MindBlog Dansk


citizen-centred innovation - anthropological methods - service design - public development - communication - idea and concept development - innovation strategy - cross-institutional collaboration

Latest bloggers

  • Niels Hansen
  • Laura Winge
  • Jesper Christiansen
  • Runa Sabroe
  • Christian Bason
all bloggers
Christian Bason

Less analysis, more design

By October 3rd 2014

This article has also been published in Mandag Morgen

Former American Secretary of State and peace mediator Henry Kissinger is an active man. At the age of 91, he has just published his latest work, World Order, a comprehensive mapping of the world’s problems and challenges. I have not yet read the book, but according to The Economist, it amounts to a fairly depressing experience: there is war, conflict and instability wherever you look in the world, and no prospect of things tentatively improving. All the more surprising is that Kissinger uses 400 of the book’s pages analysing all the problems and only about four pages of suggestions and recommendations. Obviously there is not much of substance to get hold of here.

In the same issue of The Economist you can read about a pretty much equally depressing book, namely the prestigious Financial Times journalist Martin Wolf’s analysis The Shifts and the Shocks, on the financial crisis and its causes. This is another massive tome, which admittedly allocates a bit more space to recommendations. The reviewer nonetheless notes that the proposals would have benefited from significantly more detail.

We’ve gone analysis-crazy

The two book reviews prompted me to think about how we live in a time and a culture that have, in a sense, run amok with analyses. We spend incredible amounts of resources conducting investigations, collecting data and disseminating analysis results. This applies to public institutions, such as those I deal with on a daily basis, but also to private businesses and not least the media that willingly disseminate “brand new” figures and results at an ever-increasing pace. And it applies to our university researchers, many of whom them see themselves exclusively as knowledge-producers. It is up to other stakeholders to put their research into play in practice, if they discover that it exists.

Even insightful writers such as Messrs. Kissinger and Wolf – when they analyse such crucial issues as our military and financial world order – choose to expend a very great preponderance of their intellectual energy on analysis and its dissemination.

It often seems as if the analysis itself is the goal. Over the years I have met quite a few officials who gladly spend a year on an analysis project and preparing a comprehensive report, after which they will be completely convinced that they now have a final “result” in their hands, and then move on to the next analysis.

The same trend applies to the infatuation we currently see in many private enterprises with big data. Many managers are preoccupied with the large amounts of data available via new sources such as social media, and are curious about how they are collected and analysed; a lot fewer are concerned with how the insights on gathers are then translated into specific actions and value for your customers and your organisation.

I believe there are at least three reasons for our insatiable appetite for analysis. First, employees in both the public and private sectors increasingly are highly educated and schooled in traditional university environments, where the ability to acquire an extensive material and analyze it – i.e., to separate its elements, break it down to its components and different types of knowledge and data in certain ways – is in focus, and is rewarded. Second, analytical work is relatively harmless for the organisations in which it is implemented. It is not a matter of deciding to do something, it is simply a matter of becoming smarter – and fortunately, dangerous analyses can always be shelved or neglected. Third, analyses have become easier to carry out. Anyone can manage to retrieve data or conduct surveys and get the results summarised with the help of various digital tools. It quickly becomes a lot more difficult to come up with thoughtful, effective and convincing solutions for what we should do about the problems that are revealed.

The problem is just that we thus keep thousands of people busy making themselves (and sometimes others) smarter and not much else. Faced with the many analyses one generally feels like asking: “So what?”

Creating a better future

I myself come from an analytical background and cannot say I am immune to going through large amounts of information in order to create order and clarity. But at the same time, I am absolutely fascinated by design and design processes as a second and more forward-looking way to relate to the world. Most designers I know are more concerned with finding possible solutions to problems than to chew through them from end to end. In fact, many designers take a fundamentally different approach when they need to understand the world and its problems: instead of collecting data sets, they quickly put unfinished solutions – prototypes – into play in a specific context in order to be able to see the reactions of customers, users, stakeholders and decision-makers.

Designers’ proposals are often quite specific, for example, in the form of graphic sketches or physical models; thereby they gain insight into something that is often only uncovered at low levels of traditional analyses. They gain insight into the experiences and opinion formation that a given solution will potentially trigger and how it will affect human and organisational behaviour. Thus, they systematically explore the possible futures and apply what they learn from prototypes to improve ideas, concepts and solutions. Design researcher Joachim Necks calls the process evocative visualization in Design for Policy, a new book I have edited.  So the ability to make abstract, strategic concepts – such as we find in the world of politics and in business – so concrete that we can experience them and engage with them. In the book he illustrates this with complex energy and waste systems that are made more sustainable and efficient through the use of visual dialogue tools in workshops with all the stakeholders in the field. A central notion in this context is that new proposed solutions can thus be created together with those who can help to make a reality.

A new balance

It would be interesting to see how Henry Kissinger’s book about our world order would have ended had he spent half of his time and energy trying out potential policy ideas in practice. He could indeed draw on the vast network of current and former decision-makers he still has by virtue of his role as former statesman as well as via his active work as an adviser and consultant.

By the same token, it might have been interesting for Martin Wolf to have engaged the financial sector pressure in a thorough pressure test of his radical new ideas about management reform for our financial institutions.

Of course, it is not that the ability to understand and analyse problems is not important. In fact, many designers themselves say that the way a problem is represented often contains the seeds of its solution. I just fear that today the production of knowledge has to a great extent become a goal in itself. The objective – in the short or long term – must be to improve our world. It is a much-needed activity – a design activity – to which we all can give higher priority than we do today.

Marie Herborg Krogh

Find the problem before you solve it

By July 1st 2014

We all know that it can be very difficult to know what to do when you receive mail from the Tax Authority.  Dennis, a young guy in his early twenties who was becoming an auto mechanic definitely thought it was difficult. As he said: “I have absolutely no idea about it and what it means to me. Nobody ever told me”. Everytime he got a letter from SKAT, the Danish Customs and Tax Administration he drove to the nearby citizen service center for help. He had never used the online digital platform that SKAT had developed and when we asked him to try, he was completely lost and confused. The first words he faced were “Interest payments to the bank?” and “employer-administered pension capital?” As he said: “I don’t have a clue what that is about!”

dennis 2

Read the feature about Dennis.

Why are the citizen’s stories important?

You need to know what problem you seek to solve before you design your solution. SKAT had a lot of young people calling. By stepping back and taking a closer look at the problem, MindLab found out that the young generation actually lacked basic knowledge about tax. They needed a person to translate the complex tax vocabulary in order to understand their own situation. Few used the digital platform – it was not intuitive and smart. Read the case about SKAT.

Many organisations fail to address the central problem when they develop the public solutions. We often have knowledge about what causes the problem but way too often we do not know why the problem exists. Working as an Anthropologist in MindLab that is what I am helping our owners to find out and incorporate these insights in the development of new public solutions.

Put yourself in the citizen’s place

The first step is to understand what is going on out there. We have to listen and explore the citizens’ stories and let them tell us about their frustrations. We need to put ourselves in their place. I often invite colleagues from the ministries to participate in the fieldwork. It is my experience that it is an eye-opener every time. The problems become very concrete and real.

Engage with the organisation you work with

To design a solution you need to engage with the organization you work with and understand what triggers change in the organisation. If not, the stories from “the real world” remain outside and irrelevant to the organisation.

Give the citizen a voice 

It is crucial to communicate the user’s experiences in the organisation. As an anthropologist I am really focused on giving the citizens and companies a voice in the organisations. In MindLab we do that through several methods: through pictures, video, sound bites, quotes. Dennis’ story became a reference point in the organisation and in the development of the digital platform.

A holistic approach to public sector development

The close look into the user’s experience and perspectives does not replace statistics and surveys. It is a serious supplement which has dramatic consequences for the way we design public solutions. By taking on a different attitude to developing public solutions which involves a broader scope of people and a closer ethnographic insight into the user’s life, MindLab helps facilitating a systematic process of creating new solutions with people, not for them.

What did MindLab and the anthropological and design-driven approach do to Dennis and to SKAT?

- SKAT found out why young people called instead of using the digital platform

- Dennis became a reference point in the organisation and in the development of a new solution

- SKAT developed a better solution

What do you need to do?

The next time you have to develop an initiative, then go out and talk to citizens and companies – put yourself in their place. Find out how their daily life is, take pictures and share with your colleagues and start the discussion on the basis of the citizens and companies. I am sure you will design better public solutions if you do so.

Watch and be inspired

Watch the presentation on how to involve citizens in development of the public sector. The presentation was held in Paris at the 13th edition of the International Public Management Symposium (RIGP) focusing on alternatives to new public management. The symposium was organized by the French Institute for Public Management and Economic Development.

Runa Sabroe

Inspiration for service design

By June 6th 2014

Service design places the user of a service at the center. If you look at the process from supplier to end user as a service journey, you get an accurate picture of what your service design should look like. Read the most important advice and inspiring case studies here.

In our daily lives we avail of services constantly. When we check our online bank with our mobile phone, deliver our children at kindergarten or school, or when we book a flight to our next holiday destination, we use a service. Often we do not think about our increased consumption of services – mostly we do it only when something goes wrong or when we’ve been pleasantly surprised.

Kforum 12A service journey in paper clippings.

Look at the entire service journey

The service industry is growing and growing. In Denmark it represents approximately 75 percent of our gross domestic product. More and more private and public institutions and companies are becoming conscious about designing services which put users at the center, ensuring that quality is as high as possible. In this article you will find the most important points that are worth considering if you need to give your service a service inspection.

A very useful point of engagement is to look at the full service journey. So that you can identify where you do too little or perhaps too much, where to begin and where to end your service, what you should do yourself and what you should leave to others.

1) Have you got hold of your most important users?

Often we focus exclusively on the end user when developing services. A one-sided focus on those who will use the service, however, can block our ability to see significant development potential. We simply overlook the most important people.

When working with service journeys, we talk about what happens front stage, where the consumer is in direct contact with a service. And what happens backstage, that is, the underlying processes, which can be crucial when a successful service is being designed. Sometimes the most important users are, in fact, backstage.

When the lead character is a supporting character

Case: Frederiksberg Health Center

Frederiksberg’s Health Center developed, in collaboration with the design firm 1508, a rehabilitation process intended to help people with COPD, also known as emphysema, remain in the labor market. Lifestyle changes are often seen as a daunting task for the chronically ill. Just finding the required resources for the necessary changes can be difficult. Therefore, patients alone were not the sole focus in the design of a new service process.

Employees at the health center, doctors and relatives turned out to be centrally important in order that COPD sufferers could create a better life for themselves with the disease. The composition of the new service was not, therefore, aimed directly at the front stage, meaning the patients. It was instead aimed at the backstage processes. When the new solution took shape, the starting point was the many actors around the patient.

For example, a plan of action was developed in which employees of the health center could help patients to identify goals for their rehabilitation. Thus, the health center could prioritize which offers patients should be given.

The lesson being: Be aware that the main actor may well be quite different from the person who is in direct contact with your service. Identify those actors surrounding the recipient of your service, and consider whether they might really be the most significant.

2) Service starts before and ends after your contact with the user

A service consists of many touchpoints. The experience often starts before and ends some time after the company’s product or service has been in contact with the user. It is precisely here that a service journey can be a useful tool for uncovering the entire process from the user’s perspective, and help identifying which periods are most important to your user. When does the service experience peak, seen through the eyes of the user?

Kforum 1

Virgin Atlantic discovered that good service is not limited to a good experience on board the plane. A quick and smooth check-in when flying is at least as important for the overall service experience.

Guides from start to finish

Case: Virgin Atlantic

Virgin Atlantic planned to re-design their flagship area at Heathrow Airport. They wanted to develop some services that could get people to choose their company over other airlines. Previously, they had primarily focused their efforts on services aboard their aircraft.

The British design company Engine was hired, and they chose to investigate the users’ service journey from the moment they left home for the airport, to when they had actually landed, collected their luggage and were sitting in a taxi on the way to their destination. By shadowing the travelers and interviewing them about their experiences, they were able to map the passengers’ ‘journeys’ through the terminal.

As a result of this process an effective and efficient service flow was designed. For example, a series of self-service stands were set up in the check-in area, supplemented by Virgin staff who functioned as guides at key entrances to the terminal.

From prison guards to advisors about life after prison

Case: Singapore Prison Service

For the Singapore Prison Service, one of the major challenges they faced was that many former prisoners returned to crime after being released. In fact, nearly half ended up in prison again. One of the first steps in tackling the challenge in new ways was to rethink how the public service process for prisoners ended.

Previously prison security had been the sole focus, now prison services looked at how to empower inmates to get out of crime. Resources were invested in educating families and other relatives so that they could best help the inmates when they were released from prison. Also, at the central level, interest groups and representatives of the administration were brought together to strengthen cooperation. The project ran over a ten year period, and over that time it proved possible to go from 45 percent of prisoners being given another prison sentence to the today’s figure of just 27 percent.

The lesson being: Good service consists often in seeing the product or public service process in context and from the perspective of a longer time period. Sometimes it pays to end contact later, so that the user is helped further along.

3) Identify the time periods that matter

On a service journey, the starting point is to get users to map their experience and identify the points on the journey where it is difficult, unsatisfactory or incomprehensible. You can work with so-called moments of truth, heart points or pain points. Meaning those parts of the service that hold great emotional significance for users, both positively and negatively. Once you know them, you can deploy resources to where users need it the most.

Kforum 3

Denmark has a hard time holding on to highly skilled foreign workers. Pain points during the journey were identified. It became clear that it was not just the foreign experts’ but their entire family’s level of satisfaction which was the crucial factor in deciding if they would remain in the country.

Keeping on foreign labor is a service that encompasses the whole family

Case: Ministry of Business and Growth

While Denmark lacked highly skilled foreign workers such as biotechnologists and engineers, the challenge lay not in attracting foreign experts, but in the fact that they left the country too quickly again. And that is expensive for both companies and public authorities.

In the past, resources were used to optimize the service offered to highly skilled foreign workers. But a service journey conducted by MindLab on behalf of the Ministry of Business and Growth made it clear that the most important thing is really how families experience the new country. Are there places available in an international school? Are there opportunities to meet other accompanying spouses in the same situation? Failure to thrive for the spouse or children often being the crucial reason why the family quickly leave the country again.

The lesson being: Be attentive to whether your service is targeted at the places that are most important to recipients. Identify the pain points and determine if your service has been designed to help in the right places.

4) You are not the only one who offers a service

Providing a good and effective service requires that we systematically turn our attention to what kind of alternative or experience we would like to achieve. Often, there are many actors involved along the way. We have seen examples of companies or public bodies who have set up an excellent and efficient service line that, unfortunately, just does not answer users’ actual needs. A service journey can help to ensure that you look at the overall experience and identify where there is potential for better interaction between the elements.

kforum 4Businesses no longer need to contact a range of different authorities in their search for the correct code for their industry. Authorities viewed their new service from a users’ perspective and adjusted the procedure so that all involved delivered a coherent service: A new self-service solution enables companies to find the right code in one place.

Industry Codes: A service that transcends

Case: Danish Business Authority

When SKAT, Statistics Denmark and the Danish Business Authority wanted to improve services for companies seeking to find their proper industry code, a service journey revealed that there was great potential gain in thinking about service across authorities.

A service journey was the impetus as MindLab helped develop a new self-service solution and an official site for the case officers working with industry codes. The new solution transcends the authorities and makes it easier for companies to find their industry code in one place. At the same time streamlining the regulatory procedures in the field. (Read about industry codes in an international case study from Helsinki Design Lab)

The lesson being: The recipient of the service does not distinguish between the various entities that make up the service. Look at who, besides yourself, participates in the provision of the service. Can you work together in new ways?

kforum 5

In Australia, authorities worked with service packages for vulnerable families who encountered a plethora of public services. Here it became clear that it was a good idea to work on integrating all the various services across authorities.

Service across systems

Case: Vulnerable families in Australia

There proved to be great potential to work across authorities when the Australian service design company, ThinkPlace, examined service journeys in relation to some of the country’s most vulnerable citizens.

These were people who faced a variety of challenges, such as domestic violence, substance abuse, unemployment, financial problems and mental health issues. For this reason, families interacted with a variety of public services, which in themselves were well-run and had skilled social workers or other professionals attached. The challenge was that the variety of services were not integrated and therefore unable to budge the core of the problem. They each addressed only one part of the problem or only one family member.

kforum 6

Outside of the vulnerable families a variety of actors, organizations and institutions hum with activity. But within the vulnerable family itself the status quo remains the same. The various authorities only view the challenge from one angle and fail to provide a comprehensive service.

The service was put together based on the system’s premises and not on how users can best be helped further across systems. In this project, the service journey proved a helpful tool to turn the view from the system’s angle to the user’s angle.

The lesson being: The basis for a good service must be to place oneself in the users’ situation and view the service from their angle. Otherwise, there is a risk that you end up optimizing a system service which doesn’t address the user’s actual problem.

5) Have you chosen the correct channel?

Service journeys can be a good starting point for evaluating if you have communicated with the right target groups at the right time and place. Did you choose the proper channel to carry the content of your service?  New target groups arise and new communication channels are added. So although satisfaction rates may be high among your users, and your choice of channel seems obvious, it pays to rethink the communication channels utilized and get ahead of latest user behavior trends and media use.

New channels led to greater satisfaction

Case:  Midwife Center

The Midwife Center at Aarhus University Hospital found that too many clients weren’t showing up for planned consultations. Surveys of users and occupational professionals showed that pregnant women were unsure of the purpose of the midwife appointment.

The mothers to be were craving information, and the internet was their preferred channel. Therefore, the midwife center chose to consider alternatives to face-to-face consultations. In cooperation with design firm, Designit, they developed, for example, a digital appointment book for pregnant women. Here the woman can log on to her own page, view scan pictures, coordinate midwife appointments, read educational materials and chat with professionals and other pregnant women.

The lesson being: To think about new communication channels and media when designing your service. Maybe you’ll meet your users’ needs much better utilizing new methods.

kforum 7

A digital solution will complement traditional consultations at the Midwife Center at Aarhus University Hospital, so pregnant women experience a seamless service course.

6) Look at users – they have already solved it

Sometimes a new and improved service is right in front of our noses and in this respect the observation of users can be a great source of inspiration. Users often follow their own path and find creative solutions in the attempt to avoid bother or achieve a desired effect quickly. By observing their self-invented solutions, you can learn more about what needs are expressed through their unintended use of products or services.

