportation the may decide to champion public transportation as their movement (there are plenty of pro-public transit voices out there). In so doing they would likely position themselves as a trusted and vocal champion and marshal resources towards making the public transit system more efficient for transit users. As such, their efforts are likely to be aimed at the system itself and its supporting assets.

On the other hand, if labs were to act as conveners of solutions for the broader transportation ecosystem then the public transportation system would be one input of many being considered by the lab; others could include regulated taxis, unregulated taxis ride shares, bike shares, long-haul commercial transportation providers, automotive manufacturers, technology companies, etc. As a result the lab could be looking at things like social transport, automated driving, shared transportation models, real-time traffic management, tax incentives, employer matches, road pricing, etc. All of which means of course that the scope for innovation is much broader than improvements to the public transit system.

In fairness, I doubt very much that Leadbeater's was thinking about public transportation when he advised lab practitioners to "link to a social movement" but my fear is that that narrow scoping of the issue (from ecosystems approach to the myopia singular input) is the reflex in most public institutions.

If nothing else the two presentations, when coupled together, should highlight that there are is distinct choice in front of lab leaders to decide where to intervene and how. In my experience it is generally a choice that we often speed right through in the interests of innovation but ultimately that decision set informs, underpins and/or undermines those downstream efforts. I may not agree with Leadbeater's advice to link to a social movement, at least in the context of in house government labs, but I whole heartedly agree with his affirmation that having a clear expectation of what your lab does from where is paramount (See: Quick Thoughts From Nesta's Labworks 2015).

Government, Citizens, and Power

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

A fairly basic element of our entire governance model is changing. Governments have decision-making power, and they're increasingly called upon to share it with citizens. 

Albeit in a range of ways, some more comfortable and certain than others. One way of conceptualizing this is the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) Spectrum of Engagement:

I'll draw your attention to the Empower idea, where final decision-making authority rests with the citizen. I'd like to make a case that, while empowering citizens seems uncertain or risky, it's likely often the best approach and actually solves several systemic issues that we talk about on CPSRenewal.

The experimentation problem

When the system is that government listens, considers, then decides, it's responsible and accountable for the process, the accepted ideas, the rejected ideas, and the outcomes - with all the limitations and scrutiny of government. If the system is, instead, that final decision-making power is in citizens' hands - in well-defined and inclusively agreed-upon parameters - the risk calculation is very different. Government is held to account for the decision-making system, not the outcomes.

In Melissa's last post, she describes her goal of a government that learns by design, which includes constant experimentation and feeding lessons back into the system. But it's still the same organization producing and approving the experiments. We can A/B test two approaches (i.e., having two cohorts use two versions of the same product or service and monitoring the results), but neither version is likely to be radical - making these experiments about optimization of the status quo, not revolution of any sort.

For example, a while back I wrote about an event called Policy Ignite (see: Between Disruption and Incrementalism). The idea is that public servants pitch unconventional approaches to policy development, and a committee of senior executives choose the most promising to further develop and pilot. My take was that if the committee instead chose to approve a pilot exactly as the idea was pitched, we'd get far more novel experiments out of it and learn more. The problem is that by including the "further develop" phase, the committee members became responsible for the ideas themselves.

The recommendation problem

Along most of the IAP2 Spectrum the problem is that citizens' role is relegated to that of recommender, and I'll argue that this is, more often than we think, a bad deal for both governments and the citizens themselves.

A while back I argued against potentially polarizing systems based everyone getting an opportunity to make recommendations (see: How Organizations Plan). Alternativelymaking stakeholders responsible for the final decision does a number of things:

  1. Forces recommenders to think through the implementation of their recommendation, not just the goal
  2. Makes recommenders accountable for the outcomes, not just the conspicuous promotion of the agenda they represent
  3. Removes recommenders' safety net of knowing that someone else is going to further study and assess their recommendation, motivating diligence
  4. Encourages compromise and consensus

An aside: I think the above applies internally, as well: I suspect most employees would submit markedly better work if it went straight into production, instead of being reviewed by a half-dozen others.

In both cases we have a vicious cycle of X (government or an executive) having to keep control because they don't know what would happen otherwise, and they'll never know what would happen otherwise because they keep control.

Assumptions about power

Lastly, I want note that empowering stakeholders is likely less risky than it seems, partially because we misunderstand the level of risk in the status quo because of our assumptions about power. I opened with a believable line: "Governments have decision-making power, and they're increasingly called upon to share it with citizens", but it's actually far less ironclad than it seems.

