The next big idea: governments want it; citizens expect it; and policymakers hunt high and low for it. But it’s not easy. Managing the government machine is all-consuming. The pressure for daily decisions and urgent responses is unremitting, and the fierce media spotlight never wavers. So, how can governments carve out the time and space they need to think, to plan, to innovate?
Increasingly they are turning to new units made up of specialist personnel, dedicated to creating new and better solutions for citizens. Known as ‘labs’, these teams are focused purely on delivery and innovation within government, and their new-found prevalence is a reflection of the challenging nature of public services, as well as a recognition that policymakers around the world have much to learn from each other’s experiences.
Blazing an early trail was Denmark’s MindLab, a cross-governmental innovation unit now into its second decade. Based in Copenhagen, it involves both citizens and businesses and is headed up by its head of innovation, Thomas Prehn. “I think that the most important thing about labs is that the real innovators are the organisations we work with,” he suggests. “This means that the real effort should be about disseminating innovative behaviour and cultural practices throughout an organisation. Once that has happened, you can discuss whether a lab is needed or not.”
In many respects, it should come as little surprise that Denmark was among the very first to recognise the need for such an organisation. Long seen as being at the cutting edge of public service delivery, it has garnered plaudits aplenty for its governance systems and strong public wellbeing. Any visitor to Copenhagen, for example, cannot fail to appreciate its modern infrastructure – no street is without a bicycle lane, for example – while its residents enjoy some of the best healthcare and childcare in the world.
Working in partnership with three government ministries and one municipality, MindLab’s operations cover a range of key policy areas – education, employment and digital, for example – all of which are focused on placing citizens’ needs at the forefront. “A lab should really be focused on how to change the way a public sector works,” explains Prehn. “The most important task for public service innovators should be to disseminate the way they work through an organisation, and then the organisations will, in some cases at least, be more innovative, agile and adaptive as a result.”
But it’s not always straightforward, he points out. Organisations – public and private sector alike – can be reluctant to embrace change, and this inertia, much of which is deep-rooted, makes it harder for innovation to thrive. To overcome these barriers, MindLab adopts a twin-track approach – one that focuses on specific projects, as well as a broader push to drive cultural change. Prehn says that it is important they focus equally on both.
“MindLab is needed to be part of projects, otherwise driving cultural change would only be talk, talk, talk,” he points out. “We have the projects, which is where we create very tangible value together with our partner organisations, and therefore also the funders of MindLab. And within the projects we learn about the behavioural practices within the organisations we work with.”
He goes on to say that this type of work is much more effective than simply gathering a set of policymakers together for a seminar or lecture about innovation. Better to participate and do than just listen and talk.
“I’m not a great fan of training,” he reflects. “I don’t think you can do a training workshop where you bring people together and show them different design method tools. Instead, I think you should be part of a process where you actually create something. Then the lab way of working can scale and be more involved in more projects at different levels in the organisation, and at different intensities as well. So the willingness is not always there, but I think you can massage it within the projects and achieve a good result.”
Unleashing the MindLab rats
Given its global reputation and the fact that its work covers broad policy areas that affect the daily lives of virtually all Danes, MindLab is a surprisingly small organisation. Its staff number just 20 in total, but this is starting to change. Prehn and his colleagues have successfully recruited a wider network – christened “lab rats” – to promote and support its efforts within their partner organisations.
“These are people who we have worked with, who are eager to learn, eager to experiment and do things in a different way by collaborating across silos and ministries,” explains Prehn. “We personally invited every single one of them, and you have to be working for one of our partners to be a member – and bosses are not allowed. Lab rats is a network but not in the normal sense. It’s about them being part of something and it’s also about us sharing our insights and experiences. It is also about bringing people together around a common goal of creating a new way of working in the public sector.”
The lab rats are being formally set free this month, and Prehn is visibly excited about what they promise to achieve. “The important thing is that it is a bunch of people who we like – and who like us – and we will have a new platform for sharing thoughts and ideas,” he says. “We will also offer them a helping hand when they want to try something new. Just putting up a poster or two won’t deliver real cultural change in any organisation. Calling them ‘lab rats’ is funny but it’s actually very serious. It’s more a tangible approach to culture, trying to identify what individuals can each do to create real change.”
Driving this change of culture is what underpins the entire initiative, it transpires. “For me, the lab rats are a way of spreading the word and it’s a way of spreading actual behaviour,” says Prehn. “And behaviour creates culture. Instead of 20 we are now 45, and when it spreads out we can be 100 and then 200 and then you can start to see a real transformation.”
Looking ahead, Prehn cites the scaling of its work as MindLab’s key priority. This isn’t about scaling up a specific project but more about the need to relentlessly promote a change in cultural practices. “Scaling the cultural practices and leadership within each organisation will lead to more agile, adaptive and innovative behaviours,” he says. “Scaling culture change is more important than specific projects, and if we succeed in delivering a tangible, resilient culture change within five years then there probably won’t be the need for a MindLab anymore.”
Prehn and his team have much to do before they find themselves out of a job, however. Although Denmark’s policymakers continue to lead from the front, the quest for better ideas, more effective government and stronger public impact will long endure – and MindLab will continue to be at the heart of this debate: good news for Danes, good news for government.
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