It can be seen in urban settings, a good example being when architects at CBS established a beautiful path system, where gaps in the paving, however, caused cyclists and baby carriage owners to experience an uneven passage. In response to which users established their own paths in parallel to the architects’.

kforum 8

When finely landscaped footpaths are not user friendly, users find new paths for themselves in parallel to those laid down by the architects.

The positive deviators have already found the solutions

Case: Prison and Probation Service, Køge Local Prison

The Prison and Probation Service has implemented a determined strategic approach and worked to resolve the tough challenge of growing conflicts between staff and inmates by systematically disseminating users’ existing solutions to problems.

The method is called positive deviation and relies on the recognition that there are always individuals who find sustainable behavioral strategies that enable them to succeed better than others in the same situation. Employees have often already identified a workable solution.

By working to reveal positively divergent behavior and apply it to other situations Køge Local Prison has achieved a concrete, significant reduction of conflicts between inmates and staff, a fall in the use of force, violence and threats plus a far higher level of satisfaction among personnel.

And it is the small deviations that matter. It makes a difference to the relationship, for example, if an officer remains sitting with his feet up when an inmate calls for help, or if he hurries to assist. Or if he knocks on an inmate’s cell door and waits for a moment before he sticks the key in the door instead of tearing the door open.

The lesson being: It is important to look for positive deviations. And they are always there, just as long as you look hard enough.

7) Good service is not always more service

To rethink and optimize a service is often postponed because both companies and public authorities associate good service with multiple touchpoints, more communication, or more attentiveness on the whole to the customer or citizen. And that is both expensive and difficult – and consumes resources that you do not have.

But in fact the exact opposite is often the case. It may be that a simplified and more focused service is much more effective. And here the visual mapping of a service journey can be the first step towards pointing out how a service could be simplified.

kforum 10

A mapping of the communication from the National Board of Industrial Injuries showed that they needed to simplify their communications. In fact, there were far too many letters sent and at the wrong times. The Board of Industrial Injuries now works on prioritizing their communications.

Less service is more service

Case: National Board of Industrial Injuries

MindLab observed this at the Board of Industrial Injuries, who wanted to know how they could make the process for young people with injuries go more smoothly. At that time, the Board was in the habit of posting many letters to those with work related injuries. And there were many others who did the same. Among others, the municipality, labor union, medical specialists, insurance companies and many other players who had a share in the process.

Which added up to an awful lot of letters. A young social and health care worker received, for example, 25 letters, only four of which required a reply. Often written in difficult to understand legal jargon.

A service journey showed the potential gain in finding a simpler service, where a clear prioritization of information transmitted to the injured person was made.  Instead of sending many letters, the board now works on prioritizing their communications while at the same time writing in language that the recipient can understand and relate to their own situation.

The lesson being: It is a good idea to look at each individual step in the service and consider whether it can be simplified. Too much communication which is difficult to understand is often a source of frustration and uncertainty for the user.

8) A good service journey can save time, resources and money

When services are designed to meet user needs and perceived challenges, it is done, of course, to generate significantly improved user satisfaction. But it is just as much about streamlining and optimizing. Service design can help to ensure that an organization or company offers the appropriate and relevant services and tools for its users – and can therefore also dispense with the elements or services that do not create additional value.

Simple and straightforward design solutions make a difference to the emergency room

Case: PearsonLloyd

A good example of how the proper design of a service can actively contribute to efficiency can be seen in a project design duo, PearsonLloyd, implemented at a London hospital emergency room. Here the patients grew so frustrated as they waited to be treated that it led to verbal and physical violence against employees.

This obviously created a poor working environment and too many resources were expended on chaos handling. It was found that patients felt they had a right to be angry because they lacked knowledge of how things worked.

PearsonLloyd developed a number of solutions. For example, signage information indicating where patients were in the department, and how far in the process they had reached. This was a matter of simple solutions that were easy and cheap to implement. The initiative resulted in a reduction of aggressive encounters and a subsequent business case revealed that for each pound invested in new solutions the return was threefold.

kforum 11

An investment in simple solutions which are easy and inexpensive to implement can give rapid and visible results on the bottom line.

Read more:

Many, both in Denmark and internationally, are already working with this method. Many happily share their tool kits. Here is a list of the best and most useful tools you will need if you want to work with service journeys.

ServiceDesign Tools

New Ways of Visualizing the Customer Journey Map

ServiceDesign Toolkit

Documentation Tool

Engage Costumers and Engage the Organisation

Design Thinking for Educators

Human-centered Design Toolkit 


Jesper Christiansen

Spread and Scale: What and How?

By April 25th 2014

Debate writing between Sarah Schulman, Anna Lochard and Jesper Christiansen.

Prompt #3: There is a lot of talk about spread and scale. We think it is about spreading processes, not scaling products. So what does that mean?

This is our third response using the same process; we each have 45 minutes to respond to a provocative question we grapple with in our day-to-day work. You can read our responses to the first and second prompt.

Jesper’s Response:

The ability to spread the process rather than the product is key in much government planning. Notions of ‘blueprint’, ‘manual’ or ‘best practice’ have done much damage in mismanaging the expectations to what could actually be expected of the ‘solutions’ that are supposed to create change in public systems and services. A common and reoccurring question amongst decision makers and civil servants is: why are there so few solutions that actually scale?

This is seen as a huge problem – mainly when seen in economic terms. But also in relation to the role of the public sector more generally. Many civil servants see their role as one of standardization and replication. “We can’t let 1000 flowers blossom” is a common phrase. Instead, there is a desire to find the ‘best practice,’ to analyse every aspect of it, and then to scale it – as a product that is able to change its contextual environment. In practice, this logic is reversed when dealing with social change.

Sarah is pointing our attention to the notion of ‘tacit knowledge.’ This is important. In particular when working in contexts where the dominant epistemological position is based on one of its counterparts: rationalized, stable knowledge.

In MindLab we are currently assisting the Ministry of Employment to implement some ambitious reforms focusing on, among many other things, reinventing the role of the social worker. The Ministry realises that in order to create better outcomes for vulnerable citizens of society, they must let the social worker work more flexibly with the citizen to explore and learn what kind of activities, interactions, and service offers will make sense in the given context. The political intention is that the case worker has to be allowed to break free from the current rigid management systems and trust her or his own professional judgment. So that they can support the citizen in creating a better life for herself – a better life that includes a productive work life.

BM billede spejl 2

MindLab visited a Job Centre as part of our work with the Ministry of Employment

In other words, the reforms are deliberately attempting to localize employment services. Ways of dealing with citizens should inherently be local, contextual, and based on a specific professional expertise applied in the particular situation. In this sense, this process entails a kind of centralized decentralization where ‘solutions’ constantly have to be discovered in particular contexts. As an intent, this is very much in line with what social workers have wanted for years.

Surprisingly, as the implementation process of the reform unfolds, social workers are increasingly calling for ‘tools’, ‘methods’ or even ‘manuals’ to work in this new way. As they are ‘set free’ in their professional work, they are actually asking for more restrictions. This partly highlights the significance of this kind of change in the employment system. Where meeting specified targets, exercising certain procedures, and managing a portfolio of cases was (and still is) the norm. But it also reveals the challenge of spreading or scaling the process. The problem of intangibility is not only apparent on the level of policymaking, but is also something that is experienced on the ground. It creates a significant paradox of wanting a more open process when exercising your role as a social worker, whilst wanting assurance that what you are doing is actually ‘the right way’ of dealing with the citizen in the particular situation.


This brings me to talk about outcomes. It seems to me that any talk about either product or process does not make sense unless it is contextualized in relation to the outcomes that they are creating. So when attempting to make processes visible – in this case the challenge for social workers to learn what is good when dealing with vulnerable citizens – it is essential that in order to really understand the process, it needs to be part of a narrative that ties it to the outcomes that are expected. So while the process may include various possible recipes, tools, principles or methodologies that should be applied accordingly in the local context, the risk of spreading or scaling the process lies, among many things, when it becomes detached from a conversation about what is actually to be considered as a good outcome.

Sarah’s response:

Spread and scale. Most of us ‘social innovator’ types use these words. Arguing to funders that investing in innovation methods – be it ethnography, co-design, or prototyping – will be efficient. Because you can figure out what works at a small-scale, and then spread what emerges at a large-scale. The question is: what should we be spreading if we want to prompt systemic change? Should we be spreading the product - the new app, the new service, the new network? Or should we be spreading the underlying principles and process?

I believe it is the principles and the process that prompt change. But, this is a step away from work I did as Co-Lead of the Radical Redesign Team in Australia or as Project Lead at Participle. Where we looked to grow and profit from the solutions we ourselves created. Loops, Family by Family, Weavers, Care Reflect. That meant productizing the solutions. Creating an identity and a brand; specifying each interaction in a blueprint (think: how-to manual); and ultimately creating a new organizational infrastructure with staff to do ‘sales’ and ‘delivery’. But, had we sold the process, what would we have codified?

That is what we are asking right now at InWithForward as we start work in Burnaby, British Columbia. Where success for us is not one scaled solutions. But multiple prototypes taken forward by local teams – with lots of folks (inside and outside of public systems) mobilized, trained, and taking ownership over explicit and shared outcomes. It is more in the spirit of ‘Collective Impact’ than ‘Lean Start-up’ - although there’s plenty to learn and apply from the latter.

So, what will we actually be making? And, what will be selling? Products are so much more concrete. When you go to a bakery, you buy the nice looking cupcakes. With the chocolate frosting. If we are not selling the cupcakes, then, are we selling the instructional recipe to make the cupcake? Are we selling the cupcake making tools – the icing pipettes, the baking tins? Are we selling the baking school experience – unfolding in the pastry chef’s context? Or are we selling the cooking TV show – for DIY learning in your own context?

The challenge, of course, in selling the recipe is that you can follow all of the steps, and still get a pretty lousy result.  You might not have any prior reference points. So when the cupcakes are not rising, you do not know what to do. And if you are missing an ingredient, you cannot easily adapt. You do not realize you can make buttermilk with two squeezes of lemon in a cup of whole milk. You see, key to making things good, is tacit know-how. It is that extra sense of how to tweak as you go along to get a good result. That is darn hard to communicate in a stand-alone recipe. You are much more likely to learn that through watching your grandmother, through practice, through trying lots of different recipes and seeing what works and what does not for yourself.

Selling tools is fraught with similar difficulties. I can sell you the baking tins. But that won’t help you figure out what to fill the baking tins with. And you can easily put the baking tins to a different usage. That is not necessarily a problem – if you are able to make something yummy using the tins. But if I am trying to prompt intentional social change, then peddling the implements, probably won’t get me to coherent implementation. And it definitely won’t get me towards fidelity. When we do one-off workshops and create method card sets, we are really in the tool business.

Then there is the baking school experience. So in-context project based learning. With the right instruction in baking chemistry, exposure to different baking methods, guidance and a lot of feedback, you could learn to be a pretty competent cupcake baker. But this is time intensive. How much learning do you need to be competent, versus be good? And how do we actually design our processes in such a way that more and more people can be immersed in the doing? So that it’s not just tight project teams – from social labs – doing all the work? Plus, how do we find and up-skill the instructors? The key to teaching baking is actually having made a lot of cupcakes yourself, and being able to extrapolate transferrable concepts. But who in our field has actually made a lot of what we are talking about? The rhetoric often feels ahead of the practice.

Finally, there is what I will call the Jamie Oliver approach. Developing a mix of inspirational and learning content – so a TV show which exposes you to new kinds of cupcakes and to somebody else’s tacit knowledge. Along with a magazine with stories, and embedded recipes. As well as product partnerships – so ‘quality approved’ tools to use in your home contexts.

How could we create a similar mix of content to bring more and more people into our processes? Indeed, what is so compelling about Jamie Oliver is that he has managed to build a movement alongside a set of products. And he operates at differing levels of fidelity. Go to his restaurants, and get the full Jamie Oliver quality-approved experience. Use his books and tools, get a taste of the Jamie Oliver experience, and add your own spin. Of course, whether you go to his restaurant or do-it-yourself at home, key to a good experience is a shared idea of what constitutes a good outcome: is it taste, health, speed, value, novelty, or some combination?

Anna’s Response:

In the program “La Transfo” of la 27e Région, one of the main difficulties was precisely that there were different outcomes expected, without any hierarchy between them. Was a ‘good’ outcome to train and empower a core team of civil servants? Was it to create a new service embedded within the regional administration, who was then in charge of spreading this approach at the end of our program? Was it changed mindsets and ‘aaah’ moments amongst a large number of civil servants and elected representatives? Was it radical changes in one or several specific policies, with a visible impact on citizens’ lives?

As long as we did not prioritise what the main outcome was, the process stayed really opaque, even for regular participants of the program. If the beauty and value of our jobs resides in the way we are browsing together, we needed, at one point of the process, to clarify the direction we were taking: in the case of “La Transfo,” we chose in the middle of the program to prioritise the creation a new service and a trained team that could continue the work of transformation after the end of the program. This decision make the process more understandable for everybody.

We spoke about the outcomes, and about the process… but we should also be careful to look at the entry point: if the whole process of training and empowerment requires contact with tacit know-how, we have to make it understandable and pretty clear the way to enter the process and connect with this tacit know-how.

This implies intelligent viral communication to those who are interested, appealing entry-level experiences, and clear instructions about how to engage. In fact, after two years of programs, only a small part of civil servants of the regional administration were aware that “La Transfo” was taking place in their building or even in their service directory. How many times did we hear, “If I knew, I would have come earlier…”.

And for those who were aware of our existence, we found they were often reluctant to come and try, precisely because some people do not like and feel threatened by what they cannot easily understand. Even for those following our program regularly, the information about next appointments and workshops sometimes came too late for them to re-organise their calendar. This experience points out the fact that our inter-disciplinary and highly-trained team of designers and sociologists have their own timelines and way of working (e.g – they like working under pressure) which can sometimes be incompatible with the time of civil servants. It also points out we paid too little attention to investing in the whole space of the building, to going to meet the different services, and to communicating what was happening.

We have certainly found that a good process – that is, a process that will create a good solution to one problem at one moment of time in one particular place – cannot be defined and generalised as easily as a cupcake recipe. However, that should not keep us from clarifying where we are going so people don not get lost. And we should be careful to indicate the pathway and make it desirable enough for people to walk with us until they reach the “aaah” point. That’s the point where there is no way back because your mindset is too transformed to return to the routine.



Christian Bason


By April 10th 2014

There is increasing talk of replacing the classic ”hard” reform tools such as regulation and inspections with “soft” tools such as involvement, support and facilitation. But this is not an either-or situation:  the challenge lies in finding the right balance of reforms between top-down and bottom-up.

At a seminar last year with Danish experts and public decision makers, the British writer and advisor Charles Leadbeater used the power station as a metaphor for municipal reform. His argument went along these lines:

When ministries, authorities and municipal departments carry out reforms, they do so by channeling energy from the centre outwards towards local institutions and actors.  The reforms are directed uniformly at all interested parties, and at the central level, one gets a pleasant feeling of control.  But a large amount of that energy is lost when it makes contact with the local reality. It is sent in all possible directions – and often right back to the sender.

What if instead, one carried out reforms in a way where local units or institutions became their own power centres, which did not only create new energy but also shared it through a local network, thus boosting the positive dynamic further?

The first model focuses on rationality, uniformity, predictability, overview and control.  The other focuses among other things on forming opinions, differences, unpredictability and the opportunity for ongoing learning and adjustment.

On the way to a new reform model

It does not require that much imagination to see how many of our domestic reforms over the past years have had a similar impact to that which arises, according to Charles Leadbeater, when one seeks to channel energy exclusively from the top to the bottom.

In the Danish Parliament at Slotsholmen there is also a broad recognition that attempts to create concrete changes for citizens and businesses, as was the intention with the reform makers, have failed.  Perhaps the classic central reform attempt does not work as well as we thought when society is still becoming more manifold, more complex, technologically developed and globalised?

It is in this spirit that we have begun to test out new “soft” models of reform. A central example of this is the New Nordic School, where the Ministry of Education has motivated 350 institutions towards innovative learning and well-being through networking and professional associations. Last year’s partial agreement on seven principals for the modernisation of the public sector comprises many of the same ideas about being a framework, but not a direct management, for local development potential.

Across the country, in local government and institutions, I also get the feeling that people are considering the potential: now, the public officials have finally got the message that they should stop meddling and let local powers find the solutions themselves by bringing professional expertise and experience into play. Should there be a need for new development, we’ll do it locally ourselves – perhaps with a view to sharing ideas or principals.

Unique state role

I myself am a staunch advocate of reforms that make sense and create energy at a local level. To ignore the role that the central level can play, however, is not only naive (the government will always have a need for an overview and a feeling of control, regardless of how much of an illusion this might be), it is also ineffective: the state continues to have a crucial role in the process of making the “soft” reform attempts work in practice at the local level, it is just a very different role than that public officials are used to.

Here are four proposals of how this new role will challenge the ministries:

* Reform as sensemaking. I recently heard a municipal director say that if only the state would explain to his bosses what was meant by a reform initiative, it would all be so much easier.  Reforms are not only about telling people what they should change, but also about helping them to understand why. A crucial prerequisite for the success of bottom-up directed reforms is a shared understanding of what the point of them is: not only from a political viewpoint, but also the specific changes one hopes to achieve to a citizen or a company’s working day. It demands ministers and public officials becoming far more skilled at communicating their intentions, including via new digital and social media, and it requires a far closer contact at local level so one knows how this “point” is being perceived among those who will actually be carrying out the reforms on the front line.

* Reform as a prioritisation tool. We know from MindLab’s work over recent years that reforms can lead to a great deal of confusion locally, because new demands are simply laid on top of old ones without any guidelines of what is most important. Effective reforms are thus not only about telling institutions what extra work they need to do. Ministries and authorities must have a far deeper understanding of which local dilemmas and challenges arise as a consequence of the new initiatives, and actively help the local leadership in prioritising. This could for example be done by dosing a reform into different stages, so everything does not need to be implemented all at once, by signalling quite clearly what is not important any longer, and by distinguishing between “should” and “could” in the reform’s individual elements. Finally, one can support dialogue and networking between local leaders, so they can learn from each other which priorities work best under which conditions.

* Reform as competence development. Some years ago I asked one of my colleagues, a civil servant, how she could be sure that local government would be capable of accommodating a number of new reform demands. Her prompt reply was: “Well they’ll just have to.” But the future’s reforms are not about threatening or aimlessly demanding that institutions do what we say. We should invest in their ability to translate the reform’s intentions into new forms of organisation, new work processes, skills, professional competences, etc. Again, this places demands on a very precise dialogue between the central level (where the resources are) and the local level (where the task is to be carried out).

