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Article Article March 8th, 2016

Laws from the OPM lab: driving change in DC and beyond

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The Innovation Lab at OPM is the first of its kind in the federal government

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The OPM Lab Team serve as thought leaders and subject-matter experts to share lessons learned

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Design-based innovation gives public servants an opportunity to reconnect with citizens

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Two floors below the lobby of the Office of Personnel and Management (OPM), in a space previously inhabited by dormant boxes of files, Stephanie Wade and her team are cooking up a storm. Surrounded by blackboards and whiteboards, standing desks and post-it notes aplenty, they are figuring out new ways for government to innovate and deliver better services to citizens. The Lab, in other words, is open.

“It opened up as a physical space a couple of years ago,” she explains. “It's the first of its kind in the federal government. The impetus behind it was to create a space where government employees could interact differently.” She goes on to explain, however, that it is far more than just a place for her team to hang out.

“We needed to have a physical space, as this communicates something different to an employee,” she points out. “This is more powerful than just simply sending an email asking people to be more innovative. That kind of thing doesn't really signal change with much intent behind it. But when you create an actual space where people walk into it and feel different, this encourages people to try something new. We want them to believe that anything is possible and that no idea is a bad idea.”

Designing to deliver

Wade has been in post for approximately 18 months - her previous role was at her alma mater, Harvard, where she served as an advisor to its Innovation Lab. Now, though, instead of helping students interested in entrepreneurship and innovation, she - and her team - spend their days working with colleagues at OPM and other federal agencies to break down silos and create a culture within government that fosters rapid innovation.

“Our mandate is to work across the federal government to develop innovative public sector leaders,” she explains. “We do that using our human-centred design discipline. We have three main goals in the Lab - to be leaders, doers and teachers.” Fulfilling this trio of goals takes much of her time, it transpires.

“We serve as thought leaders and subject-matter experts in this kind of innovation work,” she says. “We've had a lot of agencies come to us to ask for advice on creating an innovation practice in their space and we also convene innovators from across the government and around the world to share best practices and lessons learned.”

Reflecting the ambition to do, they also establish partnerships to tackle challenging problems together. It's a way to help implement real change, but it's also an opportunity to train other employees through project-based learning. “This leads to a ripple effect that is really powerful,” she says. “And for our third goal - teach - we offer workshops that set out the fundamental of the human-centred design discipline, both to employees and to the general public. It's all about helping government grow the capacity to be more innovative.”

Food for thought

A leading example of the success of its approach is the Lab's work with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which - through its Food and Nutrition Services - has a school lunch programme for low-income families. Some 30 million children benefit because they pay more attention in class and earn better grades, which helps them escape from the cycle of poverty.

“When we establish these partner projects we do it with them,” explains Wade. “It's a mix of our designers and their subject-matter experts. This really helps us when we go out into the field to get under the skin of these complex problems, and they are there with us, listening to the actual users of their services - the citizen who is the beneficiary of that programme. It's all about co-design, with them and with the citizens who use that service.”

In this project, Wade's team and colleagues from USDA sat down and talked to the end users - the parents - and discovered that a lot of what they thought was happening was different to what wasreally happening - a somewhat common occurrence.

“Having discovered these insights, we realised we needed to work on the service design because the application form was simply too complicated - particularly for people who don't have English as a first language and can have literacy issues,” she says. “And so we turned complicated instructions into a one-page guide. We prototyped it by sitting down with the parents who fill out the form to observe how they interacted with it. We were then able to see when they hesitated with it or had questions and, as a result, we were able to ask them what the problem was and quickly create a new version that made it clearer.”

The impact - both public and financial - has been huge. Released nationally this year, USDA anticipates that by the school year 2019 it will save $600 million - and that's not including the significant reduction in paper. The project also came first place in the Design Management Institute Awards, having been up against entrants such as Adobe and American Express.

“The project shows, rather than tells, about what is possible to achieve using this approach in government,” says Wade. “It takes a little time to get these types of case studies because demonstrating the impact doesn't happen overnight, but when you do get them it is really powerful.”

In demand

The USDA work is just one of many projects on the go. Others include programmes with the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the Department of Veterans Affairs, and helping the OPM upgrade its USAJOBS website - the portal used to apply for a government position - which receives two billion hits a year.

“The design was out of date and, in order for us to continue to attract the best and brightest talent to government, it was clear that changes had to be made - and not just to make it pretty,” explains Wade. “We're looking at the overall experience of how someone uses the service holistically - from start to finish - in order for it to be as seamless and easy as possible. So we have looked at who is using the website to better understand their needs and then take it from there. The first set of changes has already gone live, but there is much more to come.”

Looking ahead, she believes the future is bright - irrespective of who is the next occupant of the Oval Office. “There are already other innovation practices embedded across the federal government,” she points out. “I think that we all, collectively, have a really great story to tell and have shown that government employees want to innovate. We see it every day.”

Wade passionately believes that her team's work can help build a bridge between good intentions and impact on the ground - and this is a message that comes through loud and clear. “People come into the federal government because they want to do good,” she points out. “They want to improve people's lives, and design-based innovation gives them another opportunity to reconnect with the citizen who they came here to serve to begin with.”



  • Lab lessons. Andrea Siodmok and her team at the UK's Policy Lab are blazing a trail across the civil service. She tells us about designing new services around people's experiences
  • Different by design. Christian Bason is not one for the status quo. He takes time out from running the Danish Design Centre to tell us about a new way of creating policy
  • Welcome to the lab. Governments worldwide share an insatiable hunger for that flash of inspiration that can transform public services. To do so they increasingly rely on a lab, a bespoke group of individuals dedicated to driving innovation and impact. We speak to the director of Denmark's MindLab, Thomas Prehn, about this pioneering approach to policymaking
  • From imagination to innovation. Faced with what are often seen as mountainous challenges, policymakers are increasingly reliant on creativity to power their ascent. Alan Iny explains why thinking outside the box is just the start

Written by:

Adrian Brown Executive Director
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