The UK’s Cabinet Office may lack the prestige and history of the Treasury or Foreign Office but it nonetheless wields significant clout.
Based next door to Number 10 Downing Street, and benefiting from internal corridors to the prime minister’s suite of offices, the department is made up of different units that support Cabinet committees and coordinate the delivery of government services. This role gives it wide oversight across other departments and enables it to ensure that government objectives are aligned along a consistent direction of travel.
For the last two years it has also been home to Policy Lab, a new (and small) team trying out new techniques, which is headed by Dr Andrea Siodmok. Its focus is the end user or customer experience, and it seeks to use its expertise in service design and prototyping to test fresh ideas and approaches. Siodmok – formerly an advisor to the Technology Strategy Board, Cornwall Council’s chief designer and chief design officer at the Design Council – says it is about creating space for new ways of working.
“We’re focused on designing more open, collaborative and creative approaches with a particular focus on people, particularly those who the government is trying to help in one way or another,” she explains. “We are a neutral space to see what works and then extend it out across the whole system – and the lab is the frontline of this innovation.”
A quiet revolution
The Policy Lab is the first of its kind in UK and is heavily influenced by a number of international examples, such as MindLab in Denmark.
“There have been various moves in this direction over many years and by successive governments – all around the role of design, innovation and creativity,” says Siodmok. “But I know that the Policy Profession, who own the Policy Lab, looked at MindLab and others around the world and they were keen to see what a UK Lab might do around the civil service reform agenda, but also this wider ambition to professionalise policymaking by making it more open and agile.”
Siodmok’s team have deliberately sought to avoid a radical shake-up of the system. Instead, collaboration and cooperation are at the forefront of their approach. “We think of ourselves as working with the system and building on the culture that is already there,” she says. “We don’t exist to disrupt things particularly. We’re more interested in identifying best practice, wherever it exists, and then sharing those lessons across the system more broadly.”
These manifest themselves by the decision not to have an actual Lab room festooned with bean bags and Post-it Notes – the type of space commonly found on the American west coast to promote innovation. “For us, we have to be part of the policymaking process and led by the profession so we don’t become a separate operation,” explains Siodmok.
From theory to Policy Lab delivery
The first project that Policy Lab worked on was a collaboration with the Home Office and the police forces of Surrey and Sussex. It looked at how crime reporting might change in the context of new digital technologies – and if people were to report crime online.
“From our work, the home secretary was able to announce that the police would probably be able to save 180,000 hours of police time, as well as £3.7 million every year,” recalls Siodmok. “It was a really interesting example of doing a quite contained piece of work and then scaling the change so that other police forces are taking it forward, too.”
Its success drew wide attention for its impact and was nominated for a Civil Service Award – ahead of more than 200 other entrants in the Innovation category. “For our very first project to be a finalist was very satisfying – and indeed surprising, because we hadn’t even realised it had been nominated,” says Siodmok. “But it was in there because the team had tried new ways of working and there is always a challenge about taking a risk like that, but the team showed that it can be done.”
Its success also shows the potential of bringing user-centred design to the centre of policymaking, as well as how new digital tools, such as prototyping and advanced analytics, can lead to stronger outcomes. Its success has also opened the doors to a steady stream of projects heading the team’s way. “The pipeline of projects is actually exceeding our capacity, and the projects themselves are getting more challenging and intractable,” she says. “I think, though, that this is a sign that our colleagues trust us, and trust our ways of working.”
However, Siodmok goes on to say that, despite this success, she remains on a mission to spread the word and gain further prominence within the system for her team. “If it was plain sailing and straightforward then I don’t think we would be needed in the first place,” she points out. “There is always more to do in terms of awareness-raising amongst civil servants and others. We spend a lot of time going to awaydays and workshops in order to reach as many policymakers as possible – I think we spoke to about 2,000 in total during the course of 2015. But there is always more to be done.”
It’s a phrase that is an apt summation of the Policy Lab approach as a whole. With eyes fixed firmly on the road ahead, theirs is a pathway to a new way of working, driven by the idea that there can be a better way, and a better set of outcomes as a result.
“Our work is constantly finding where that edge is and building confidence about working in that space,” concludes Siodmok. “The next step will be taking us out of the realm of Whitehall and into the frontline. But things evolve. We’re dealing with different changes all the time – only if the world stood still for a minute would our work be done.”
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