* Reform as shared data. An undervalued strength of central departments is their ability to gather and analyse data across the sector or sectors they are responsible for. But this data – on efforts, activities, results and impact – is all too rarely made available, when it could be made into a pivot for actual dialogue among local actors or across local and central levels.  It is precisely because future reforms are more open and unpredictable that they require looking more sharply, closely and more frequently at the data in order to see how the development is going and what needs adjusting. Here, I’m thinking not only of quantitative data, but also of observations, interviews and other qualitative data that can provide early indications of whether something is going in the right or wrong direction.

Tracing the contours of the ministry of the future

What then do these ministries and authorities look like, that are capable of creating reforms in this way?

I think that, over the next 10 years, we will see many experiments with a large number of initiatives: earlier, deeper and more committed involvement of end users and local actors in the design of the reform itself. Launching and testing of “reform prototypes” in order to learn what works – faster and more cheaply. New organisation reforms that support a more adaptable, learning-friendly organisation. More outbound, communicative and listening activities in relation to sectors and interests. Strengthening of interaction across departments, both vertically and horizontally. Smarter and more transparent use of data to give value to the entire system, and not only inspection or management tools.

These initiatives are not easy, but really, really hard. Finding the balance and getting all that’s soft to succeed – that’s the hard part.

Jesper Christiansen

Are we ‘using’ users?

By March 18th 2014

Debate writing between Sarah Schulman, Anna Lochard and Jesper Christiansen.

Prompt #2: For all the talk of user-centered design & citizen-centered policymaking, what is the actual role of everyday people in our work?

This is our second response using the same process; we each have 45 minutes to respond to a provocative question we grapple with in our day-to-day work. You can read our responses to the first prompt here.

Anna’s Opening Statement

La 27e Région began its experimentations in a high school about to be renovated in Revin, in the East of France. At this time, things looked pretty simple: students, teachers, maintenance and administrative staff were all users of this high school, and the project – called the “Résidence” – was made for those users, with those users, every single day of the project. It was at a local scale, with a concrete object of interest – the high school – and using a methodology strongly inspired by service design and participatory urban planning. La 27e Région replicated this process twelve times in different places, with different people, all over France.

With our second program called “La Transfo” the question of the “user” became central: in this program, we were installed in the heart of four Regional public administrations, in a landscape of offices, computers and coffee machines, precisely where policies are manufactured, with the double desire to transform those policies in a more “user-centered approach” and to transform the people making those policies. In a way, we had the ambition to rethink the entire conception cycle of public policies. The place for the “citizen” – and which citizen? – became difficult to find in our program, more easily involving public servants from different agencies than every day people.

civil servants

 Civil servants ‘in action’ as part of La Transfo.

Ethnographic approaches, field work or immersions were used as tools to make civil servants feel the reality of others, to approach day-to-day life in a sensible more than a quantitative way, and to test and improve our ideas… but the “user” in this case was more a tool than a partner to co-create the policy with.

So the burning question is: should we do differently? Can we do differently? As a laboratory of the future of public administration, should we claim to do “co-creation with citizens”? We think that what we teach civil servants through our program “La Transfo” is still better than the alternative: letting them think that they are making a process participatory just because they have planned two public conferences. We don’t think that everybody has to be involved at every step of a process, but we do think civil servants have the right to create, that is to say, the right to be imaginative without having to be consensual or to please someone. Of course, making them realize they can be creative is already a hard part of the change! Yes, real fieldwork would be way more instructive, and way more accurate… And yes, creativity has to be inspired by sensible experiences and correctly reframed questions, but the intrusion of “real people” into civil servants’ work and the development of their imagination is already a small victory.

Sarah’s Response

Anna raises the age-old conundrum: is it better to do something incremental or nothing at all? In this case, is it better to bring the citizen or end user into the policy process as a reality checking tool – whether through an ethnographic story, a photograph or a persona – or leave them out?

I would argue the question isn’t what is better, but what is right? Is it right to engage every day people and use their stories for our ends as designers, social scientists, and innovators? Is it actually ethical to door knock in a neighborhood or meet a family in front of a grocery store, invite them to tell us about their life, and then use what they’ve shared as our prop? To be politically contorted behind closed doors? Without them in the decision-making room? Without any clear value accruing to the folks in the neighborhood and the family in front of the grocery store (beyond a one-off payment or gift)?

I ask these questions because I have done just that. I have spent hours with older people, young people, families in crisis, women in domestic violence shelters and listened to their huge stories. I’ve gone away and written-up what I learned. And I’ve used that material in presentations and workshops. All with what I thought was a decent enough goal: to enable people in decision-making power to have an ah-ha moment. So that they just might make some better decisions.

Sarah shulman

Sarah spending the evening with Dana, eating McDonald’s and swapping photos.

But therein lies the rub. By using users in such an instrumental way, I fear we are perpetuating the same old, same old power structures. We are not confronting the distribution of authority. And it’s the distribution of authority that I believe underpins many of the nasty social challenges we are trying to address.

Like domestic violence. The subject of InWithForward’s current project in Apeldoorn, in partnership with Kennisland. At its core, domestic violence is about the woman’s loss of decision-making authority. Her partner has violated her autonomy.  She shows up to a domestic violence shelter, and the social workers decide what kind of help she receives. The child protection system determines if her kids are safe with her. The state figures out if she is eligible for benefits, and how much she should be able to live on. She has very little meaningful control. And then we go in, collect her story, and try to use it to help her social workers, and the child protection system, and the benefits system understand her needs better. But we’re not actually confronting the elephant in the room, which is, should the social workers, and the child protection system, and the benefits system have that kind of decision-making power in the first place? Should these institutions really exist in their current form?

Of course, this is a pretty darn radical proposition. And it’s unlikely we’re going to get the system to sign-up to dismantling itself as a precondition for engaging every day people. So what’s the alternative?

One alternative we will soon try in Burnaby, British Columbia is to collect stories with a different purpose. So rather than as a tool in a public design process, we will collect stories as the first step in building a local movement. A movement that we hope will be owned by the people who are the ‘subjects’ of the stories. This means we will do ethnographic field work and partner with people to develop their stories. In written, film, and podcast form. Folks will give us permission if and how to use their story. Whether only in the local context – to help attract resources, champions, and partners for prototyping ideas they believe in. Or whether we can also use stories outside of that local context – to help build a broader narrative and shape public servant thinking.

No doubt, as we try this out, we will encounter ethical dilemmas. And we won’t always get it right. It’s all too easy to appropriate somebody else’s story, and make it your story, with little notice. The best we can probably hope for is to be critically conscious and constantly mindful of our values: to redistribute power so that we can shake-up entrenched inequalities. And just maybe, improve life outcomes.

Jesper’s Response

What is better when instrumentalizing people’s experience in developing public services? And how can it be rightly pursued as ends to achieve our goals as designers, researchers or innovators? These questions could be supplemented by a third: how do you justify this kind of project in the first place?

There are certainly ethical issues to consider when going about making people subject to intense learning and more or less accurately translating their experience into knowledge foundations to be used in a change-making effort. In particular if it is done when claiming to be doing ‘co-creation’ or ‘user involvement’. People do become instruments for people in power and will risk being (mis)represented for political purposes or economically fuelled argumentation for certain decisions.

In employment services in Denmark, the major development agendas revolve around being citizen centric and empowering citizens to take responsibility of their own life and progression. Here, the constant question is: what can actually be expected from the citizens when attempting to build the personal and local resources? There are certainly huge risks of expecting capabilities among citizens that are unrealistic seen in relation to their everyday lives and their experienced capability and motivation. What MindLab attempts to do in this context through citizen-centered research is first and foremost to provide a vivid reminder of who the targeted people actually are. What could their living situation actually look like? What characterize their journey through the service system? What do they feel and experience? And what makes their lives meaningful?

This task is at once both fulfilling and extremely dissatisfying. Because, yes, it does create ‘aha’ moments and a sense of all the possible unintended consequences that employment reform are likely to have for the targeted publics. On the other hand, it inherently does not represent all aspects of actual experiences of people. And it is not only the process of simplification that hurts – reducing human experience to sound bites or video clips – but the people are also often left behind after handing over their struggles, fears and secrets to you. You certainly want to give something back. A desire that is rarely fulfilled in any significant way.

However, what we are also talking about here is the nature and scope of the knowledge that informs decision-making processes. In this perspective, it does make sense to remind the Ministry of Employment about who the citizens are when they are changing their system practices or about how social workers are already struggling to implement many other development initiatives and therefore cannot be expected to create the politically intended outcomes by next month. Being citizen-centered in this project is about making practice more visible and tangible to illustrate the premises, scope and implications when targeting this group in employment reform. The consequence, in the end, will hopefully be a renewed and more dynamic relationship between policy and practice.

mindlab team

The Mind Lab team bringing the ‘citizen’ into the policy process.

But whether you can call this being ‘user-centric’ or ‘human-oriented’ is certainly a relevant discussion to have. Especially when these approaches are tied to what is often called ‘participatory design’ and ‘user-involvement’. Neither of these are automatic products of doing ethnographic or qualitative research. Just as inviting citizens to participate in an ideation workshop does not legitimize labeling a project ‘co-creation’ or ‘co-design’. To be actually designing with people requires much of what Sarah highlighted as important premises and discussions.

What I do appreciate about the movement of ‘user-centrism’ is that it contributes positively to changing the ways in which the state goes about continuously rediscovering the public and its problems. It adds a perspective and nuance that is currently missing. It not only enables the creation of professional empathy among decision makers to actually recognize the character of the lives of people as well as some of the consequences of their interventions. It also creates a vivid and useful reference point to mobilize and work with the relevant constellation of actors around a particular issue. In fact, the user perspective is much less a direct involvement of the citizen and more a way of motivating and involving the people responsible for the problem to address it more productively.

What are your reactions? How do you ‘use’ users in your own work?



Laura Winge


By March 14th 2014

How can a magic straw be a tool for Service Innovation?

- Prototyping as a method in Service Design.

Putting what we do not know into words can be a challenge, and can mean exposing on our blind spots. Design games, scenarios and prototypes can guide us into this unknown area and allow us to retain an open mind to ideas that can be crucial.

A prototype is an early sample, a model or an exemplification, which is constructed for the testing of a new design, a concept or process. MindLab uses prototypes in order to gather citizens’ understanding of issues that affect their everyday lives.  By using prototypes, we can investigate the idea’s impact on affected parties at an early stage and implement any adjustments ahead of the final implementation.

In collaboration with the Ministry of Education MindLab facilitated a process where we gained feedback from teachers in state schools about how a simplification of the ‘Common Objectives Programme’ in state schools would best support the teachers in their planning, so that ‘Common Objectives’ could become a dynamic tool . ‘Common Objectives’ is a plan for the overall aims of learning and skills to be achieved by state school students, it is a tool for planning, organizing, and evaluating everyday teaching.


First we asked ourselves: What do the users really need? And how do we gain insights? Not into what users say they do, but what they actually do when, for example, teachers form a plan for the year.  We developed a design game that translated the teachers’ everyday language as well as their technical language into a tool that aroused curiosity and that motivated teachers to experiment their way towards ideas that were usable. At the same time, the teachers’ professional skills was incorporated into the actual tool, because we, based on field work, had selected the terms and potentials for development that had the greatest impact on teachers’ daily working routines.

The game included words familiar to the teaching staff, such as learning objectives, students, grades and teaching plans. In addition the design game pushed forward a number of overall functionalities that teachers were able to use according to their needs. For example ‘the magic straw’ was introduced, which gave access to all sources of knowledge in the world. A funnel was used as another metaphor for the functions and dynamics that allowed teachers to cut corners in their work with the ‘Common Objectives’ . Another one was a fork used as a metaphor for the extraction of relevant material from a given topic in order to make it easier to continue to working with it. All in all, well-known factors and open metaphors, which stimulated the participants just enough for them to begin to build and invent content and dynamics on the website based on professional needs.

The task was: ‘together, you are now going to build a website that helps you prepare an annual plan based on ’Common Objectives’ – anything is possible‘. ‘The magic straw’ turned out to be a distraction that was just playful enough to enable the co-production to be experimental at a highly professional level. Through the design game we were able to access professional knowledge and the Ministry of Education continues to work on the ideas that were developed. The involvement of the teachers in the development process enabled the current needs of the profession to be the focus, and the process was based on the teachers’ professionalism and insight into their own practices in relation to ‘Common Objectives’ usage.

As a designer, I am often asked how to design a prototype. Made simple, I have sketched a model describing the general workflow:

Fieldwork + Research > Insights and Ideas
+ Communication Design * including semiotics and empathy with users
> PROTOTYPE > Coproduction
= tested insights and ideas, anchored to the needs of users

Prototypes are developed uniquely for each process and actual needs. Such irregular factors as humour, provocation, the interview situation, and the participants’ readiness come into play. In my example the state school teachers were motivated to participate in the co-creation based on a large degree of professional commitment. They had the opportunity to contribute to the development of tools that they themselves use actively when planning their teaching.

Through prototypes we can support the relevant factors, by carrying out contextual features in the design game itself. In addition we can take into account that co-creation is also experience design, as the prototype implicitly implies the conversation based interview. Just as the experience of co-creation is designed by taking into account the target audience with aesthetic and dramaturgical leverages, such as storytelling and process design , thus, the prototype will become an actual and usable tool for the exchange of opinions and a catalyst for the development of ideas.

The design game was created with help from Jakob Schjørring. Read his blog about prototyping.


Jesper Christiansen

Social sciences in action

By March 11th 2014

Debate writing between Sarah Schulman, Anna Lochard and Jesper Christiansen

This past Friday Sarah Schulman, InWithForward, Anna Lochard, La 27 Region, and I explored some of the current challenges of public design. We convened in Copenhagen, amongst other things, to develop and test out a new approach to answering questions. We have called our approach Debate Writing, and these are the questions we will be answering.

1. How do we put social sciences into action? And not just design thinking?

2. What is the role of every day people in our work?

3. How do we spread and scale processes, not just products?

We are pretty good at posing questions. As the ‘social scientists’ on our teams, we are often in critical thinking mode. But sometimes we can get caught in rounds and rounds of conversation, where we talk about what we already think. Rather than actually challenge and advance our collective thinking.

So we decided to put our pens to paper. Well, our fingers to the keyboard, and force ourselves to actually debate the questions we set out. Of course, what we came up with was not definitive or polished. But it did open up some new arguments and ways of conceptualizing issues we each face in our day-to-day practice.


Here is how it worked:

•  We brainstormed three prompts relevant to our everyday work.

•  Each of us took one prompt, and wrote an opening statement for 45 minutes.

•  When the alarm buzzed, we turned over our writing to the person sitting on our right. Who responded for 45 minutes.

•  We repeated the process once more. Until we had compiled three perspectives on each prompt.

•  We printed out our drafts, and looked for the thread. Where did the argument end up?

Over the coming weeks, we’ll publish all three of our written debates. And we would love to hear what you think. Here is our response to the first prompt. This prompt comes from a feeling that while design thinking is often lauded as the ‘new’ addition to public sector redesign, social science thinking is not well understood. It is assumed to already exist within the public sector. We challenge that notion here.

Prompt #1: Social sciences in action

Jesper’s Opening Statement:

Public organizations cannot merely adopt a strategy of survival by adapting to their environment. The fundamental consequence of being legitimized by a democratic system and run by political leadership is that, as a public servant, your purpose is to actually shape the environment. Not through politics or political ideas, but through applying a political epistemology that take the nature of the problem seriously. Political epistemology has to do with the nature and scope of knowledge and processes in which the state (or other relevant institutions of power) is rediscovering the public and its problems in order to make interventions in the everyday lives of citizens.

The social sciences has a critical role to play in this respect by influencing (and perhaps changing) how to understand public problems. The common role for social sciences is explore, frame, theorize and illustrate how social reality can be grasped and dealt with. In relation to public policy and reform, social science mostly serve as cultural and historical critique. It is yet to reveal a significant productive forward-oriented value.

This is where the very concept of design enters. Design and design-thinking seemingly takes ownership of both the reflexive approach of social science while combining it with forward-oriented processes of making the future accessible through experimentation and iteration. Often, practices of policymaking still assumes linear models where knowledge, actions and outputs have to be represented as in direct connection and where the plan for change has to be specified in advance. Design emerges as a challenge to this often inefficient way of dealing with social change in public sector contexts. But is it promising too much? And is design just a way of talking about social sciences in action?

The challenge of putting social sciences in to action in a context of public decision-making is quite immediate in a current MindLab project that aims to rethink the practice of policy development in the Danish Ministry of Employment. This project has the purpose of improving the capacity of the ministry to create politically intended outcomes. It aims to ensure successful implementation through the establishment of a practice policymaking that allows for a more dynamic relationship between policy and practice in the implementation of central labour market reforms. But what this project might really be about is embedding approaches of social sciences in order to enable the ministry in better ways to continuously rediscover and understand the consequences and outcomes of its interventions and reforms.

As the ministry is working towards developing a new ‘implementation strategy’, they are trying to reinvent their current culture of decision-making as well as their theory of knowledge acquisition in the processes of realizing political intentions. It is perhaps not ‘social sciences in action’ per se, but this process is drawing on principles from social sciences to transform the processes of envisioning and formalizing social reality in order to enable a more open, responsive and adaptive approach to public policy and reform. They are attempting to recognize the changing conditions and unpredictable developments of social reality while at the same time working in a bureaucratic context idealizing pre-composed scripts and plans.

This paradoxical premise, I think, makes the concept of design appealing because it promises both a better understanding of the problems and processes of public development while maintaining the ideal that we are able to design solutions, processes, services, and even systems. The ever-looming risk is that design, as many other ‘instruments of government’ before, becomes another instrumental way to deliver ‘the product’. The failure of design-thinking in government would be to not challenge existing ideal of coming up with perfect ‘solutions’ that ‘solve’ the public problem rather than fuelling the processes of re-discovering and addressing it.

This is why the tendency to squeeze social sciences under the umbrella of design is a risky one. My contention is that the value of social sciences in action, with the multitude of different approaches to the understanding of human behaviour, motivation and culture, can be seen in relation to not only their ability to rediscover and nuance the problem at hand. Social sciences also offer perspectives that illuminate how public problems, as multi-sited, multi-faceted and dynamic entities, can be addressed in various different ways. The goals of public organizations are complex, ambiguous and even contradictory at times. In this light, it is risky when design (human-centred or other kinds) promises innovative solutions as an automatic outcome of designing.