An IAP2 Canada member, Steph Roy McCallum, put it nicely in a post on Re-imagining the IAP2 Spectrum, and I'll leave it at that (emphasis mine):

“The IAP2 spectrum needs to be re-thought because it is presented as if the decision-maker has the control, and that the Inform and Consult levels are irrelevant at best in our complex, controversial world, and at worst are part of the problem by contributing to polarization and conflict through suggestion that those levels are acceptable in situations where there may be an outcry to be heard, but that the organization doesn’t want or is unable to meet the demands. I think I probably also said that the “empower” level suggests that the organization or decision-maker has the ability to empower others, without considering that communities and individuals have power of their own that is not conferred on them by the decision-maker.

Quick Thoughts from Nesta's Labworks 2015

Friday, July 17, 2015
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

Last week I was lucky enough to be at Nesta's LabWorks 2015 - Global Lab Gathering London. I attended the conference as both a delegate and a speaker, having the opportunity to both take in the day but also help shape it by setting up a panel discussion exploring the question: What is the best model for public sector innovation. Overall, the conference was one of the better one's I've attended in recent history and it was a great opportunity to catch up with some old friends and make new ones.

One of the key takeaways for me was a diagram that Charles Leadbeater used to explain the lab ecosystem:

He argued that the prevailing world view from the innovation literature is that while no one wants to be on the red line (old systems being disrupted) and everyone wants to be on the green line (new disruptive innovations) the reality is that there are people (and labs) operating (and innovating) all along both lines. Some are innovating to maintain the status quo, others to change it, and that ultimately these forces meet somewhere along the curve and create new possibilities and futures that spin out in a multiplicity of directions.

I thought the description was not only incredibly apt but challenged the audience to think more critically about where their lab was in the ecosystem and what purpose it served. Broadly speaking, the feeling I get is that everyone likes to stylize their work as being in that cool place on the lower left part of that green curve when that's not always the case.

I'd share more right now, but my brain is still operating in another time zone.


A Government that Learns by Design

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

by Melissa Tullio RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewaltwitter / creativegov

In an earlier blog post, I talked about values and our social contract with people (see: Open Gov, Values, and the Social Contract). I touched briefly on an idea that Nesta posted on their blog about cognitive government. Nesta posed an interesting challenge in that post:
How can governments shorten their learning curve to more effectively adapt to the technological changes that surround them?
It will come as no surprise to people who have worked with me, or even if you've read a couple of my posts here on this blog, that I think we need to begin with examining what values we support and demonstrate inside government in order to tackle Nesta's challenge. An assumption embedded in their challenge is that government has the kind of learning culture to support adaptation, so I think we need to dig deeper.

Based on my seven years exploring the government culture, an assumption I've been able to test (and confirm) is that innovation and creativity are things that governments don't inherently value (they usually require you to fill out a business case template to consider such things <tongue-in-cheek>). So I have another challenge I've been thinking about related to cognitive government.
How might gov support a learning culture that allows for experimentation and creative ways of approaching the way we do our work?
My hypothesis is that a government that learns by its very design, and values creative mindsets, will be a government that adapts better to technological changes (and other shifting patterns and citizen expectations). My big idea would be to create opportunities in government, from the inside-out, to think and act like a lab.

Gov that Thinks and Acts like a Lab

Design thinking principles, from d.school's bootcamp bootleg
Because I've drunk the design thinking Kool-aid, so to speak, naturally, I believe that that's the approach we need to start applying in order to change the way we build and deliver government programs. There's a lot of lab and lab-like work going on across the globe to start transforming how government delivers services and programs to citizens.

In Nesta's 2014 report on i-teams — units that are established inside government to enable innovation in service design — successful teams have a few things in common with design thinking principles. One of the ten principles identified that i-teams possess is to "have a bias towards action and aim for rapid experimentation."

This is where you tell me "it'll never happen." Government isn't a fast-moving animal; it's the sloth1 of the services kingdom. But I'd argue that it's not about speed of overall change, or about being the first to play with the latest shiny object; it's about figuring out quickly how it might add value to existing processes.

The "figuring out quickly" part is where we can use (that is, demonstrate that we value) creativity — it's where, inside government, we should find ways to experiment, learn, and use those lessons to feed into existing programs and processes. And for that, you need people who understand the system, and are able to learn and apply some creative thinking.

