It seems odd to say this, but Switzerland is not just a country. Sure, it is world famous for its landscape, watches and, of course, its chocolate (to name but a few), but it is also a byword for efficiency and order, competence and productivity.
Throw in a government that enjoys the highest levels of trust among OECD countries, and its cities regularly appearing near the top of global liveability indices, then – on the face of it – Switzerland might seem a somewhat unusual location for a new government lab to spring up.
But actually, the creation of staatslabor at the start of this year makes perfect sense – that’s the message from its director and cofounder, Alenka Bonnard.
“Compared to an Anglo-American country, Switzerland is quite risk-averse,” she explains. “This is because failing is very much frowned upon. It is seen as something that will mark your career and really stay with you. We also have a culture that encourages compromise. This is very beneficial in some ways, but it can also prevent radical proposals from emerging, because ideas get diluted very easily. Similarly, being seen as the ‘owner’ of an innovation is not very Swiss – we tend to shrink from the spotlight, especially when doing something new. All of this works against Swiss policymakers being more innovative.”
Enter staatslabor – which was set up to do precisely that.
Lab lessons, Swiss style
staatslabor is the latest in a number of government labs to take root in countries around the world. From the UK’s Policy Lab to the OPM Lab in the US, there is no shortage of such organisations, and Bonnard readily admits that she and her colleagues – including CPI’s programme director Danny Buerkli, who serves as staatslabor’s president – have drawn inspiration from their success.
“The fact that there other labs already up and running is one of the reasons we started it,” she says. “We were a group of like-minded people interested in public action, and to see it happening elsewhere, like Mindlab or in the UK with NESTA and the Behavioural Insights Team, was incredibly encouraging. But we also realised that we needed to figure out our own way, and do something that works in the Swiss context.”
This context includes the fact that the strong performance of public services means there is less pressure to seek out new ways of doing things. “I think that Swiss citizens tend to take their standard of living for granted,” she points out. “I used to live in Berlin, and even there I noticed a real difference when I tried to get anything done. In Switzerland, though, there is no area where you could say the government completely fails its citizens.”
But that doesn’t mean there’s no scope for improvement. For example, although Switzerland has topped the World Intellectual Property Organization’s Global Innovation Index as the most innovative country for each of the last seven years, Bonnard says more needs to be done. “Many public sector entities are reluctant to embark on new approaches,” she says. “And what innovation does exist is not evenly distributed throughout the country.”
Partly this is down to the country’s decentralised system. Switzerland is a confederation of 26 cantons and one federal system, with each canton enjoying a certain degree of autonomy regarding taxes, regulations and public services, much like a state in the US or Germany’s Bundesländer. Bonnard believes this system is both good and bad for innovation.
“Firstly, it makes it harder as there is no ‘one size fits all’ and we have very different cultures,” she explains. “The way innovation is approached in this environment in Zurich is absolutely not the same as in Geneva, for example. Different languages also make it difficult to share things quickly, as everything needs to be translated. But on the other hand, Switzerland can be seen as a perfect lab. It is a small country and if something new works at the tax office in Geneva then it could easily be tested in Zurich, as we have good oversight of what everyone is doing.”
Up to speed
Since its launch in January, staatslabor has been anything but idle. When asked what she and her colleagues have been up to, Bonnard lists a myriad of activities large and small. “We have been meeting a lot of public servants to find out what they need,” she says.
“We deliberately don’t want to come in and tell them what they need – far better to actually listen to what they have to say. As a result, we have small projects starting up in areas like social security and smoking prevention. We are also working with a big entity that is trying to reform its HR system. And we have created a pool of experts from universities, designers, anthropologists who want to get involved, and they have participated in a number of different events and meetings we have hosted. This is all recorded on our new website, where we also blog about interesting innovation developments.”
This assorted activity is all geared towards identifying where staatslabor can have the biggest impact, be it for a city or canton or nationally. “We’re just trying to figure out how to create value, and this is very difficult for our different systems,” says Bonnard. “A federal government needs more insight and new perspectives. By contrast, a city or canton will need practical tools to see how it has been done elsewhere. So, one aspect of the Lab’s work is to showcase some really strong examples from around the world, so people can be reassured by seeing evidence of what has happened somewhere else.”
Although Bonnard and her team have been focusing on the immediate task of getting staatslabor up and running, they are also setting their sights on the future direction of travel. Where does she hope it will be in five years, for example? “I hope that it is a place where lots of people can come when they need expertise or when they want to try something new,” she replies. “We want to be a safe space where bold approaches for new innovations can be tested out.”
Five years? By their rate of progress this year, it looks like staatslabor has already turned this ambition into reality. Talk about hitting the ground running – and there’s no sign of them slowing down any time soon. Quite the opposite, in fact.
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