The role of social sciences in action is at least to remind us that often what is possible when dealing with the employment systems or other complex service systems is not the creation of consensus or one ‘best practice’. Instead, renewed knowledge about the social world often sparks more contradicting perspectives and complexity where the main outcome is a new debate about what characterize the problem and what would be a good way of dealing with it.

This debate should also be about what is useful to know about the public, how this knowledge can be acquired, how it is established as legitimate in formalized systems of justification and what kind of outcomes that would create public value in which contexts. Social sciences in action thus have a role to play in establishing a useful political epistemology and ensure that politics remains an actual and legitimate part of public development.

Anna’s response to social sciences in action:

What can appear as contradictory in the sentence “social sciences in action” would be that this action is usually not explicit when it is happening. Usually, the chronology is the following: a social scientist participates in a project, and we discover new conceptual concepts, framing and formalisation of this project once an article is published, that is to say way after the time of the project.

We have the feeling that social sciences are a way to document and share things that already happened, but it is difficult to understand how it could help us to enlighten things that are about to happen. The social scientist, usually specialist in only one field, seems to use his academic background as general culture and personal intelligence to adapt to different situations of a project, but is usually quiet in difficulty to explicit the theoretical frames he is using without even knowing it.

However, social sciences have a rich and broad history of documenting and explaining changes in human organisations. Every discipline such as sociology, philosophy, management sciences, anthropology… present various theoretical frames – sometimes contradictory – that could become tools along the way of a project to understand what is happening, describe situations and drive the changes that we hope for. How to discover and understand those various theoretical frames without having to be an expert in every field? How to choose the most appropriate one for a precise subject? And finally, how to popularise and use them without making them meaningless because they are over-simplified?

Social sciences are embedded for a long time in administrations, agencies, services etc. and have documented their changes, their evolutions or their cultures. Who could remember that in the 80’s the French government began to speak about “experimentations”, “users”, “self-determined objectives” or “incremental modernisation” if there were no social scientists to documented those changes? In many ways, social sciences play the role of memories of our administrations, tracing new worlds, new theories, new philosophies of how to reform and make them work better… That could also be a great tool for designers or professionals that have to work in this context.

In one of our projects, a designer asked civil servants in the room, on the first day of the project, what was the meaning of those three letters “D.G.S.” – that is, a General Director of Service. This simple question reveals how some professional circles lack an understanding of the magical world of public administration, which is radically different from the private sector and cannot be treated in the same way. We have to change the way public managers and civil servants are treating citizens and are creating new policies, that’s for sure… but those who help this change happening should be careful to understand the history of those beautiful institutions.

Sarah’s response to social sciences in action:

“What are the social sciences?”

It was in the second semester of my second year of university that I was finally asked the obvious question. Here I was a budding ‘social scientist’ and I didn’t really have a good definition of the discipline I was on the precipice of entering.
Luckily, I had a book. Roger Trigg’s Understanding Social Science. And on page 1, he answers that very question, writing:

What is social science? This is a characteristically philosophical question, examining the assumptions and presuppositions of an area of human activity. It seems easy to give a list of would-be social sciences. Sociology and social anthropology would inevitably be on it, as would such subjects as politics and economics. History has a claim there to be there too… It certainly studies the interactions of humans in society.

The main difference between it and the others is that it confines itself to the past. Psychology, even social psychology, should probably not be there as it concentrates on the individual rather than on his or her place in the wider group…. It is already obvious that the notion of social science is not as clear-cut as might be first imagined.

It’s precisely the lack of boundaries that I’d contend gives social science such power in our work re-imagining and re-making social systems with and for every day people. Because it enables us to look at those every day people (and ourselves) in the round, in context, and over time.
Anna and Jesper both give persuasive accounts of the value-add of the social sciences in social innovation and public sector redesign. They note that the social sciences help us to:

- Understand human behavior, motivations, and culture

- Project the consequences – intended and unintended – of a line of action

- Remember the past

It’s hard to disagree. But how do we extract this value and put it into a live, quick moving design process? And how do we build our capacity to actually unearth and examine the assumptions and presuppositions of our activities? All the while forming new assumptions and presuppositions to test? In other words how do we become creative & critical thinkers & doers? All at once?

Design tends to make creative thinking & doing pretty accessible. There are games, materials, post-it notes, markers, crayons, clay. That serve to externalize our thoughts. Social sciences tend to make critical thinking & doing pretty darn intellectual. There aren’t so many gimmicky tools. Just a lot of journal articles, books, and maybe a neon green highlighter, if you’re lucky.

There’s also this belief that civil servants, social workers, and other professionals working in the social space are already adept at social science. That design is the thing that’s new. In our work, I find that rarely to be the case. Because so many social workers and professionals have been trained in a vocational way – learning applied theory without first gaining the liberal arts foundation – the philosophy, the history, the humanities that helps you form an opinion of what’s a good theory.

Let me try and get super practical. In the work I co-led in Australia, that eventually led to Family by Family, it was diving into philosophy, history, and empirical psychosocial studies that gave us a fresh way of making sense of the ethnographic field work. A re-read of Aristotle’s work on human flourishing as juxtaposed with the all too common psychosocial literature on resilience helped me to realize these two concepts were not the same. Where resilience was about bouncing back, thriving or flourishing was all about being present, looking back, and moving forwards.

With this ‘critical lens’ I was able to take the stories from families and from professionals and see something I hadn’t seen when I was in the field.
Anna smartly asks: how do we discover and use these different theoretical frames without having to be an expert in the field? How do we choose the most appropriate one? And how do we popularize them without making them meaningless?

Here, I can only point to my own experience. I wasn’t an expert in family systems, or in eudaimonic ethics (that’s Aristotle), but I was able to take these frameworks and test them against our on-the-ground data. I believe it’s less about choosing the appropriate framework. And more about prototyping frameworks in our on-the-ground contexts. It’s this capability set I’d like to learn how to build in my teams going forward.

Niels Hansen

How do you go about gauging the effect of development work?

By February 19th 2014

What difference do we make for the businesses and citizens who ultimately pay our salaries? And how do we gauge the difference that we make? For the last seven years, MindLab has been very keen to gauge the effect of the work that we do and it goes a long way back. Already back in 2007, while we were in the process of defining how MindLab would conduct its work, we were paid a visit by David Hunter. Hunter is recognised for his work on the gauging of effect and on change theory in the U.S.A. He has also worked with a number of organisations in Denmark. He helped us to develop a theory of change as well as indicators and the tools to with which to measure them. The result was an impressive chart.



But once this chart was to be to be transposed into a measurement of the effect of the work that we do, it became clear that we are not always able to accept full responsibility for whether our contributions are translated into real change for citizens and businesses. When, for example, we are working towards improving existing services or developing new ones with an agency, we are typically developing a concept of how the new progression through that service would appear to its users. Whether the agency involved then prioritises whether to follow all our recommendations or perhaps just uses the work as a springboard to rethink aspects of their services, is not something over which we have any direct influence. It all depends on political developments, the agency’s prioritisation of resources and the participation of other stakeholders, all of which make it difficult to isolate MindLab’s efforts.

The difference MindLab makes for citizens and businesses is often just as much about helping our colleagues towards a more precise understanding of who their users are and how they can best organise efforts towards those users. Back at the Agency, it often turns out that the reason why a particular service can not be improved initially is rooted in more strategic challenges, such as the choice between the delivery of a service and being a controlling authority. It may therefore prove to be the case that our most important contribution was not the improvement in services, but the insights we brought to the table along the way. Insights that can be helped to change the agency’s core understanding of its role in relation to its users. We have therefore had to redefine our own understanding of the nature of the value we create.

- If we are to gauge the effect of the work that we do, then we need to gauge that for which we can take responsibility and how we provide our owners with value. This could, for example, be when we are helping to clarify our owners’ perception of how they make a difference in the world.

- We are helping to ensure that new knowledge leads to new strategies, new policies or new ways of working.

- We help our colleagues to implement solutions in a way that creates a bigger effect.

Obviously, it is important to stay in tune with the idea that the ultimate goal of what we are doing is to make a difference for citizens and businesses. If we only focus on the processes for which we can accept responsibility, we risk forgetting what will really make a difference to citizens and businesses.

It is my impression that many others who, like us, are not responsible for implementation, are faced with the same challenges. Therefore, it could be interesting to hear about other people’s considerations and experiences .

Christian Bason

2014 will be the year of experimentation

By January 16th 2014

This article was previously published in the Danish weekly Mandag Morgen.

Public sector leaders around the world are trying to make experimentation into a more systematic, integrated part of their organisation. There are indications that 2014 will be the year in which the innovation laboratory becomes more mainstream. But the strategy is not without its pitfalls.

Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt said in her New Year’s Speech that “if we make changes to our country and give it the right resources, there will be the funds for pensions, home help and hospitals.” Very few people would disagree with this. But the question is how do we find the best ways of changing Denmark and giving it the right resources? Which investments should we make if we are to get real change for the money that is spent?

One possible answer is not to invest in actual new solutions, but to invest instead in the ability to experiment with potential future solutions. By first of all undertaking experimentation, we can find out more quickly what works. We can also increase the likelihood of achieving the effect we want to attain politically. This is where the idea of innovation laboratories (or “labs” in short) comes into the picture.

Experiments with people as the central focus

There is no clear definition of what a “lab” is within the context of the public sector, but a range of organisations have made some good suggestions. Some years ago, the EU Commission published a vision statement, which defined labs as being temporary or permanent organisation forms with the following characteristics:

They involve users in a process of innovation (co-creation) by, for example, implementing idea workshops with patients at a hospital ward or with the unemployed at a job centre.

They bring parties together from the public and private sectors, as well as civil society. For example, private companies might put forward innovative ideas for welfare solutions or volunteers might rethink tasks that are out of reach for the public sector.

They bring together professional disciplines such as technology, social science, the Humanities and design, perhaps with engineers, public servants, high-level academics and designers collaborating as part of a project team.

They establish a dedicated (physical and/or virtual) space for the development of ideas and for experimentation with possible solutions, such as a physical workshop area with materials, frameworks and media to assist creative processes and the design of prototypes.

More sophisticated definitions are indeed conceivable, but most people agree that laboratories put people in the central position, which means a development process that is experimental and inclusive. I have also pointed out that, increasingly often, labs are closely linked to design methods, which is a subject that Canadian organisation MaRS has published a rather good pamphlet about.

A new movement

The thought of creating environments in which it is possible to experiment under controlled conditions with new public-sector solutions is not in itself a new one. The notion of “the experimenting society” goes at least as far back as social scientist Donald Campbell’s 1971 essay of the same name and, as likely as not, is even older than that.

What is new is that laboratories are being set up as formalised structures by governments all over the world. The ability to innovate is thus being anchored organisationally, often at a completely central level:

In the summer of 2012, the American government’s Office of Personnel Management set up The LAB @ OPM as a platform for rethinking Office services for over two million American state employees. In the same year, Singapore’s Ministry of State opened The Human Experience Lab. In December 2013, the British government announced that it was looking for someone to be in charge of an Open Policy Lab, which will belong to the Cabinet Office. And right now, the EU Commission is investigating whether to set up its own lab, in line with recommendations in a new report about strengthened public sector innovations in Europe.

Calling this a trend would be an understatement. Developments are so extensive that you would need a map of the whole world to be able to see the overall picture. Parsons School of Design in New York has drawn up such a map.

Here in Denmark, where MidtLab and MindLab have already existed for a good number of years, the Danish government has, in its municipal and regional agreements for 2014, added a new dimension to lab-thinking, with its ambition to launch a number of “governance laboratories”.

The idea is that these laboratories should contribute to the development of new governance forms in the public sector, focusing on trust and co-operation and crossing such boundaries as administrative levels and professional skills etc.

Fragile machines of opportunity

Despite growth in laboratories both at home and world-wide, developments are not all headed in the same direction. In June 2013, Helsinki Design Lab (part of the Sitra fund for innovation) closed down in Finland. The Australian government also recently mothballed its own DesignGov.

Precisely because focus on experimentation is the reason for their creation, the continued existence of laboratories is uncertain. Labs are often set up in partnership with a host or operating organisation for the purpose of helping it to facilitate new and as yet uncertain futures. In his book “Partnerskabelse” (“Building Partnerships”) CBS-researcher Niels Åkerstrøm Andersen characterises public and private sector partnerships as “fragile machines of opportunity”. From my point of view, I also think that this is a very pertinent way of characterising laboratories. Just as with a public and private sector partnership, a laboratory is the expression of a mutual promise of potential future value creation between two very different partners.

The actual creation of that value is far from guaranteed. It presumes that at least four dilemmas which pose a risk to the laboratories very existence are able to be dealt with.

1) The laboratory is highly dependent on its host organisation, but must at the same time challenge its core tasks.

2) The laboratory holds the promise of future value creation, but may find it difficult to document that value creation in the here and now.

3) The laboratory must support and facilitate the work on innovation being done by its host colleagues and must therefore not take the credit when something succeeds, but must often act as lightening conductor when it does not.

4) The laboratory must promote experimentation and uncertainty within a culture that is increasingly biased towards knowledge and predictability.

Most of all, laboratories are fragile because they need to keep changing all the time if they are to continue to give the host organisation any added value. Laboratories that do not survive in the long run include those that are unable to reinvent themselves at the same rate at which the host’s demands are changing.

Paradoxically, the prerequisite for a successful laboratory is therefore that it should take its own medicine and behave as a continual experiment. Even though it might seem apt to do so, it is a perfectly deliberate choice that leads me to call 2014 the year of experimentation, rather than the year of laboratories.

Experimentation is what both host organisation and laboratories alike need more of if we, like the Danish Prime Minister, want to “get Denmark ready and give it the right resources”.

Christian Bason

Nations talk, cities act

By December 2nd 2013

This article was previously published in the Danish weekly Mandag Morgen.

While leadership among the world’s heads of state is at a standstill, the major cities of the world are becoming increasingly important when it comes to solving global challenges. But how can cities work with innovation? New York’s outgoing mayor is leading the way.

”Nations talk, cities act” is supposedly one of the favourite slogans of Michael Bloomberg, the outgoing mayor of New York. For the last 12 years, he has been making a contribution to putting cities in the driving seat when it comes to tackling some of the world’s biggest challenges.

Despite being encouraged to run for presidency of the United States once his reign in the nation’s biggest city ends in a month’s time, he has decided not to stand. Instead, he is willing to put a significant portion of his private fortune into promoting innovation among his fellow mayors.

The idea that the world’s great cities hold the key to addressing many of the world’s challenges is not a new one. And the impact of this idea is growing, as is cities’ own self-understanding.

Take for example the aftermath of the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009. In a television interview, renowned researcher and sociologist Anthony Giddens was asked to give an analysis of the implications of a failure by the world’s nations to reach a binding, effective climate agreement.

He replied that in the future, we should not expect nation states to be the most progressive performers when it comes to climate. In the future, it will be the big cities. Since then, an organisation like C40, which is an association of 40 of the world’s largest cities, has taken up the challenge of reducing CO2 emissions.

Another advocate of the importance of cities for our society and for the future of the planet is Richard Florida, who is best known for his “creative class” theory. Over the last 10 years, Florida has argued that it is in urban communities with particularly high concentrations of creative people (defined as everything from designers to stockbrokers) that innovation and growth are best able to thrive.

Thus, it is not only the future of cities, but the future of nations that lies in the hands of the mayors and administrations in some of the world’s largest cities. Looking ahead, it is city authorities who will attract investments, talent and businesses.

A public system of innovation

Michael Bloomberg is a key driver of this development and his focus extends far beyond the city limits of New York and his role as mayor. Through his foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, he is developing and putting forward new solutions that can provide a further contribution to the strengthening of the role of cities as the stakeholder with the best answers to our global challenges.

One of the solutions the foundation is working on is to strengthen innovation skills close to cities’ top management. Bloomberg is achieving this by funding the establishment of innovation delivery teams in five major U.S. cities.

The cities, which include Detroit, New Orleans and Chicago, are awarded up to DKK 10 million annually. This money goes towards funding a team of innovators which (referring directly to the mayor) focuses on rethinking such things as public services, jobs and growth strategies and combatting crime. You could call this work “innovation by new capacity”, because the money is being spent on upgrading the innovative skills of the administration.

The entire process takes three years and is supported by advisors who ensure continual knowledge sharing and sparring between the various teams, with researchers from New York University responsible for evaluating the results.

A second solution, which the fund is helping to develop, involves intelligent competitions. Last year, Bloomberg invited over 300 U.S. cities to compete on good ideas about how urban challenges can be solved in new and more effective ways. This means innovation by competition.

Now it is Europe’s turn, where all cities with over 100,000 inhabitants have just been invited to take part in a new round: ”Mayor’s Challenge”, in which I myself am on the panel of judges.

In the style of Government Denmark’s innovation Award, which is due to be awarded again shortly, the purpose of the Mayor’s Challenge is to reward the good idea at city level. A cash prize of 5 million Euro for the winning city will help ensure that the idea will be developed and implemented.

The Mayor’s Challenge also provides massive process support to qualify the 20 most promising proposals before further competition and the announcement of the winner. Not only does this mean that cities get to develop their ideas. It also increases the possibilities for bringing ideas into the future. In addition to the first prize, four other ideas will be awarded a prize of 1 million Euros.

Raise ambitions

What are the prospects for Michael Bloomberg and the work of the foundation? In my opinion, it is that he is helping to elevate innovation in cities from singular and somewhat random initiatives towards a broader, systematic effort.

First of all, he puts innovation right on the agenda of the cities that are participating in the programs funded by the foundation. This applies not only to the lucky winners, but to all who throw themselves into the competitions, reaping the benefit of new learning in the process.

Secondly, he is helping to set new standards for how ambitiously one can proceed, if you as mayor seriously believe in innovation, even without external support. Many newly elected municipal politicians here in Denmark might want to draw inspiration from this.

Finally, Bloomberg’s efforts will be a benchmark for decision-makers at national level. If we can achieve results by strengthening a city’s innovative capacity, could the same also be achieved using similar devices in a ministry or an agency?

If this happens, nation states might get back on track. But so far, the cities are acting while the nations are talking.

Christian Bason

Is the public sector more innovative than we think?

By November 21st 2013

This article was previously published in the Danish weekly Mandag Morgen.

Drawing its inspiration from Italian professor Mariana Mazzucato, a new and interesting notion is beginning to spread: The public sector is better at certain things than the private sector. One such thing is innovation.

