Hands-on prototyping at policy labs allows policymakers to quickly visualize, test, and build on possible initiatives. (Photo courtesy of Policy Lab UK)

On a blustery, gray London afternoon, officials from six different UK ministries convened to discuss how technology could help meet the growing needs of their ageing constituents. But instead of sitting around polished tables and debating competing agendas, these officials—surrounded by boxes of Legos and cartons of crayons—begin to share, sketch, and build ideas with other leaders they would rarely have engaged with otherwise. After learning about the daily lives of six “composite” constituents—developed from previously conducted ethnographic and expert research—trained design facilitators led the group through idea generation and iteration activities. The result of this unconventional process was 16 original, human-focused, practical ageing policy and program ideas that expert groups—including the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport; the Department of Communities and Local Government; and the Government Office for Science—would prototype, test, and potentially implement.

Despite the need for concerted, joint efforts among public sector leaders, those working with or in government know too well that such collaborations are rare. The motivation and ability to collaborate in government is usually lacking. So how did these leaders—some with competing agendas—manage to do it?

A new tool for collaboration

Policy labs are units embedded within the public sector—“owned” by one or several ministries—that anchor systematic public sector innovation efforts by facilitating creative approaches to policymaking. Since the inception of the first labs over a decade ago, many innovation experts and academics have touted labs as the leading-edge of public policy innovation. They can generate novel, citizen-centric, effective policies and service provisions, because they include a wide range of governmental and, in many cases, non-governmental actors in tackling complex public policy issues like social inequality, mass migration, and terrorism. MindLab in Denmark, for example, brought together government decision makers from across five ministries in December 2007 to co-create policy strategies on tackling climate change while also propelling new business growth. The collaboration resulted in a range of business strategies for climate change that were adopted during the 2009 UN COP15 Summit in Copenhagen. Under normal circumstances, these government leaders often push conflicting agendas, compete over resources, and are highly risk-adverse in undertaking intragovermental partnerships—all “poison pills” for the kind of collaboration successful public sector innovation needs. However, policy labs like MindLab, Policy Lab UK, and almost 100 similar cross-governmental units are finding ways to overcome these barriers and drive public sector innovation.

Five ways policy labs facilitate successful intragovermental collaboration

To examine how labs do this, we conducted a multiple-case analysis of policy labs in the European Union and United States. The analysis was inductive in nature and drew data from the following: semi-structured expert interviews with policy lab directors and senior management officials; policy lab documentary material such as blogs and presentations; and archival records, including organizational and service reports. From a cross-case synthesis, we identified five main commonalities these policy labs fostered, regardless of whether they were local- or national-level labs.

1. Reducing potential future conflict through experiential on-boarding processes. Policy labs conduct extensive screening and induction activities to provide policymakers with both knowledge of and faith in the policy lab’s approach to policymaking. To familiarize policymakers and identify knowledge gaps, lab practitioners take policymakers through extremely condensed examples of the processes. After experiencing some of the methods and potential outcomes, policymakers have greater trust in the policy lab’s processes.

2. Utilization of spatial cues to flatten hierarchical and departmental differences. Policy labs strategically use non-traditional spatial elements such as moveable whiteboards, tactile and colorful prototyping materials, and sitting cubes, along with the absence of expected elements such as conference tables and chairs, to indicate that unconventional norms—non-hierarchical and relational norms—govern lab spaces. Many labs, such as Experio Lab in Sweden, conduct workshops in non-traditional spaces such as elderly care facilities, hospitals, and even patients’ homes. In these settings, policymakers are more inclined to interact with each other in non-traditional ways and thus find new ways of working together.

Nontraditional spatial elements in policy labs such as the Netherland’s LEF Future Centre signal to participants that they are in an egalitarian work environment where innovative collaborations can take place. (Image courtesy of LEF Future Centre)

3. Reframing policy issues to focus on affected citizens. Policy labs highlight individual citizens’ stories to help reconstruct policymakers’ perceptions toward a more common and human-centered understanding of a policy issue. Rather than relying only on big data and impersonal reports to convey information on a particular policy issue, such as homelessness or rising health issues, policy labs invite affected individuals to share their experiences with policymakers in person. At the Social Innovation Lab for Kent where several governmental departments were working on the topic of reintegration, for example, ex-offenders shared their personal experiences coping with resettlement. At Experio Lab, policymakers shadowed in-home patients for a day before starting discussions on improving home health care. Such testimonies and personal experiences offer new insights into the complexities of users’ lives. They can also confront and challenge policymakers’ competing agendas; policymakers cannot contest users’ accounts as readily as they can a report.

4. Politically neutral, process-focused facilitation. Lab practitioners employ design methods that can help bring together divided policymakers and break scripted behavior patterns. Many policy labs use variations of design thinking and foresight methods, with a focus on iterative prototyping and testing, stressing the need for skilled but politically neutral facilitation to work through points of conflict and reach consensus on solutions. Using politically neutral foresight facilitators and designers, the EU Policy Lab led multiple workshops with representatives from two EU Commission Directorate-Generals—the ministries responsible for economic growth and employment—as well as trade unions, think tanks, and international organizations in 2015 and 2016 to develop future scenarios and policy responses to the sharing economy.

5. Mitigating risk through policy lab branding. Creative, innovative processes are iterative, and unintended outcomes are an expected part of testing and refinement. Therefore, policy labs are branded as safe spaces where failure is an accepted practice. For example, to encourage greater experimental intragovernmental collaborations, New Urban Mechanics in Boston, Massachusetts, does not initially publicize the governmental or non-governmental entities involved in many initiatives. This distances these stakeholders from possible repercussions if a particular initiative is not successful. This “firewall” allows policymakers to explore partnerships and examine new ways of approaching issues, and makes them less hesitant to engage in “risky” innovative behavior and promotes experimental, new, and innovation collaboration with other ministries.  

Are policy labs the future of policymaking?

Policy labs still face considerable bureaucratic and political obstacles. Most policy labs I interviewed for this study stated that budgetary constraints, and demonstrating their value to traditionally numbers-driven and constantly revolving top officials are common challenges. Yet, even with these constraints, policy labs have met with success. For example, the New Urban Mechanics’ ongoing work with three different local government departments is helping ensure that Boston’s streets are safe, smart, and more accessible for citizens. And the Netherland’s one-time convening of more than 100 different governmental and non-governmental stakeholders has helped develop the State Secretary of Infrastructure and Environment’s 2014 Sustainable Fuel Vision to reduce emissions in the transport industries.

Looking forward, labs are seeking to spread their methods and open source information, and to build innovative policymaking capacity, within governmental units. In this way, they want to expand their role, acting as a distribution agent of innovation competencies and capacity across the public sector. Experio Lab’s Tomas Edman explains, “We don’t see ourselves as a policy lab, but rather as a transformational lab. We seek to change the culture of policymaking on a daily basis.” While policy labs are not the only path to greater public sector innovation, the unrestricted distribution of user-centric policymaking tools can certainly help governments move toward using more user-centric, cross-collaboration approaches to policy change.