Learning from our International Counterparts – OPM Innovation Lab

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

Public sector innovation is something that public services across the world are looking at and there seem to be a lot of common issues. But are they really the same, or do local factors, local circumstances matter more?

This March I was lucky enough to spend two weeks trying to find out.

Last year we were fortunate enough to have the impressive Stephanie Wade, Director of the Innovation Lab at the Office of Personnel Management in Canberra for some meetings and a public talk. I’d actually first met Stephanie at the OECD ‘Innovating the Public Sector’ Conference in 2014, where we both participated in a session on innovation labs, and it was great to hear about the progress of the Lab. From these meetings, it seemed that there were a lot of shared issues that seemed the same – but I wanted to find out what it was like ‘on the ground’.

So I asked Stephanie “could I come and spend two weeks with your team, to find out how your Lab works?” And Stephanie was generous enough to say yes. Then, long story cut short, I spent 14 to 25 March with Stephanie and other members of the team, seeing what they did, how they worked and where they worked. It was a bit of a mix of immersion and ethnography.

What did I learn? Well, the following are some things I drew from my experience at the Lab. These very much build on my experience with DesignGov and other labs in Australia, and conversations with others in labs in other countries. Some of these observations were confirmed or reinforced by the trip, and others were insights triggered by visit. Of course all of this is firmly in the realm of ‘anecdata’, rather than being definitive!

1. Labs ‘stick out’

While the number of innovation labs around the world has grown substantially, they are still pretty new and they tend to ‘stick out’. This tends to play out in a number of ways.

First, there are always people interested in finding out what a lab is, and who want to have a look at the physical space of the lab – either as something that they could adapt, use, work with or just to understand or see.

Second, a lab, by its nature, is different to its host/surrounding organisation. That seems to make labs a natural first point of contact for others who are doing different or new things that don’t match neatly with other public service structures.

Even in the short time I was with the Innovation Lab, I saw a number of people come through who were interested in understanding what a public sector innovation lab was. There were also a number of people who were doing something different in the public sphere and were keen to connect with and learn from others.

My tentative hypothesis is that labs, as new entities, often play a natural role in acting as brokers and as entry points into large systems for those who are doing new things that don’t naturally align to existing structures and silos within public sector organisations. If you are doing something novel, it can be hard to find a corresponding area within government that will line up with what you’re doing. A lab is a structure that is more open and has an inbuilt appreciation of different ways of thinking, and so is a natural attraction point for ‘outsiders’ looking to engage with government and its systems.

The flip side of that is that labs/innovation teams can be perceived as doing/having a lot of meetings/interactions with lots of groups where the possible benefits are unclear. Experimentation and ongoing relationship building with diverse groups are different methods of operation and it can be hard to demonstrate or communicate the value that is gained from such conversations and connections (though I would argue that value is very real).

2. Labs, then, play a big part in a wider innovation eco-system

This relationship building is connected with the role that labs can/often play within the wider innovation eco-system. For instance, I observed that the OPM Innovation Lab plays a number of roles, including:

  • Running monthly training for US federal government employees in human centred design
  • Holding events, including presentations from guest speakers, bringing together interested people together to learn more about the practice of design and innovation
  • Connecting with others doing similar work locally, nationally and internationally
  • Building those relationships with ‘uncommon partners’, who may be doing something very different, but where there is potential to collaborate in exciting ways.
  • Working with partners to co-develop develop and implement innovative solutions with citizens across many systems that improve the way government works and delivers on its services.

Activities such as this – which I’ve seen from other labs – seems to make labs/innovation teams a bit of a node in the broader system. They play an important role as connector, as aggregator, and as a hub for lessons and insights about how to apply new approaches.

3. Labs are helping connect design with other methods and mindsets

Many labs take a design-led approach to innovation and problem-solving. Design offers many advantages given its elements of:

  • Focusing on the whole experience, rather than one sliver as seen by an agency or line area
  • Attention to the ‘why’ underlying problems, rather than just the what, and its focus on getting to the root causes
  • Fast iteration and testing
  • Questioning assumptions and trying to ensure that parties, with different perspectives, have a shared understanding of the problem and the options for addressing it.

However design, despite having a long history, is still relatively new in its integration with other approaches and methods in the public service. In addition, with technological and social changes, many of those other approaches and methods aren’t standing still – they consist of evolving practices, just like design.

Labs tend, then, to be testing beds for linking design with both traditional public sector techniques and other newer disciplines.

I found it very enlightening to sit in on meetings at the Innovation Lab for one of their projects and see how they were fitting design with an Agile approach. I was very impressed by the maturity of the application of design methods and how the Lab had built a ‘supply chain’ of the design outputs to feed their work into the Agile IT development.

From speaking with the team, I also appreciated that this wasn’t an overnight occurrence – it had taken time, getting people with the right skills, and practice.

The advantage of such experimentation is that it can really improve outcomes. I think there are challenges though for labs in translating the lessons from that experimentation to others. It is a very experiential process – and that tends to limit how fast that mix of methods and approaches can travel to others.

This is why it is so important for labs to bring people in and involve them in the projects and work of the lab – this cross-disciplinary approach is hard to convey through just talking or reading about it.

4. Labs and existing processes aren’t always a straightforward mix

This challenge in communicating the work of innovation labs has other impacts. Innovation labs are different beasts to their home organisations. Labs are introduced in order to work in new ways, to bring people together in new ways, and to do different things.

Yet that is not always a comfortable mix with existing processes which have been developed for the more ‘business-as-usual’ work. This tension can manifest in small or big ways, but tends to take up energy and time for those in a lab (and their counterparts outside) as they try to negotiate or navigate to an agreeable outcome.

This tension is generally systemic – and therefore it can be hard for each side to really appreciate the perspective of the other. Those in labs see themselves as doing important valuable work that can be held back by mismatched procedures. Yet owners of those procedures may be working within a ruleset (or an interpretation of that ruleset) that they are responsible for others complying with.

While these issues can be overcome (and often are), it is an added friction/transaction cost that other areas generally do not have to deal with as frequently.

5. Labs are powered by passionate people

For that and many other reasons the work of innovation labs and innovation teams can be tricky. Not only are there those tensions with existing processes, expectations and reporting processes, there are:

  • The challenges of establishing new business/operating models and building/assembling the teams and processes to fit them
  • Ongoing educational and communications aspects, helping others to understand the idea of a lab and what’s involved, and what can be expected from a lab
  • Learning curves from applying design and other approaches in environments used to more traditional project management or policy development methods.

Labs therefore often tend to (need to?) rely on highly motivated and passionate people who are prepared for/have the energy for those ongoing ‘transaction’ costs of doing day to day work in a different way. This work can be very satisfying, but I’m not sure that the psychic costs involved are always recognised. It’s hard and challenging work, and work that does not have a clear and shared reference point for what success looks like (yet).

6. Labs have many similarities and some differences

In short, the experience helped confirm for me that while there are differences between labs, their working environments and the settings they are in, the similarities and shared issues and experiences are more relevant.

Overall it was a valuable experience with lessons that should feed into our work here in the Australian Public Service.

Public sector innovation is a global movement, and there’s a lot we can learn from each other when we’re willing to share. I’d like to give a special thanks to Stephanie (and her team) for hosting me and being so generous with their time and experiences.