Italian-American academic Mariana Mazzucato is currently something of a darling among media such as the BBC, the Financial Times, and The Economist and even Mandag Morgen here in Denmark. In her new book, “The Entrepreneurial State”, she argues that the role of the public sector in fostering innovation is underestimated.

According to Mazzucato, the particular strength of the public sector is its ability to invest for the long-term in technologies and research programmes that are so high-risk that privately owned companies are neither able nor willing to get involved in them.

Take for example a number of technologies found in Apple’s iPhone, which would not exist without the public sector: the Internet, WiFi-connectivity, mp3-files, voice management and even the touch screen are all the result of public-sector investments in research and development. Similarly, smart, state-funded research into new drugs has been absolutely crucial to the pharmaceutical industry, claims Mazzucato.

The image of a public sector that is confident, proactive and innovative seems out of sync with the horror stories from recent years about European governments on the verge of bankruptcy, overly-bureaucratic structures or the recent government meltdown triggered by the U.S. Congress.

But should the public sector really stand proud and regain its self-confidence? Does it truly leave the private sector trailing behind when it comes to innovation?

Public sector innovation success stories

I am currently chairing an expert group set up by the European Commission, which counts among others Marianna Mazzucato as a member. Our group is drawing up recommendations for improved public sector innovation in Europe. In connection with our work, I have become aware that we may be on the brink of a significant shift in our understanding of the public sector’s role in society.

For illustration, let me propose a couple of examples:

Better at creating the growth markets of the future

These days it is generally accepted that the public sector is able to play a unique role by making long-term investments in technologies that can help solve some of the major challenges facing society, in areas such as climate, energy, environment and health.

In a Danish context, the government Growth Teams, which are public-private committees charged with identifying new opportunities for innovation and growth in selected economic sectors, can be seen as an expression of this. Similarly, the European Unions new and ambitious Horizon 2020 research programme has budgeted just under 32 billion euros to tackle such ”societal challenges”. To put it bluntly, it could be said that the public sector as strategic investor creates the markets of the future. This is also the provocative point being made by Mazzucato. In this sense, the state is more innovative than industry.

More innovative innovation processes

If you want to learn how to organise and manage radical innovation, Google is not the place to look. Instead, you should take a look at DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), which belongs to the American Department of Defense.

In the cover article of a recent issue of Harvard Business Review, two former DARPA directors talk about how the organisation not only invented the Internet, but is generally responsible for what is probably the most impressive and consistent series of ground-breaking technologies the world has ever seen.

With over 200 innovation programmes and a budget of three billion U.S. dollars, DARPA is no small organisation, but nevertheless manages to be extremely efficient and non-bureaucratic. The administrative staff consists of just 120 people, with approximately a hundred additional project managers. The rest of the organisation is structured around flexible project teams made up of the best scientists and experts, which are dissolved again as soon as a project is completed. Add to this a high degree of institutional independence and exceedingly high levels of ambition in relation to tackling some of the toughest challenges in the world and you have the recipe for a public innovation success that is admired in the private sector.

Better at digital service

Recent years have seen numerous stories about how private companies are ceasing to outsource manufacturing to low-wage countries and bringing it back in-house, either partially or in full. The same is happening in the public sector, particularly on the digital arena. Tasks that were previously bought in from highly paid external IT-consultants are increasingly being resolved in-house, as digital services become a core public task.

Currently one of the most widely exposed examples of this is the website Gov.uk, which provides British citizens with online access to public services. A couple of years ago the UK government  decided to cease collaborations with a range of the state’s external IT-suppliers and to return development tasks to a small in-house design team. The task of this team was to create an entirely new digital platform that revolutionises the way in which citizens interact with the state.

According to Francis Maude, the minister responsible for it, Gov.uk was “planned, written, structured and designed around the needs of users and not what the state wants them to do”.
In practice, this has meant was that a beta version of the site was user-tested in public and then shut down again, only to reopen in an improved version. The website is estimated to save the British taxpayer the equivalent of half a billion Danish Kroner annually, and recently won the prestigious British Design of the Year Award, giving Gov.uk the moniker “The Paul Smith of websites”.

Innovation for the long haul

What do these three examples show? As I see it, it’s not really about whether the public sector is more innovative than the private sector. It would after all most likely take another Steve Jobs to make technologies as user-friendly, attractive and profitable as the iPhone. DARPA may well be an innovator, but private firms can be up to par. Just think of IBM, which has produced five Nobel Prize winners. And Gov.uk is very much inspired by the design principles employed by the likes of Amazon and Google.

Nonetheless, we can still learn something about how the public sector can play a major driving role for innovation. First, it requires that we dare to invest public resources in the technologies and solutions that have the potential to decisively shape our future in the long run. While private companies chase their next quarterly financial statement, the public sector has the opportunity of being able to think 10, 20 or 30 years ahead.

Second, the public sector can be just as pioneering as the private sector when it comes to organising innovation. The degree of complexity that characterises many public issues means that organisation, incentives and processes often need to be more sophisticated than in the private sector.

Finally, the public sector must be prepared to in-source the tasks and competencies that are critical for their core activities, which includes the increasingly important but also costly digital realm. There’s still bound to be room for private digital providers. If they’re smart enough, that is.

Christian Bason

Redesigning the political

By October 14th 2013

What might be better ways of developing public policies and services? How might we start with the lives of citizens and the realities of businesses when we craft new strategies and initiatives that are supposed to help them? What are ways in which we can bridge the gap between political goals on the one hand and tangible change for real people on the other? What do leading organisations across the world do to address such questions?

These were some of the themes discussed at MindLab amongst nearly 100 policy makers, academics and design practitioners during the How Public Design? seminar in early September, 2013.

The event set out to explore how design might drive public innovation to create new solutions as well as new publics. ‘“Design”’ is usually understood as graphics, products, services and systems. But design is more than such end results: To design is to apply a particular mindset – drawing on a range of approaches, tools and skills to shape the creation process itself. In that sense, design is relevant to everyone who seeks to change a given situation into a better one. With this outset, I asked the following as we opened the seminar:

• How might we work together to tackle some of our most pressing public challenges?
• What is the current edge of design-led approaches to innovation in government, and where do we need to go next?

A major part of this conversation took place in what we call policy studios: deliberate processes involving a select group of policy makers, domain experts, and designers in order to ask new questions to a policy problem and discover potential new approaches to it. Reflecting the policy areas of MindLab’s circle of owners, the studios addressed education, employment, modernisation, and business policy. Using a set of simple design tools, the studios were not supposed to generate final answers, but rather to bring new dimensions into the policy process, and open up a new conversation.

I sometimes compare the meeting of public policy and design by the image of great waves crashing against each other: The logics of politics, power, and authority versus the culture of designers: functionality, aesthetics and, human experience. How can they be reconciled?

To me, the meeting of these two realms is fruitful exactly because they are not easily reconciled. Rather, they challenge each other to ask new questions. Consider for a moment what happens if we flip the characteristics of politics and design the other way:

How can policy makers create public interventions that are useful, attractive and meaningful to people?

How can designers relate to the political goals that constrain their briefs, how can they better understand the social power of the products and services they create, and how can they work effectively with formal, traditional and hierarchical public organisations?

How Public Design demonstrated – again – that public officials and design practitioners can have a meaningful conversation about how to enact societal change. In this pamphlet we share some of the highlights, and some of the new questions. Enjoy.


Anette Væring

How Public Design? Join the conversation

By October 4th 2013

MindLab again hosted the seminar titled How Public Design? on September 2 and 3. We made a little publication with highlights – it’s available in a printed version at MindLab and as pdf for download.

Christian Bason

Public servant: What’s your vocation?

By October 4th 2013

This article was previously published in the Danish weekly Mandag Morgen.

We speak a lot about how the public professions – primary school teachers, nurses, doctors – are driven by their vocation, and how they must play a key role in reforming our public sector. But what is your vocation if you are a public servant?

There is no shortage of analyses of the importance of “the welfare state’s core workforce” when it comes to transforming the public sector. I have pointed towards this group myself, the front-line workers with profession-specific qualifications who have key responsibility for producing our welfare services. In a fine new book entitled ”Velfærdsinnovation – en introduktion” (Welfare Innovation – An Introduction), Nikolaj Lubanski and Birgitte Klæsøe, both of whom who have background from Metropol University College, also focus on this particular group of professionals. The authors write:

”We need to involve the many people (including those with profession-specific qualifications), whose daily work grants them insight into the potential for innovation, and who need to be involved in the process of getting good ideas and translating them into improvements in practice.”

The book goes on to suggest that the front-line professionals in particular should bring forth their creativityforces to tackle the challenges our society faces, such as inclusion in state schools, new welfare technology or strengthening rehabilitation in areas such as care for the elderly.

I pretty much agree. The potential in supporting teachers, nurses and pedagogues is enormous. These professionals are crucial if citizens are not only to have a positive experience of public welfare services, including learning, health and well-being.

Is there a financial manager in the room?

I find myself wondering whether we might be forgetting the thousands of administrators, managers, financial and HR managers and the people who work for them? The ones that we refer to as (for want of anything better) the managerial layer of the public sector. Every now and then, I am reminded that they may also have a crucial role to play in turning the promise of welfare innovation into reality.

Some years ago I was reminded of this at a conference about innovation in the public sector, where a participant dryly remarked that it would be nice if a few financial managers had been in the room. There weren’t. The only people attending were the already-converted development consultants, who excitedly corroborated each other in the notion that new ideas are always good, whatever the cost.

Last week I was party to a new episode, which once again led me to consider the role of managers in the development of the public sector. This was at the end of a seminar we held in my own organisation, MindLab, which was attended by researchers, designers and public servants. There was an ambitious atmosphere about the use of new design methods to create positive change in the public sector. But then someone dropped a remark that I have not been able to stop thinking about . A designer said:

“What if the decision-makers just don’t have the same ambition as we do when it comes to creating tangible change for citizens?”
Taken to the extreme, you could ask: Do public managers have a vocation? And if they do, what motivates them?

The managerial vocation

I think that there is more than one possible answer. My experience is that there are several kinds of ”vocation” (if you can call it that) in the world of public management ( a world to which I belong myself). It’s just that these vocations are not particularly concerned with citizens:

There’s a ”geek vocation” which is all about coming up with the most elegant and professionally sharp policy analyses imaginable.

A ”political vocation” which is about the adrenaline kick of being part of a political process and of being near the power centrer (be it a municipality, a ministry or in the Parliament).
A ”power-trip-vocation” which is linked to the previous one, but is more about the satisfaction of exercising power with consequences for many people.

A ”career-vocation”, which revolves around such things as prestige, positioning, salary and influence.

These are all legitimate motives for going to work every day. But if you ask if there is such a thing as a public manager with the objective of really, really making a difference to citizens and communities, I would contend that they are surprisingly few and far between. Few have what we could really call a ”social vocation”.

What significance does this have for the possibility of transforming our public sector? I see two scenarios:

1: That there really is very little material to work with among these people who make major decisions, manage budgets and staff functions. Thus, the prospects for increased welfare innovation are far worse than imagined by people like Nikolaj Lubanski and Birgitte Klæsøe.

2: That there is a large untapped potential to be unleashed by enabling ”the societal vocation” of more public managers. I believe that this vocation is deeply latent in many and is essentially just about asking the question: “How do I contribute to improving this society, both for the individual citizen and for all of us?”

Thankfully it was the second of these scenarios that dominated the debate at MindLab’s recent seminar. And it has also attracted international attention.

In a speech to the nearly 100 assembled participants, the Chief Executive of the City of Odense Jørgen Clausen announced his intent to create a local government in which all administrative processes citizen-centric: An organisation that focuses on citizens in everything it does.

Now, there’s a public manager with a vocation. Perhaps there is hope after all?

Jesper Christiansen

How Public Design?: enabling a new kind of conversation #1

By September 16th 2013

MindLab hosted the seminar titled ‘How Public Design?’ for the second time on 2 and 3 September. This event gathered a distinguished group of decision-makers, researchers, experts and consultants of social change. As the previous event, the theme itself was subject to continuous reflection: what was ‘how public design’ actually referring to? Most of the participants could agree that we were talking about a particular kind of ‘human-centered design’ approach. But was it a specific kind of thinking, process or method? Was it about exploring and characterizing a specific mentality or even personality as a ‘public designer’? Or was ‘public design’ perhaps a way of reframing ‘public sector change’ or ‘public policy’?

Question the current ways of developing the public sector

After two days of intense discussion on the theme, it was clear that this vague headline of the seminar served the purpose of “expanding the discourse”, as one of the seminar participants Charles Leadbeater (author, UK) phrased it. This expansion involved not only bringing new sets of concepts, tools and values to inspire the development and implementation of public policies or bringing about valuable change in society more generally. But by being open to interpretation, the concept of design also allowed for a conversation that dared to question the current ways of dealing with public problems.

Mobilize society to create valuable solutions

This conversation includes talking about how to ‘reform’ public governance and going beyond the rhetoric of system change. Joeri van der Steenhoven (MaRS Solutions Lab, CAN) has in his post-seminar reflections pointed to a new role of government that, rather than developing solutions for society, plays a key role in building capacity and mobilizing society to create valuable solutions. A part of this is to develop and sustain a new kind of learning or design attitude among civil servants to explore new ways of enabling citizens and other actors of society to co-produce better public outcomes. In trusted relationships, design-led agencies have a role to play in terms of embedding this new attitude along with the processes, skills and methods that go with it.

Do we agree on the same ends?

But what, more concretely, should be embedded and why? Sarah Schulman (Kennisland, NL) reminds us in her post-seminar reflections of the risk of ‘design’ becoming another technical instrument of governance rather than also addressing the ethical aspects of public problems. As she writes: “Do we actually share the same conception of ‘good’ public services? And for which pressing social challenges? In other words, do we agree on the same ends? Or just on the same design-led means?”. Schulman and others attending the seminar highlighted that human-centered design has a role to play in order to pursue a better understanding of the implications of public sector interventions, revealing a more nuanced, illustrative and in-depth description of everyday human and social living. In other words, enabling a different conversation about the possibilities and risks involved when the public sector intervenes in the lives of citizens.

Create new conversations with citizens

This conversation, Hilary Cottam (Participle, UK) argues, is really about relationships. In her post-seminar reflection, she points to the unusual nature of the way that Jørgen Clausen, the city-manager of Odense municipality, framed the challenge of Odense going forward. He focused on numbers, but not on the traditional statistical indicators of the increasing pressure on public budgets. Instead, he began his presentation by talking about the cities’ 1,000 leaders and 16.000 employees – “the people that make his city sing”, as Cottam formulates it. This is really a way of introducing ‘numbers of potential’. These are the people that need to have new conversations to build new kinds of relationships with the citizens and with each other. Jørgen Clausen saw himself and other executives in the public sector as being responsible for enabling the conversations.

The challenge, in this light, seems to be to continuously inform the conversations by exploring, illustrating and working with the ethical and relational dimensions of public service systems. Conversations that might begin with the question ‘How public design’?

Christian Bason

Drop best practice – spread the process

By May 28th 2013

This article was previously published in the Danish weekly Mandag Morgen.

Public organisations are notoriously bad at copying one another. For this reason, we should drop the notion of best practice and initiate processes of local innovation instead. Only when we ourselves start to think in new ways do we start to show an interest in what our neighbour is up to.

In 2006, while the former Danish government was working on its quality reforms, a task force with two special envoys, Erik Juhl and Erik Bonnerup, set out to gauge the quality of Danish welfare institutions.

They visited dozens of day-care institutions, schools, nursing homes and hospitals. Then they returned to the Prime Minister, inspired, but also with a silent sense of bewilderment. They had in discovered that although Denmark had numerous outstanding public institutions, there were also many that were very average. Some were even of decidedly poor quality.

It was not, however, the variations in quality of public services that bewildered the two envoys. They wondered why the average and poor quality institutions had displayed no particular interest in learning from the best ones.

Recently, I found myself wondering too. I attended a presentation of an extremely sympathetic project, in which a municipality had rethought the design and packaging of its catering service for senior citizens. And what an improvement! While the old wrapper made the food look like an industrial product, the new packaging was smartly different, incorporating pictures and brief stories from the staff who prepare the food.

The ingredients were printed on the old packaging in such small text that it was impossible for those with visual impairments to read. By contrast, the new packaging presented the contents in a way that was both readable and appetising. Last of all, the old packaging was very difficult to open, whereas the new concept offered a smarter wrapper, which even arthritic fingers could open.

”Best practice” is a dead end

But I was bewildered anyway. In 2007, the municipality of Holstebro had won Local Government Denmark’s prize for innovation for a similar solution. And now, five years on, exactly the same idea was being viewed as a new solution in a different part of the country.

The person in charge of Holstebro municipality’s catering service also took part in the conference and said that they had held numerous presentations about their new catering service after the municipality had won the innovation award, and that people had found it inspiring, but that nobody had chosen to take up the solution. So she was bewildered too.

So here is the heart of the matter: Public managers and their employees are unwilling to take up ideas that others have already used. They prefer to have their own.

With few exceptions, this means that the notion that you “just” need to identify the smartest practice and that all other institutions “just” need to do the same is simply untenable. Neither is it a uniquely Danish phenomenon. Internationally, most of those who are seriously involved in public sector innovation concur: Best practice as a tool for reform is a dead end.

But can it really be true that you can’t learn from the best? No. As far as I can see, there are three exceptions to the rule.

Share the best processes

First of all, public organisations are willing to learn from others if they find themselves in a situation so desperate that there are no other alternatives. This applies, for example, to the government of Greece, which currently has the pleasure of learning from the world’s best institutions in areas such as tax collection and health. I recently spoke with a top government official from Greece, who said that it was one of the most inspirational things she had ever experienced. Better late than never, one is tempted to say.

Secondly, massive political pressure may force through best practice. In Denmark, this is partly the case with the famous “Fredericia model” for everyday rehabilitation of ageing citizens. Here, a large majority of Danish municipalities have now taken up the model in one form or another, partly as a result of demands from the local council. Officials may well be resistant to change, but they are usually pretty good at listening to what the politicians want.

Thirdly and finally, public-sector managers and employees tend to look for best practice when they are fully engaged in a process of change. They themselves are in the driver’s seat in these instances, and can thus turn up their demand for best practice gradually, as they recognise the need.

As they encounter challenges and barriers, they begin to look more consciously and systematically, to find out if others have been in the same situation and found some useful solutions.

And believe it or not, this is often the case.