People who Think and Act like a Lab

Any organization is as nimble and adaptable as the people it fosters. A learning culture supports experimentation; a culture that values creative mindsets is where innovative people are driven, and where they thrive. If you've followed me this far in the post and agree that gov should think and act more like a lab, we need to start thinking about how to attract and keep people who value innovation and creativity.

What would move us closer to adopting a culture that supports i-teams? What barriers are in the way, and how do we start getting around them or removing them completely? And if we can carve out a tiny space for them somewhere, what experiments might we run, on a small scale and in much needed parts of government (e.g., procurement? IT? Budget?), to test my hypothesis above?

This, of course, is unfair to sloths. I saw a little guy on Meet the Sloths come back from having a leg amputated, and he re-learned how to climb within a day after his bandages were removed. But the sanctuary does support a learning culture (and experimentation), so that might have been part of the reason for his success.


Wednesday, July 8, 2015

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

I'm a little late to the game, but I've been fascinated by reactions to a proposed idea for Canadian politics: an equal number of men and women in cabinet. The subsequent debates about diversity and the perceived conflict with the idea of merit are interesting, even setting aside politics, because those concepts are fundamental to the Canadian public service. From the Public Service Commission:

"The merit system has been the foundation of a competent, professional, non-partisan public service for almost a century."

But many people get the relationship between merit and diversity wrong.

The title of a recent Andrew Coyne piece suggests that such a "quota in Cabinet leaves out the principle of merit":

"If merit is defined in traditional terms, this is obvious nonsense. Suppose, in a governing caucus of, say, 180 members, one-third are women (their current proportion of the House of Commons is 25 per cent). And suppose that the talents and experience to be desired in a cabinet minister are distributed equally between the sexes, such that a fifth of either — 12 women, 24 men — might be considered cabinet material. If nevertheless the cabinet must have an equal number of women and men, then in a cabinet of 36 six women who should not have been appointed will be, and six men who should have been appointed will not be. That may be many things, but it is not the merit principle. 
The only way you can square that circle is if you redefine merit to mean diversity."
In response, Laura Dobson-Hughes wrote on the Policy Options blog:

"‘Merit’ is not itself a neutral concept. We can, for example, define merit as someone with expertise and lived experience in aboriginal affairs. Merit could be policy expertise in policing in black communities, or an understanding of healthcare provision for newcomers."

I could jump in with opinions, but it's the wrong argument. The issue is that merit, as it's colloquially understood, is a complete red herring. When a "merit-based appointment" is considered to mean "the most qualified person for the job", the provisions for diversity do indeed seem at odds, as Coyne describes. But what lurks just outside the conversation is that whether or not someone is good at their job isn't actually the ultimate goal. It's secondary to whether the system on the whole generates good outcomes.

In an environment where many people feed into decisions - through research, consultation, committees, governance structures, and the provision and consideration of advice - it's the dynamics and results of the group, the collective, that matter. To return to Dobson-Hughes's example, one's experience with healthcare provision for newcomers is moot in a committee stacked with colleagues that discount that knowledge.

In Collaboration and Creativity: The Small World Problem, a pair of researchers worked out a "u-shaped" benefit curve to group cohesion. Some familiarity bred comfort and collaborative norms, leading to better results. But too much meant that everyone had the same information and mental models, which inhibited those groups' ability to think outside the box and limited their results. In their model, appointing "the most qualified person for the job" would be sub-optimal - repeatedly and predictably. Turning back to the Canadian public service, such an approach would sacrifice another foundational principle: stewardship.

In the Canadian Public Service

The Public Service Employment Act seems to have squared the circle (emphasis mine):

"Under the PSEA, merit has two components. 
1. First, everyone who is appointed must meet the essential qualifications, which includes official language proficiency. 
2. Second, the manager (or other delegate of the deputy head) may take into account:
  • qualifications that are considered an asset for the work, currently or in the future; 
  • any current or future operational requirements and organizational needs that he or she has identified; and finally, 
  • the current and future needs of the public service, as determined by the employer, in deciding on the needs of their organization."

Not so at odds

Merit and diversity only seem to be in conflict if we conceptualize people's roles in government as the execution of their job descriptions in a vacuum, rather than the role they play in the broader system. 

Note: please don't take this to mean that I think we should aim for diversity 'even when someone isn't the best person for the job'. I'm really not saying that, merely questioning the debate itself. I'm also not defending a partisan platform - this topic was around long before that.