Innovation and Design Insights – Visit by Christian Bason

[Originally published on the Australian Government Public Sector Innovation Network under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY AU licence]

Question – what do the UK, US, Singapore and Australia have in common?

Answer – one of the things in common is that all of these countries now have government innovation labs incorporating behavioural insights, design and experimentation.

On Friday November 9, some of us in Canberra met with Christian Bason, the Director of Innovation for Denmark’s MindLab, and heard from him about design and innovation around the world, including in each of those countries. MindLab’s success was the inspiration for the Australian Public Service’s (APS) Centre for Excellence in Public Sector Design (‘the Centre’).

Christian was kind enough to extend his trip to Singapore and Western Australia with a short one day visit to Canberra (supported by the Centre, ComCare and the Department of Human Services), where he met with ComCare, gave a presentation to staff from various agencies at the Department of Human Services, and had lunch with Secretaries and Deputy Secretaries from APS agencies to talk about the importance of design and his lessons from MindLab as well as what we might learn as we proceed with our pilot Centre.

I was lucky enough to meet and speak with Christian a number of times over the past four years while working on public sector innovation and design, and I get something of value out of each visit.

For those who might be interested I’d like to share some of what I learnt from this visit –  from the presentation and meetings with staff at the Department of Human Services. From the cross-agency

    • There is a growing trend around design and co-creation around the world, with the most recent additions being our Centre and Singapore’s Design Thinking Unit, located within the Prime Minister’s Office Singapore is facing challenges that would be familiar to many other countries – changing demographics and changing expectations of government. These require a more human-centred approach to policy
    • In Denmark, MindLab has worked for the last decade to apply design and to invest in new ideas and ways to improve the public sector, something that was new at the time
    • Now every local government in Denmark is building innovation into its strategies
    • MindLab does a lot of work in helping other agencies drive change and undertake change projects
    • Christian defines innovation as being about new ideas that are implemented and which create value
    • An important skill is professional empathy or the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. In the public sector there can be a tendency to forget who we are there to serve
    • A lot of public servants join the public sector to make a difference but then spend time enforcing rules and not knowing whether they are making a positive difference. They can forget what the ultimate end goal is and get caught up in the activity rather than the outcome
    • A lot of what MindLab does is spending time with people – interviews and recordings and observation
    • Recordings can be really valuable in providing eye-opening experiences for public servants – helping people see the consequences of their processes on the people who they are serving
    • Christian said it is a very tough thing, almost brutal, to be face to face with the results of your work that you thought was making a positive difference, and seeing how it plays out differently in reality
    • One of the issues at the moment is that very few public agencies are able to capture and access rich qualitative date about what people are actually experiencing
    • This sort of knowledge is so rich and specific that it helps point to directions for change and improvement
    • An important principle of the work of MindLab is rehearsing the future – trying stuff out and experimenting/prototyping, trying small things out in a systematic way
    • This is different from undertaking a pilot. Pilots are often prepared or developed in a way that they choose the conditions for success – rather than piloting in circumstances that might reflect the real world
    • Rehearsing the future is a way of trying things out and it can be a humbling process as you have to be willing to admit that you don’t know things and be prepared to ask questions
    • Designers are helpful in this process because they can help show what things might look like
    • Christian gave the example of a New York project looking at changing schools from being class centric to being student centric. As part of the project the school did a ten minute film about
      what the school might look like in three or five years with such a shift – whereas trying to explain in words what being ‘student centric’ would be very difficult. The film made it ‘real’, and it has now been implemented
    • Another important principle for the work of MindLab is about locating design within broader systems
    • They work to bring together all of the stakeholders and help them see how the situation and the broader system might change – changing interactions within the public sector is often about redesigning an entire system of interactions
    • This is a tough approach, and one that Christian said is no easier in Denmark than it would be in Australia
    • All of this work is about change and change is really tough. Change means that there are people who will have to change what they do and that is always confronting
    • Christian noted that many areas of the public sector are going to have to change what they do anyway because of the global fiscal austerity, but that if we want meaningful change then we need to be willing to embrace these sorts of innovative approaches
    • Christian pointed out the importance of having senior management engaged with these change processes and of the value of having a compelling vision of the change and why it is needed – as well as the conventional measures of business cases and financial measures
    • He noted that it becomes really hard to not be part of the change process if you are engaged in it.

Christian also met with some of the design areas of the Department of Human Services (who kindly let those of us from the Centre sit in). From those meetings, some additional valuable points from Christian included:

    • Visualisation and narratives are really important in having a ‘common-sensical’ dialogue across agencies, as they are means of cutting across different agency perspectives and languages and allowing for a discussion about concrete matters
    • Any design process should be designed for the specific occasion and context and should be flexible enough to change according to what is needed – you need to have people feel comfortable sharing their experience and insights, and that is more important than the specific methodology or process
    • Christian mentioned that the ancient Greeks identified three modes of persuasion – ethos, pathos and logus – and that the public service is very good at the logus, or logical, element, but has traditionally been less good at embracing other types of knowledge (such as qualitative experiential knowledge) and using the emotional (pathos) and authority/ethical (ethos) sides to convey their arguments
    • The public sector needs to get better at bringing the rich qualitative, experiential data into consideration in its decision-making processes Christian noted that there is limited value in using focus groups at the early stage of the design process as they are not contextual and there are peer/power dynamics, and the participants will often use different language to what they might in their own settings
    • If you want to understand real life you have to go to where people are interacting with your services and observe and interview them. In this grounded research you are looking for patterns of practice rather than statistical meaning
    • Focus groups can be used at the later stages of testing out prototypes and getting opinions
    • Public sector agencies need to get better at the language of risk and understand how design and innovation can help ‘de-risk’ activities and separate the ‘dumb’ errors from the ‘smart’ errors (where we learn more about what works, even if the immediate result is not a success).

There was much more, but hopefully I’ve done a reasonable job at accurately capturing some of the key insights. For others who got to hear Christian speak in Canberra (or our colleagues in Western
Australia who got to meet with him), please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.

We at the Centre would like to offer a big thank you to Christian for his time and sharing his experiences.