If you wish to stimulate the rapid diffusion of smarter public solutions from a central position, such as a ministry, three things therefore need to be done: 1) take away the funding; 2) create a powerful political demand and 3) support local innovation processes, for example by making available high-quality facilitation expertise.

It is all about helping municipalities and institutions to develop their own solutions. It strengthens motivation, self-confidence and curiosity about what others have learned. Instead of sharing best practice, the task is to share the best process.


Christian Bason

A new welfare model – yes, but how?

By April 22nd 2013

This article was previously published in the Danish weekly Mandag Morgen.

Co-production of our welfare tasks, whereby we activate citizens’ own resources and the resources of those closest to them can provide us with a cheaper and better public sector. That is some claim. After all, where are the benefits going to come from?

Once, when I was a young hopeful management consultant, we were asked by the Ministry of Finance to “deconstruct” the benefits of outsourcing. In other words: If outsourcing of public sector tasks to private companies can mean an increase in efficiency by perhaps ten per cent, to which factors could this be attributed? Is it possible to find a range of examples in which there was an increase in efficiency and isolate the reasons from one another in a way that indicates which factors generated which savings?

This is not the kind of job you turn down when the order comes from by the Ministry of Finance, which is paying for the privilege.

Outsourcing fails managers

This resulted in an inspirational journey all the way to Jutland and to successful or less successful outsourcing experiments, year 2000-style. Sadly, the conclusions from the exercise that were published in a blandly-titled publication called “Efficiency through competition” were not so inspiring. The benefits were primarily down to good management and the reason why outsourcing meant good management was pretty banal. When implementing the outsourcing of a municipality’s care for the elderly, for example, it meant that you were able to get rid of bad managers and replace them with better ones. A more rigid way of saying it might be that outsourcing thus became a way of circumventing the development of good public sector management and of taking responsibility for getting rid of those who did not possess the right skills. We even noted in the publication (due to respect for the fact that there are skilled public sector managers out there) that “the efficiency of a well-managed public sector welfare task cannot be increased significantly based on competition”.

This leads me to the point for the day: The reason why we can achieve this in a wide range of welfare sectors in a way that is both better and cheaper, as I wrote here recently, is purely and simply down to the fact that they are not being managed well enough at the present time.

Users’ motivation generates energy

In a research project about public managers as designers of welfare, I have taken a look at the origins of some of the future models for welfare. And here it turns out that public managers experience two things when they engage in innovation that is based on design methods such as ethnographic research, user involvement, visualisation, experiments, etc.

First of all, managers acquire new insight into why their current efforts do not succeed well enough, and how they can develop an entirely new relationship with their users. This was for example the case for Christina Pawsø, who was head of Camillagaarden, a workshop for mentally handicapped adults in Odense that won Local Government Denmark’s Award for Innovation in 2010.

Working together with a design agency, Pawsø took initiatives to listen to the users and asked them to share their hopes, dreams and desires for stimulating and meaningful lives. Pawsø became aware that it was actually the users themselves who held the key to both increased productivity and increased job satisfaction.

“I became aware that we do not have to be ahead of our users, but rather behind them or at the most beside them.” says Pawsø.

This was reflected in the fact that if Camillagaarden’s users did not want to take part in theatrical activities, then there was no reason to start them up, even if you had already hired someone to help out with it. The organisation of tasks needed to be based on what users wanted to do and where they had the motivation and resources to contribute. This in itself meant that it was possible to complete a greater number of activities with fewer employees. The more general point here, however, is that you trigger an incredible amount of energy in an organisation when you find ways in which users can thrive and even take co-responsibility for the production of welfare, be they mentally-handicapped adults, patients or perhaps pupils.

30 per cent greater efficiency without outsourcing

Secondly, managers who employ design methods are able to shift focus away from their use of resources and daily activities towards the results or effects they create. At Camillagaarden, there was a shift on the part of the employees away from the notion that “this is what we think we should be working towards”, in favour of “actually, it’s you, the users, who have the best idea of what works for you”. As a result, the focal point of the relationship is no longer the services that the organisation has “on the shelf”. The focal point becomes the difference that managers and employees are able to contribute to creating for the users. It is a hugely powerful transformation tool.

Camillagaarden illustrates that skilled public managers are perfectly capable of figuring out how to switch to a different and better business model. The changes set in motion by Pawsø and her colleagues led to significantly increased well-being and job satisfaction for the mentally handicapped adults, while Camillagaarden was able to handle 30 per cent more users with the same number of employees.

Now, that is what you can call an increase in efficiency. With no outsourcing whatsoever.


Christian Bason

20 percent better, 20 percent cheaper

By March 26th 2013

This article previously appeared in Monday Morning Blog.

The government’s Growth Plan for Denmark implies a DKK 7 billion modernisation of the public sector, but a mere four lines describe how this is to be done. Are we capable of developing welfare together with citizens? Is there even a basis for upscaling our ambitions?

What would happen if we focused more on assisting the husbands/wives of dementia sufferers to cope with living with a spouse who is ill? How would weaker school pupils cope if the local sports club coach was involved in their academic progress? How about equipping the well-functioning family to assist families in crisis?

As I have mentioned previously in this blog, we need to apply a new humility to the way we plan public policies and services, in a manner that takes citizens’ everyday lives more seriously.

Co-production is such an approach.

The concept of co-production is not a new one but can be traced back to the seventies, when American political scientist and Nobel prize-winner Elinor Ostrom pointed out the interplay between professionals such as social workers and police on one side, and the citizens they are trying to help on the other.

Ostrom’s major discovery was that effective public services depend just as much on citizens’ knowledge, resources and motivation as they do on professional skills.

Co-production starts out by asking how to generate the best possible effect for citizens and how to activate both citizens’ own resources and the resources nearest to them. This requires public organisations to plan their activities based on actual considerations of which types of partnerships between citizens, family members and organisations will have the greatest impact on the result.

This does not necessarily mean that we should delegate the production of public services to the citizens themselves, or to voluntary organisations or private companies. What is genuinely new about co-production is that the relationship between citizen and system is considered equal from the outset.

Three principles for co-production in practice

Together with my colleagues from MindLab, I drew up three central approaches to planning the work on co-production in practice in the new publication Co-production: Towards a new welfare model.

First of all, the task needs to be redefined from the point of view of effect. Across the three welfare areas I mentioned in the introduction (dementia, special needs education, families at risk), it could look like this:

A move away from the old notion of helping citizens suffering from dementia, in favour of a new perspective on how to best provide their family members with both skills and breathing space; a move away from focusing on what weaker students can’t do to instead focusing on the resources available to them; and a move away from considering when to forcibly put at-risk children into care, in favour of being curious about how to get families in crisis back on their feet.

Secondly, we must invest in enabling citizens’ own resources. This could mean setting up a family-members’ café in the municipality, where family members of those suffering from dementia can share good advice and recharge their batteries to cope with their demanding lives. Fredensborg Municipality is working on this, for example.

It could mean equipping and training sports and leisure clubs to enter into partnerships with the school and the municipality (with the focus being on weaker pupils’ learning environments) so that everyone works together. This is being considered on Langeland.

Or it could mean running courses to enable families who are able to give back to help other families who are struggling to cope with everyday life. This has been done in Australia and Denmark for years, including under the auspices of the Red Cross family network.

Thirdly, we must do away with the role of authority. Public organisations often meet citizens in an authority capacity, simply because they have the power to do so. The consequence is that the public sector becomes powerless when it comes to creating positive change in people’s lives.

We must replace the concept of authority with the more open term platform, which means that the role of the public sector becomes more supportive and facilitating for others. In the field of dementia, it may be that the platform is reflected in a family network. In the field of special needs, the municipality might set up a website where young people can share experiences and challenges with others in the same situation and get advice and support from their peers. For families, it may be that the public sector supports the positive collaboration between at-risk families and socioeconomically-advantaged families, and follows up on their progress.

Raise ambitions

Co-production has implications for virtually every aspect of public sector modernisation work: management, financial management, procurement, digitisation, skills development, etc. Co-production raises questions such as:

• How do you manage welfare production if your role is not to exercise authority but to deploy resources to create a desired effect?
• What does it mean to be professional once we recognise that the citizen – e.g. student, patient, senior citizen – has an equally important role to play in the creation of welfare as the professionals do?
• Which approaches are able to activate those resources that are of greatest benefit to the citizen and how do you identify the right interaction between family members, friends, local communities, associations, companies and other public organisations?

These are difficult questions, but they are not insurmountable and are certainly worth getting to grips with. Experience with co-production, both at home and abroad, indicates that challenging our traditional understanding of how public service is created offers enormous potential.

I suggest that we would be able to create an even more appropriate and meaningful service for citizens in a series of service areas, while at the same time reaping a 20 per cent benefit in terms of costs. You could call it “20 per cent better, 20 per cent cheaper”.

That would indeed be an ambitious modernisation strategy.

Rasmus Kolding

The Courage of the Open Data City

By February 8th 2013

The City of Vienna is currently spearheading an interesting development towards the open source city. Vienna has done what many public servants would be uncomfortable with: Under an open data programme they have released enormous amounts of city data, invited programmers and developers to make apps and web services based on the data, and provided a forum for developers to share ideas. The types of data that the city provides are virtually endless: From the historical location of water pipes, over current registered defibrillators, and to the projected urban planning; it is all there. Statistics, geographical reference data, and city budgets – everything but personal data is available, and the list grows every day.


The result is more than 60 apps and web services, most of which have been developed by amateurs and all free or low-cost. One of my favourite services is called “Fruit Fly”. Quite simply, it is a map with all fruit trees on public ground in Vienna. The user views fruit trees on a map with colour coded pins – a new colour for each type of fruit. The result is an excellent overview for those craving a free piece of fruit. A walnut, sir? Those little snacks are apparently all over Vienna. Care for a pear? Hard to find without the app, but head towards western part of the city, and you should be able to find a few. Of course the web service shows if the fruit should be ripe for eating.

While this example may seem marginal to the big picture, it is only scratching the surface. The European Commission estimates that the unrealized potential in open data is worth 40 billion € EU wide. What is interesting about this, however, is not so much the potential of innovation of making public data available. The point is rather that we are witnessing a radical new way of doing government. Most obviously, it marks a relationship of co-creation between citizens and government, where government is not the sole provider and developer of services, but rather via platforms for development facilitates a range of different initiatives. This requires new skill sets not readily available in public organizations, but most of all it requires the courage to accept the loss of control. And the lesson from Vienna is that with the right amount of courage, there are endless opportunities ahead.

Christian Bason

Empathy is the new black

By January 23rd 2013

This article previously appeared in Monday Morning Blog.

In her televised New Year’s speech, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt made it clear that the public sector must become more efficient. Yes, but how? In my experience, an important prerequisite is that we grow the ability to put ourselves in other people’s place. We must base the creation of better and more productive welfare on empathy.

In fact, the professional ability to put oneself in the citizen’s place is a central component in several recent successful efforts to modernise the Danish public sector.

In late 2012, the Selsmose School in Høje Taastrup won the Local Government Denmark prize for innovation. The school, where about 95% of pupils are of non-Danish ethnic origin, has achieved impressive educational results, and currently ranks significantly above the national average in a number of subjects.

The key to the school’s success lies in the recognition that pupils’ well-being and happiness come before their scholastic learning, and that it is necessary to involve a broad community of actors in the local area – housing associations, businesses, parents and relatives – to foster support, enthusiasm and energy around and in the school.

Selsmose School’s transformation was thus rooted in a deep empathy for the children’s world and its larger context. Next, the results were supported by a significant administrative effort to involve both personnel and the local community in creating positive change for the pupils.

In the area of employment we see a similar tendency toward thinking far more in terms of empowering the individual citizen, for example in Copenhagen Municipality’s Borgeren ved roret (Citizen at the helm) programme.

After a decade of control and coercion, authorities are beginning to adapt a holistic view of what it takes to bring the individual unemployed person closer to the job market. The new measures make new (and cheaper) digital tools available to the public, so they themselves can tailor the services to their needs. Simultaneously, public employment services can be more personalised to the most vulnerable individuals, i.e., more focused on individual needs and challenges.

This way of working is an expression of the notion that public service – “welfare” – is based on real insight into what is important for the individual person. In the Copenhagen Municipality project there is a clear expectation that an effort will have a greater effect when it is “people-centred”.

Putting oneself in others’ place

What the two cases have in common is that – consciously or unconsciously – they involve empathy, as perhaps best described in American novelist Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird (published in 1960, during the Civil Rights Movement), when lawyer Atticus Finch tells his six-year-old daughter Scout that: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it”.

In present day Great Britain, renowned thinker and RSA think-tank director Matthew Taylor says that we in the 21st century need a new Enlightenment, noting that empathy will be a core competence for future citizens.

Can we create a humanistic think tank?

In recent years, economists have been good at telling us about the terrible economic situation, and one economic think tank after another has been founded to provide ever more “hardcore” analyses of what it will take to increase public sector productivity. Yet, paradoxically enough, it is not from economists that we should expect to find the key to getting “more from the same” in the public sector, as the Prime Minister requested in her New Year’s speech.

Empathy and insight into people’s actual experience, motivation, behaviour and needs – which could drive new and more productive public sector business models – requires entirely other kinds of skills. We must become much better at using the knowledge produced by behavioural psychologists, sociologists, ethnographers, cultural analysts and other humanists.

The object of humanistic studies is indeed the same as that of welfare efforts, namely people. So why not start a new humanistic think tank, focused on public sector renewal and productivity, and on how we could create an even better welfare system with the individual person as the defining element.

The time is ripe. For the “soft” is on its way to becoming the “hard”. Empathy will be the next big thing in the welfare debate of 2013.

Christian Bason

The public sector manager’s responsibility

By January 11th 2013

This article was previously published in the Danish weekly Mandag Morgen.

Public sector executives can begin taking greater responsibility for creating real change for Danes. Their tasks include practicing the concept of “systemic contexts”.

“Climate change was the systemic cause of Hurricane Sandy,” wrote researcher George Lakoff, professor of cognitive science at the University of California at Berkeley, in the introduction of a recent article published in the American online news website, Huffington Post.

In the article, he provokes the many pundits in the United States who claimed in the wake of the devastating hurricane that climate change may have played a role, but that it was not the cause of the devastating hurricane.

Lakoff argues that climate change was the cause – if we understand the kind of cause we are talking about. This requires that we understand the difference between two types of causation: systemic and direct.

Systemic causation may sound rather abstract, but according to Lakoff it is quite familiar: Smoking is a systemic cause of lung cancer. HIV is a systemic cause of AIDS. Drunk driving is a systemic cause of traffic accidents. And last, but not least, sex without contraception is a systemic cause of unwanted pregnancies.

Direct causation is also well known: Hitting someone in the face is the direct cause of the pain they experience. Throwing a rock through a window is the direct cause of the broken window, etc.

According to Lakoff, the challenge is that direct causation is straightforward to understand and control, but the systemic causes are what really matter. Thus they are important to understand.

A systemic cause can be one of many and can be due to a variety of factors. It is often indirect and works through a chain of relationships. It may reflect a probability or arise through a feedback mechanism.

Public sector managers’ responsibility

Why is all of this interesting to managers of public organisations (or advisors to managers in public organisations)? To quote Lakoff:

“In general, causation in ecosystems, biological systems, economic systems, and social systems tends not to be direct, but is no less causal. And because it is not direct causation, it requires all the greater attention if it is to be understood and its negative effects controlled.”

In other words: Public sector managers are responsible for creating change via systemic causation. This has implications for their approach to management and leadership, whether they are responsible for reducing accidents at work, preventing food scandals, improving well-being in day care institutions or creating innovation and growth in the Danish economy.

One of the most common excuses I hear from public sector executives when it comes to creating tangible results for citizens and society is that there are so many other factors in addition to the efforts of the municipality, region, agency, or ministry, all of which impact the success of a desired change. For example, the efforts of other organisations, companies and people, economic trends, etc.

Lakoff would respond that this is precisely the point: Public sector results – results that must be created in a complex and changing reality – are not usually about making a direct impact on the world.

Management and systemic causation

If you want to strengthen your ability to lead through systemic causation, there are three things you should do:

Firstly, you should establish a clear overview of the system or the network of stakeholders that comprises the cause-effect chains in your area of responsibility. My experience is that public sector managers rarely do this formally – but why not do this using graphic or digital mapping, for example?

Secondly, you should work consciously and strategically to influence all of the stakeholders in the area, thereby increasing the systemic impact on the issue you are working to address. For example, by actively seeking to influence all stakeholders that have any sort of connection to the set of relationships that create or diminish a safe working environment at Danish workplaces, the factors that promote or hinder our food safety, the stakeholders and actions that affect the way our children develop and thrive in day care institutions, etc. This may also involve targeting the complex relationships that ultimately form the competitive and innovative power of our universities and businesses.

Yes, this is already being partially done today. But no matter what political area you look at, it is not being done with sufficient clarity or direction.

Thirdly and lastly, an acknowledgement of systemic causes entails taking responsibility for the effects that are ultimately created for citizens, companies and society – despite the fact that they do not occur as a direct result of decisions or actions over which you have control. Taking that kind of responsibility would be fitting for many public sector managers.

Bryan Boyer

A new culture of decision-making?

By November 7th 2012

This is the second contribution in a blog series on innovation in policy.

I believe in the welfare state. I agree that we are beset by crises, but I’m optimistic enough to expect that humanity will weather them relatively unscathed as individuals, families, and communities. The question is whether our institutions will be as lucky.

 I’d like to begin with a riddle. What binds together the following…?

- A pop-up restaurant
- A Private school
- A Riot
- An Email

The consistent aspect that runs through these four items is that they all represent a vote of no confidence in the institutions of contemporary life. They are each tangible manifestations of a simple but clear statement: “the things you, government, have to offer, are not to my liking and I’m capable of doing something about it.”

Despite the best efforts of both government and politics, the monopoly that institutions have enjoyed since the age of the crown continues to decompose.

Riots in the street, as we experienced most viscerally last year from Tahrir to London, occupy the violent and destructive end of a spectrum. It’s easy to discount the London riots as inexcusable, but I prefer to see them with deep empathy as the right idea poorly — very poorly — expressed.

No one knows the exact source of the London riots, of course, but we know that structural factors like sustained high levels of youth unemployment and social alienation were significant contributing factors. We might chastise the young men (and surely some women) who took to the streets with their fists, but we can also read it as a powerful reminder that voting does not always happen at the ballot box.

