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.