After the riots came the post-riot clean-ups. Using email and social media — all privately operated alternatives to the post office, mind you — people took to the street with their own brooms and dustpans. They also brought with them invisible picket signs bearing a message in capital letters: WE DON’T WANT TO WAIT FO YOU SLOWPOKES TO GET A MUNICIPAL CLEANING CREW DOWN HERE!

So here we find ourselves on the other end of a spectrum that maps citizen-initiated activities from destructive to constructive. Citizen cleaning crews, pop-up restaurants, urban cycling in cities without cycle proper lanes, and countless other instances of positive urban activism are all examples of citizens who are rolling up their sleeves and getting on with a different way of living together. They’re impatiently living the future while governments are still trying to convince themselves that it’s OK to prototype.

As you can tell, Jesper and Laura’s paper gave me a papercut – it excited me and left me with a pang of discomfort because it outlined the realities of public policy in concept and execution in 2012. In doing so it makes me focus more carefully on what comes next. If I have any criticism it is that they were too soft on the public sector! My intention today is to heighten the sense of urgency in this discussion.

Increasingly the cost of interacting with institutions is so high that citizens prefer to accept the costs of self-organization or the risks of using services from private or third sectors. As our culture changes, the public sector will continue to find itself subject to competition in ways that it’s not used to. We must internalize this to our core.

But let me rephrase this more bluntly.

When a city builds a digital service, their competition is not other city websites. They are competing against Facebook.

When a ministry develops a service their competition are 3rd parties who act as sherpas, providing better service for a minimal fee with far less hassle.

When an agency provides guidelines, their competition is against the top search result in Google.

When I suggest that the public sector will find itself competing, do not mistake what I’m saying as a suggestion of neo-liberalization.

Rather, this new competitive landscape helps us understand democracy as an old technology, one that’s surely not obsolete but showing its wear and tear — as a technology that’s in need of a tune-up. And I use the language of tune-up specifically because it’s practical, implies banging on things, making small tweaks over long periods of time.

After Bruno Latour, I’d like to suggest that one of the things which have changed is the inputs to our democratic technology. We’ve moved from an era of “facts” where science helps us identify immutable truths, to an era where those facts are increasingly scarce, leaving us instead to grapple with ‘concerns’. In a world of facts, truth is found or discovered. In a world of ‘concerns’, truth is composed and re-composed.

For the public sector of yesterday, facts are the petrol that makes engine work. That our decision-making processes are locking up points to a failure in the engine itself: it was built for petrol but it’s running on something else, it’s running on composed matters of concern. With the former we press on the gas and go. With the latter we pedal all the time.

In conversations about the necessity of reforming the public sector I’m struck by the lack of enemies. We may suffer a “failure of agency” as the authors identify – and I happen to agree – but agency often comes in opposition to a clear and present danger.

In this regard, why are we not more scared of the status quo? We have not designed roads to have traffic jams, hospitals to have queues, services to remove personal agency, and tax forms to be confusing. We are realizing the financial, social, and ecological impact of the inherent risks of the status quo on a daily basis but we’ve become accustomed to them, as the cliché goes. The devil you know is assumed to be a safer choice, but I’d like to remind us all that the devil we know IS STILL A DEVIL!

The groups I started with, the ones exercising their votes of ‘no confidence’ have no problems seeing the status quo for the devil it is. My question today is what the public sector can gain by seeing them as a future. Not as abstract instruments and changes on a theoretical level, but as a new culture of innovation which is not owned by design, by social innovation, by government 2.0. Rather the combined mass of innovative activity across all of these sectors comes with its own unique set of rituals, roles, trinkets, and spaces. It has different ideas about the specific contents of the social contract, different thoughts about how trust is constructed and expended, different ideas about what’s risky and how to mitigate those risks.

Are we ready to accept that a new culture is brewing without such a polite name as “social innovation”?

Read Laura Bunt´s blog on allowing for uncertainty and complexity in government, which is the first contribution in the blog series on innovation in policy.

Laura Bunt

Innovation in policy: allowing for complexity and uncertainty in Government

By October 29th 2012

This is the first contribution in a blog series on innovation in policy.

Today’s global financial and social crises demand innovation not only in public services, but within the whole bureaucratic, administrative system of public governance. Yet innovation introduces uncertainty and unpredictability into decision-making which can sit uncomfortably with the status quo. What are new principles for decision-making that can be more conducive to innovation in the public sector?

Whether as a politician, civil servant, frontline worker or any other kind of decision-maker taking an active part in public governance, the notion of ‘crisis’ will be a familiar one. Whether in financial terms in relation to sharp reductions in budgets, in the changing shape of the public sector and the landscape for public service delivery or in face of challenges such as an ageing population or a rise in long-term health conditions that require thinking differently about the means of government and public services to respond, the sense of crisis is often seen as a ‘mobilising metaphor’ for innovation.

But the concept of innovation is not in itself a course of action. Rather, innovation implies a process of further discovery, creativity and exploration in developing new ways to respond to problems. In supporting the development of new models of public service delivery such as engaging people more directly in their own health care or systems that allow care workers to share information more intuitively, we often see the challenges of trying to demonstrate the value of the new approach and make it work within existing systems of bureaucracy, financing and decision-making. This presents innovators with a dilemma: on the one hand, how can we legitimise and validate innovative approaches through existing measures and standards? But on the other hand, how far should we try to challenge the default processes for decision-making and validating action?

A few weeks ago, we co-hosted a seminar with colleagues at Danish innovation agency MindLab to discuss the implications of dealing with the uncertainty and unpredictability of innovation in the context of the public sector, and the practical challenges in trying to marry innovation with the practice of policymaking as understood as ‘the rational guidance of human affairs’. In a paper published today co-authored by Jesper Christiansen and I, we wanted to explore what kinds of public sector processes could be more conducive to innovation in all of its complexity, and respond productively to the current state of crisis by creating an enabling environment for innovation.

As an example: how does focusing on outcomes rather than distinct solutions encourage a more ongoing, iterative approach to responding to problems rather than seeing public problems as something to be ‘fixed’? In addressing issues that are complex or where causation is unknown, identifying and having an impact on outcomes is part of a continuous practice of addressing and working on the problem with those for whom the outcomes is intended. How might this reframe expectations of what governments can and should achieve? How should government relate to citizens and others in coproducing outcomes? What is the right basis for decision-making in these contexts?

As another example: innovation in public sector context often brings a connotation of risk. Innovation, in that its outcome is unknown and unpredictable, is seen as risky in contrast to known, predictable outcomes (and familiar failures) of current practices whether or not they are successful. But what if we could turn this on its head, and see informed experimentation as the responsible foundation for decision-making in complex settings? Where is there an opportunity for applying structured methods for experimentation such as prototyping and ‘beta’ development to learn from practice in a more dynamic way? How can policy responses become more ‘perfectible’?

These are the sorts of questions we try to explore in the paper, and questions we will discuss in individual posts on this blog over the next few weeks. These ideas are very much the product of many different discussions and interactions over the past few years, not least from Jesper’s PhD research and recent seminars at MindLab and at Nesta. We hope the paper provides a basis for further debate and challenge, and please do share any thoughts.

Christian Bason

Innovation machine helps New York schools

By October 22nd 2012

This article has previously been published in the Danish weekly, Mandag Morgen.

As a consequence of poor results in New York schools, the city council has established the iZone organisation. It has led the schools through a thorough change, in which responsibility and freedom go hand in hand. Now the next paradigm shift is waiting.

A couple of months ago I blogged on humble policy development, about how we often assume that new public policies, regulations, budgets and programmes  automatically become the reality we imagine. But I also wrote that the truth is often otherwise: It is often the case that at the end of the day there has been no noticeable change for the people.

So, we must find smarter ways from policy to practice. The question is how?

Recently in Denmark we were visited by an organisation which I believe shows the way from strategy to concrete change in the public sector. New York City has established the organisation iZone under the Department of Education as a tool for transforming the public school system.

iZone is the culmination of a transformational process that has brought the New York schools from crisis to consolidation. Now the focus is on real innovative thinking about what a school can actually be.

The school crisis, which was at its worst ten years ago, meant that only 40% of a class year in the New York public schools obtained their diploma.

The consolidation was a matter of holding school administrators accountable, yet freeing them. It was made possible to dismiss administrators who did not achieve results. Direct review of the schools’ academic performance was implemented, with publication of results for the best and worst institutions alike. On the other hand, administrators were for the first time allowed to manage their own budgets, and were given much greater freedom to set up their school’s structure and teaching as they wish.

The accountability meant that the worst administrators were removed, and their was great pressure to produce results. At present a good 60% of a class receive their high school diplomas. That is a vast improvement, but naturally not good enough. So how does one carry out the next paradigm shift?

Innovation is the answer, and that is precisely the phase that the New York schools have entered. This is taking place on the basis that administrators are having difficulty using their newly accorded freedom to think differently in practice. Therefore, the New York Board of Education concluded that they need help – innovation help.

iZone, or the New York City Innovation Zone, was founded with the aim of formulating a number of central principles for school reform, then actively helping schools to transform the principles into local changes.

The idea is to help more than 200 public schools to rethink their efforts. Here are three principles iZone is following which I believe could inspire Danish politicians, top officials and public developers:

  • Establish a main idea. iZone puts citizens at the centre of how schools will create value. The main principle for the reform work in New York is individualised learning, i.e., the idea that every student has his or her own way and pace of learning. The idea is not just attractive, it is also supported by comprehensive scientific evidence. iZone has made great efforts to communicate the concept clearly to the schools.
  • Start with the administration. According to iZone vice-director Stacey Gillett, iZone’s success will stand or fall according to which administrators will commit to the programme. This entails, for example, that a school cannot get by with merely sending in a formal application to participate in iZone. The school will also be visited by the iZone team, and the school principal and key staff will be thoroughly interviewed about their ideas for changes at the school. The purpose is to ensure that there is genuine commitment and sufficient competence to bring the new measures to life.
  • Invest in the innovation process. The very central premise of iZone is that the board invest significant resources to support the school’s efforts to find its own solutions and measures that work best for it. This involves extensive process support, partly from a central team in New York consisting of former school principals and others with deep sector experience, in an ongoing dialogue with the schools, and partly from a wide variety of designers and innovation experts who can facilitate the schools’ own local processes by rethinking and redesigning teaching forms, physical facilities and the use of technology, for example. the schools themselves choose whom they will work with. Even experts from Sweden and Great Britain have been invited to help. Just think about that point for a minute: The Americans are asking Europe for help in rethinking public service…

iZone is thus an innovation machine. It is a break from the notion that if we just provide the right economic incentives, the people “out there” will surely figure it out. Nonetheless, iZone is investing significant resources to make the vision of “focus on the student” a reality.

According to iZone’s Stacey Gillett, around $200,000 (1.5 million kroner) is being used in each school over three years for process support. With 200 schools (25% off the total in New York) in the programme, the sum corresponds roughly to one-thousandth of the city’s overall annual school budget. Altogether, it is a matter of around 75 million kroner annually, when we are talking about 200 schools. The funds come partly from the city, partly from independent foundations such as the Gates Foundation.

This leads me to a central question: Are we in Denmark ready to invest as much as one-thousandth of our overall operating budgets in process support  in the social sector, the health sector, the education sector – in order to increase the likelihood of succeeding in what we want to do?

If the answer is yes, then let us see some more innovation machines on the Danish public landscape. Only in that way will we go from policy to practice.

Christian Bason

Transforming our public management culture: A provocation?

By October 8th 2012

A few weeks ago I attended the conference local design public in Lille, run by the French region’s innovation platform La27e Region. I was asked to contribute to the opening session with a brief presentation intriguingly titled “Dear public managers: A few good reasons to transform our management culture.”

Preparing for this, I found it disturbingly easy to point out a number of problematic characteristics of our current culture. Here is what I said:

“Dear public managers. We need to transform the management culture in public organisations because too often, what you say is:

“Citizens need to understand the system”, not “We need to understand citizens”.

“I am just here to manage the law and the budget”, not “I am here to make a positive impact for citizens and society.”

“I wish all the changes would go away and that my job would just be stable and secure”, not “My job is about adapting to the changes happening in our economy and society, and to create a more resilient public sector.”

“I must control how my employees use their time and resources”, not “I must create an environment that authorizes my employees to continuously experiment, fail, learn and find better solutions”.

“Citizen involvement is about doing quantitative satisfaction surveys”, not “citizen involvement is about going up really close, using ethnography, video, audio and graphics to see for ourselves how citizens experience public services — and then to involve them in exploring new solutions.”

“As long as my boss and our political masters are happy, I am doing a good job”, not “I am systematically documenting that my organisation produces better outcomes – and I am absolutely adamant at improving them.”

“It is the fault of other stakeholders, the economy, globalisation and the weather that our organisation is failing to meet its goals”, not “We need to work smarter and more effectively with our stakeholders to affect more change, in spite of external circumstances”.

“We develop new policies by thinking, writing, holding meetings, and occassionally briefing interest organisations about our plans”, not “We co-design policies, collaborating at a very early stage across government departments, with stakeholders and with end-users to explore problems and possible solutions, using new media, graphic illustrations, and models. We don’t ‘consult’ on policy. We run policy workshops.”

“Design is superficial branding and styling”, not “design is about applying deeply human approaches to value-creation for citizens and society, combining graphics, products, services and systems in more effective ways that meet our needs today and in the future.”

Dear public managers. Our management culture needs to change because we have too little empathy for those we serve, not enough appetite for trying out new approaches, and because we have insufficient ability to document and learn from our results.

We need to transform our management culture so more decision-makers say, ‘I take responsibility for creating a better future that makes everyone better off — whatever it takes!’”

Jesper Christiansen

Should we transform systems or perceptions of systems?

By September 12th 2012

How do we help or support people that live in situations that do not fit into the system’s categories? This question is constantly reoccuring in the development of our public service systems. A very obvious example of this is the area of social care for vulnerable families which is increasingly becoming a nightmare scenario for Western nation states across the world. These are often families at risk accessing a large amount of different services and are involved in several case plans at the same time. How do we coordinate and integrate services that are addressing such different issues like child behaviour and education, domestic violence, drug or alcohol abuse, unemployment or work injury, financial crisis, unstable housing, physical or mental illness or other common hardships of everyday life?

Currently, most interventions focus on one family member or in relation to one aspect of the problem. This is one agency maintaining its responsibility by living up to the standards that is defined within their own formal area of responsibility. While the direct result is that families usually have to adapt to the agenda of the system rather than the other way around, the consequence for the families is that they often experience rejection from the system and an inability to live up to what is demanded from them. Instead of being helped into a productive process, the system becomes an additional risk factor for the families and a barrier to (rather than driver of) change.

This is not only an inefficient and ineffective use of public resources, but becomes a question of public legitimacy since prolonged involvement with services without achieving progress is resulting in a general mistrust in the system’s ability or even intention to help them. In the UK, they have called this the ‘gyroscope problem’ (see figure). Outside of the family, a lot of agencies, organisations and institutions ensure a tremendous amount of system activity. Yet on the inside, for the family, nothing changes. All this money and effort is being used simply to maintain the status quo.

(The Life Project)

Working with the leading Australian design consultancy ThinkPlace, MindLab took part in a project that set out to address these issues and transform the service system dealing with vulnerable families in the ACT region of Australia. The purpose was to develop new capabilities and processes to co-design and co-produce services with current service users as part of introducing a new human-centred, systemic approach to improve outcomes for vulnerable families. Through design research of the actual experiences of families at risk in the ACT region, new perspectives for collaboration between public agencies, community sector organisations and citizens were created through a new empathetic relationship in relation to the experiences of citizens. New ideas and policy proposals for rethinking and reshaping the service system were developed in the continuous interaction between strategic decision makers, frontline staff and the families.

Perhaps even more important, there was a profound recognition of the project as a first iteration in a larger cultural change consisting of building a capacity for a more human-centred and outcomes-focused approach. This not only meant that, in relation to every insight or idea, the question of its systemic implications was raised as an inherent part of the process. It also implicitly implied that the project productively questioned the current perceptions of what ‘a system’ is or could be. What the project largely showed was that in every positive progress experienced by families, an unscripted approach had been applied in the service system. Usually this was done by community organisations working from the approach that problems, as well as what kind of activities that were needed to address them, were to be defined with the families themselves.

You can read and view more about the project in the link provided below. For now, I want to question if we are somehow caught up in an unproductive understanding of ‘a system’? The insights coming out of the project to a large extent coincide with some general points from our general work in MindLab. We continuously see how the involvement of citizens and other users in innovating public service systems and taking the complexity and context of their situation seriously at least poses three important design challenges that all seem to expand our current perceptions of what a ‘systemic’ approach can consist of:

-  Professional generalists: how do we become systematic in an ‘unscripted’ way? There is a need for becoming less scripted and work with citizens rather than deliver services to them. Working unscripted with focus on outcomes will necessarily pose the question of whether we have to work silo or sector-based to provide the accountability that is needed to secure civil and legal rights?  

-  Building relationships: how do we go from ‘referral’ to ‘connection’? There is a need for taking ownership of the whole problem by building and facilitating effective relationships and networks around citizens to ensure continuity, coordination and ‘case-handovers’ in their situation rather than focusing on ‘finishing’ their cases. Does sharing responsibility in a relational way counteract a consistent and systemic approach in dealing with citizens in complex situations?  

Providing context: how do we go from ‘episodes’ to ‘stories’? There is a need for an approach that can ensure that the whole contextual complexity of the situation is taken into consideration when decisions are made and case plans are defined. Rather than mainly relying on fixed standards or individual or social crisis to emerge, could the system to a lesser degree be crisis-driven and reactionary and instead build on the ability to relate to the contexts and experiences of citizens? 

Co-designing better outcomes for vulnerable families in the ACT.

For more inspiration, see also the Life Project in the UK.

Christian Bason

“We believe in evidence-based policy. Yeah, right!”

By August 22nd 2012

This article has previously been published in the Danish weekly, Mandag Morgen

There is much talk about measurement, and how public services must deliver better results. But the fact is that only very few politically governed organisations base their operations on their ability to create a positive impact on the world.

Shortly after I started my first government job, I overheard a conversation about a brand new policy programme evaluation. The discussion between the two civil servants went something like this: “Well now we have to explain these evaluation results in the parliamentary committee. And then we need to say that we take them seriously.” To which the colleague replied: “Yes, because here we believe in ‘evidence-based policy’” – which prompted mutual laughter.

I was somewhat surprised by this conversation. I had dedicated a significant part of my professional life as an evaluation consultant and had actively participated in setting up the Danish Evaluation Society (Dansk Evalueringsselskab – DES). I was convinced that public organisations should, fundamentally, measure and operate based on the difference they make to citizens and society. In other words: Are we generating the learning and well-being in our schools that we want? Are we getting the health benefits we are paying for? Are we really helping our unemployed back into work? In short: Is Denmark becoming a better place in which to live and work as a result of public organisations’ efforts? At the end of the day, that’s what “results” are all about.

Now that I have spent half a decade in the public sector, it seems quite natural to me that civil servants – whether they work for the state, a region or a municipality – laugh at results measurement and at the double-digit millions of kroner we spend on it every year.

Firstly, many other important factors determine good decisions in public organisations, beyond concerns for “documented” impact. The most important factor is presumably political considerations, both tactical and strategic, including how to make the minister or mayor look good.  Another (related) factor could include the appropriate timing of publishing evaluation results. It could also be consideration for the organisation’s existing mission, operational priorities and focus, for its employees, for various stakeholders, etc.

Secondly, many impact measurements and evaluations are encumbered by a lack of reliability. They can be based on a weak empirical foundation; they can be difficult to interpret; data can arrive too late to be considered as a basis for decision-making; and there can – first and foremost – be a lack of clarity surrounding the causal connections: In a complex social environment, is it really our organisation’s efforts, or lack thereof, that are responsible for the unsatisfactory results?

Thirdly, many organisations are not at all clear about what their effects are, or should be. In my experience, a great number of them confuse activities (what is being done, such as delivering teaching) with outputs (e.g. that a number of students have completed a course) with effects (that the students have in fact learned something).

One could say that many organisations have not, at the end of the day, managed to put great effort into completely clarifying whether they have had a positive or a negative influence on their surroundings. And they do not seek to create systematic, organisational learning in connection with their efforts, such as through experiments or user involvement.

Finally, a factor that I have only recently started to realise is this: The Ministry of Finance, at least in Denmark, is not particularly preoccupied with results. They are more interested in the public sector’s relationship to inputs, in other words money and other production resources. At a time when public sector finances are under severe pressure and a new Budget Law is in the offing, this is not particularly surprising. But if the Ministry – which traditionally sets the tone for public sector management, reforms and good governance – does not exactly embrace result- and impact measurement, then who should?

Indeed, what justifies the public sectors existence is not a specific use of funds; rather, it is that the public sector makes a positive difference to citizens and to society – and (one might be tempted to add) does it for as few resources as possible.

We must therefore not reduce efforts to measure “results” to tactical political manoeuvring. Results and evidence are not that difficult to understand, nor that difficult to work with in a systematic manner. We have far too much to lose if we fail to take it seriously. And that is no laughing matter.

Christian Bason

Where is the humility in policy development?

By June 22nd 2012

This article has previously been published in the Danish weekly, Mandag Morgen.

I recently heard a minister say that simply passing a new law in Parliament by no means guarantees change in the real world. If we know that policies don’t necessarily work just because a decision has been taken, why do we keep pretending otherwise?

When Aarhus University anthropologist, Nina Holm Vohnsen, defended an award-winning PhD project on policy implementation, she highlighted that many policy developers develop new initiatives to suit a reality that does not actually exist. In her thesis, she describes this as developing a policy to “Ground Zero”: a completely empty place on society’s map where pretty much nothing exists already and where a new or amended policy can perform its work unimpeded.

The reality is obviously different.

People – citizens, companies, other public organisations and institutions – are busy with a whole lot of things that make the world complex. In fact, they are so busy that the interdependencies between actors, activities and consequences are almost impossible to decipher. Just think about all of the administrative levels, organisations, roles and people involved in the health or education sector. In reality, policy developers often give up in the face of an obscure and complex reality, and return to the safe notion of “Ground Zero” –  even when they know, deep-down, that it doesn’t exist.

This could be forgiven if there were no helpful tools available. But there are. An intelligent approach to effective policy development requires three things:

  • - That we genuinely want to understand what is required in order for a policy – regulation, expenditure, service, etc. – to work in practice;
  • - That we acknowledge that the reality is more complex than we might initially think;
  • - That we adopt an approach to policy development which takes the complexity seriously and which reflects a humble consideration for what has a realistic potential to make a difference.

In 2007, the Welsh complexity researcher, David Snowden, wrote an article in Harvard Business Review which became one of the most quoted pieces that year. In it, he presented a model for decision-making under different circumstances: simple, complicated, complex and chaotic. The key distinction that policy developers should be aware of concerns the difference between complicated situations and complex situations.

A complicated challenge could, for example, be: “How do we build a bridge across the Oresund?” Although undoubtedly a challenging task, it nevertheless involves relatively well-known parameters. We know the strength of various steel and concrete constructions, etc.; and we can calculate which solutions will carry a certain amount of traffic. In complicated situations, the approach to problem solving involves the following activities: examining the situation, making an analysis, and developing a solution. In other words, we can find a solution providing we have enough bright minds and a very powerful calculator. Coincidentally, this is often the way we develop polices when we feel we are doing a thorough job.

A complex challenge could be the question of how we get more young people to complete a youth education programme. This is a social problem with a wide range of participants, organisations, institutions, etc., in which young people’s experiences, values and norms also affect their behaviour. The interdependency between various participants and people is significant, and we don’t necessarily know all of the relationships and interactions. Which initiatives will actually get more young people to choose and complete a course, and which may have the opposite effect, or have no effect at all?

According to David Snowden, complex situations involve the following approach: test different solutions, record the effects, and develop the best possible solution. Test again, and again.

Note the reverse sequence of the development process: because we don’t already understand the connection between the causes (solutions) and the consequences (effects), we need to feel our way forward. We need to start with provisional suggested solutions and see what happens. This approach to policy development differs radically to the one we would normally adopt; developing policy under complex conditions thereby presupposes a considerable amount of humility for how much knowledge one actually has in advance, even as an expert. This requires the ability and courage to introduce the world to initiatives which have yet to be perfected, and then to expect feedback from the people affected by them. Finally, it presupposes that we systematically examine what works – and are equally systematic about taking the consequences of the feedback we get.

In a future characterised by a huge amount of pressure on public resources, and with limited progress in the most important policy areas affecting our societies – health, social affairs, employment and education, to name some of the most important ones – we must become much better at developing policies in areas involving great complexity.

I would therefore like to invite you to join a new cross-public sector network on humble policy development. It could have been called “The network against Ground Zero”, but I would rather call it “The Alliance for policy development that works”

Why don’t you join me?

Christian Bason

When nudge meets design

By May 23rd 2012

This article has previously been published in the Danish weekly, Mandag Morgen.

The question is not whether the public sector should seek to influence the behaviour of citizens. The question is whether it does so effectively enough. To do so, we need to take advantage of the inspiration offered to us by the principles of nudging and design.

A central premise of economic theory is currently under revision: people do not necessarily behave rationally. On the contrary, as thinkers as diverse as Daniel Kahnemann (psychologist and Nobel prize winner) and Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler (Chicago professors of law and economics respectively) claim, people behave like… well, people.

In other words, we sometimes behave irrationally, and, as social beings, our decisions are influenced by our habits, norms and relationships with others. We do not behave with the sole intent of maximising “utility”. This means, in a broader sense, that our behaviour depends heavily on the context in which we find ourselves.

As an example, Sunstein & Thaler highlight that we are much more likely to take the stairs than the lift when presented with a sign that says: “Most people choose to take the stairs.” They call this principle nudge – to signify that it only takes a few simple adjustments to influence people’s behaviours considerably.

This makes nudging an interesting topic for the public sector – since we in the public sector are preoccupied with getting people to do more of what we want them to do and less of what we don’t want. More exercise, less smoking, more salad, less fat, more subscriptions to organ donation, fewer people politely declining, quicker payments of arrears, fewer debtors, etc.

A British tax authority has looked more closely at this last example in the context of behavioural economics. When they changed the wording of a letter addressed to citizens with significant tax debt to “More than 90 per cent of citizens in your district have already paid their taxes,” payments by debtors rose significantly.

In fact, the British are now so enamoured with the principles behind nudging that they have set up a special unit, the Behavioural Insights Unit, which reports directly to Prime Minister Cameron. This unit has completed a number of interesting studies on nudging in recent years, in part under the guidance of the economist Richard Thaler.

What is special about nudging is that people are given the freedom to choose – they simply need to choose between different alternatives. There is no financial pay-off or penalty involved. Here in Denmark, the tax authority, SKAT, has already used the nudge principles on a website that is very familiar to most Danes: TastSelv, an online service for taxpayers.

It started a few years ago when a couple of smart tax employees began to think about ways to “nudge” more Danes to decide whether they wanted to receive a paper version of their annual tax return when they were going online to check it anyway. Should people choose not to receive the paper version, this would save money.

Their thoughts led to a range of experiments with different placements of an online button, which enabled the visitor to click on “No thank you” for the paper version. The button already existed but was buried deep in the form. After involving citizens in trialling various different solutions, the tax employees found a more suitable place for the button, which made it easier to decline the paper version.

The result? During the first five days of using the new function, more than one million Danes clicked “No thank you” to the paper version. This not only saves a few square metres of rain forest, it also saves a significant amount of taxpayers’ money.

One could say that the practically-minded people in The Danish Ministry of Taxation redesigned the digital service based on the principles of nudging. By “redesign” I mean that they did three things:

  1. 1. They questioned the status quo: have we designed the current solution smartly enough?
  2. 2. They used experiments to come up with a more effective solution by developing possible options (prototypes) for various solutions and testing them directly with citizens.
  3. 3. They used the knowledge they acquired through citizen involvement to develop and implement the new solution.

This way of solving problems could also be called design attitude. This refers to an approach to the world which contends that the world can be improved, that one needs to understand how people behave if one wants to change it, and that one should always seek to develop concrete, tangible solutions. Design attitude combines analytical reasoning with sympathetic insight, empathy and an understanding of what actually delivers change.

This cocktail of nudging and design is incredibly powerful, providing we understand how to bring it into play. It promises something that we are under increasing pressure to deliver in the public sector: ways to create better results for less money. By synthesising these principles, it is in fact possible to develop solutions which are virtually free and which do not require a host of new laws and rules. People’s actual lives, motivations and behaviours are what form the basis of this approach.

Critics – not least in the UK – believe that nudging has the potential to be used as a form of manipulation, because by nudging the public sector proactively attempts to get people to do something that they might not otherwise have done. Think about this point for a minute. Is this not the purpose of all politics? Providing we are open about the terms and background of the redesign of public sector efforts, I can’t see the problem.

The question is not, after all, whether the public sector should try to influence people. The question is whether we are doing it successfully.

Christian Bason

Profound reforms needed in the public sector

By May 14th 2012

This blog has previously been published in the Danish magazine Monday Morning.

It is in relation to the citizen that the need for public sector reform is greatest. Despite the public sector’s ardent willingness to adapt, implementing these ‘profound reforms’ remains problematic.

In 2009, when the financial crisis appeared to be at its peak, I wrote a column for the Danish weekly, Mandag Morgen. In it, I argued that it was necessary for the public sector to take action and thereby demonstrate how important the public sector is to our economy when the private financial markets fail. The public sector alone was in a position to provide bailout packages to the banks, acquire crisis-hit companies and implement more sensible regulation of the financial sector.

At the time I wrote that the public sector was part of the solution. Today, however, it increasingly appears as if the public sector is part of the problem.

The most significant welfare areas – both in Denmark and in the countries with which we compare ourselves – require things to be done very differently. By this I mean that reducing expenditure in certain areas by a few percentage points or prioritising slightly more rigorously is not enough. On the contrary, what’s needed is a fundamental transformation of what we perceive to be public service. One could call this ‘profound reform’.

Profound reform is about ascertaining a new set of principles for defining public service and using these principles to redefine organisations,  projects and processes. An essential aspect of profound reform is that its guiding principles can emerge from many sources, for example internally within public organisations, in not-for-profit organisations and NGOs, in the private sector, or among the citizens themselves.

The consequences of profound reform are barrier-breaking for public sector managers and their employees, since the profound reform necessitates a public sector that:

- Shows empathy for the individual citizen, family and local community. It is thus based on greater sympathy for the citizen than for the system.

- Builds on the principle that the individual is an expert in his or her own life, and thus challenges professional competencies/‘professionalism’.

- Takes as its starting point people’s and groups’ actual behaviours and needs as opposed to classic economic or professional considerations.

- Focuses on the long-term social and economic effects on the individual and community instead of on short-term budget optimisation.

- Organises efforts for citizens in a way that focuses on their service experience as opposed to on public sector organisation.

There are in fact enough good examples of profound, innovative reform if one looks at it from an international perspective. Whichever welfare area comes under focus, radically more effective and significantly less expensive models – compared to those familiar to Denmark – do exist.

As an example, both the US and Australia have found better and cheaper ways of helping vulnerable children and young people while avoiding the expense of forcible removals by adopting a health-oriented family approach whereby families help other families. Also, in both the UK and the US, efforts to support people with learning disabilities have been made more effective through individual budgets, ensuring a better and more efficient use of public resources. Moreover, as has now become well known, Fredericia Municipality in Jutlland has massively improved and increased the effectiveness of its home care efforts by systemising daily rehabilitation.

Despite the increasing demand, however, profound reform remains a rarity in the Danish context. This is because the problem lies in the fact that genuine profound reform requires the public system – the public sector architecture – to change in equally profound ways.

In all of the the above-mentioned examples the relationship between citizens and the public sector has changed fundamentally:

- In terms of families, efforts have been made to take advantage of the unique strengths exhibited by diverging families who have experienced – and managed to overcome – tough challenges. They are therefore able to help other families in crisis. This represents a complete shift away from perceiving the families as the problem, towards accepting their ability to provide the solutions if given partners who understand how to help them on their way.

- With regards to people with learning disabilities, the reforms are evidence of how even the most intellectually vulnerable are better able to manage their own money than professional social workers and therapists.

- In terms of home care in Denmark, it has been acknowledged that most elderly people actually prefer to live the life they have always lived as opposed to one characterised by home care dependency. It does, however, require assistance to enable individuals to regain their physical and mental strength.

In light of the reforms currently being announced at the highest level, there is little doubt that people want radically new ideas on how to structure our public services.

The pertinent question is whether our public sector leaders and their employees have the imagination and determination to push through the kinds of profound reforms that are in fact needed. 

Christian Bason

EU design leadership

By May 1st 2012

In the spring of 2011 the European Commission asked 14 design experts for recommendations on design a driver for innovation and growth in Europe. MindLab is part of this group, the European Design Leadership Board.

But is it possible to develop a design policy without involving a wider circle of users and stakeholders? And should new methods of “co-design” not be applied in such a process? For these reasons, the European Design Leadership Board invited a select group of 65 people to develop policy propositions along with them. Aalto University serves as secretariat for the expert panel and designed the workshop in collaboration with MindLab.

The expert panel will issue a final report of recommendations, in part based upon the workshop sessions, to EU Commissioner Tajani, who is responsible for European policy regarding enterprise and industry matters. The Commissioner will receive the report at a ceremony in Brussels late June.

Below are photos from the workshop session by MindLab and a short film by Aalto University.

Anette Væring

Rethinking something as traditional as a meeting of the Council of the Ministers?

By May 1st 2012

As a part of the Danish presidency of the Council of the Eurpoean Union the Ministry of Business and Growth hosted the informal ministerial meeting in the Competiveness Council on the 2nd and 3rd of February 2012. MindLab has been in close collaboration with the international department of the Ministry of Business and Growth in both planning and executing the meeting. The special contribution of MindLab has revolved around the concept for the meeting, user involvement, application of design techniques and visualisation. See how a different format for a ministerial meeting can look here.

Read about the thoughts behind the meeting and read about Mindlabs case

Satsuko VanAntwerp

Top 3 Co-production Aha! Moments

By February 1st 2012

What is Co-Production and why should we care about it? As NESTA put it, “Co-production means delivering public services in an equal and reciprocal relationship between professionals, people using services, their families and their neighbours. Where activities are co-produced in this way, both services and neighbourhoods become far more effective agents of change.”

 In other words, Co-production empowers citizens to become active participants in the delivery of public services. Exciting stuff!

 Below are my top three “aha” moments of Co-production:

 1. The Timing is Right
The added pressure of recent economic hardships has catalyzed innovative grassroots co-production solutions that not only function better than the status quo but also save time and money. Among my favourite examples is Youth Court of DC, a youth reintegration program where Peer Jurors interrogate and sentence first time juvenile offenders in the District of Columbia, USA. As individuals who were once in the same position as the offenders, Peer Jurors are empathetic and able to connect with Offenders in a way that governments alone could not. This innovative program has reduced the recidivism rate from 30-40% down to 10%. Such co-production bright spots show us that it is possible to adapt to the growing economic and social pressures while improving service and saving resources.

2. New Media Advantage
New media creates opportunities for co-production in the public sector by creating faster and more direct communication with individuals and communities. As we saw in Barack Obama’s 2008 US Presidential election campaign, facebook, youtube and blogs are incredibly powerful tools in connecting, relaying information and mobilizing citizens. These tools are already widely used by citizens and many are free. Directly engaging with citizens is at the core of co-production; thus incorporating new media tools into public service is a great starting point.

 3. Mutuality
Co-production works best when both civil servant and beneficiaries/citizens become equal partners in the delivery of the service. The benefits of this mutuality go beyond getting added “buy-in” from both parties. By operating in this way, both civil servants and citizens receive timelier information and are able to build a relationship based on transparency, trust and respect. Citizens are empowered to reach out in their community, identify issues early, prevent escalation and help each other, ultimately relieving strain on the public service system and creating more self sufficient and robust communities.

 The timing is right for Co-production; we have the tools and we know where to start.

 Satsuko VanAntwerp is an International MBA Candidate at Schulich School of Business in Toronto, Canada who worked at MindLab during an exchange semester at Copenhagen Business School. As an Associate at Venture Deli, a firm that builds and capitalizes social ventures, Satsuko brings a strong background in social entrepreneurship. She also runs a blog, thinkthrice.ca, exploring ideas for social innovation and systemic change.

Christian Bason

Two governance challenges

By January 2nd 2012

This blog has previously been published in the Danish magazine “Monday Morning”.

There is a lot of talk about innovation in the public sector – and with good reason; but a new way of thinking should never be an end in itself. The vision should rather be to discover new and better principles for the future of public governance. In this regard, there are two great challenges to be met.

The asymmetry problem
The first challenge is an asymmetry problem. Our public sector management suffers from an imbalance between those who bear the cost of an activity and those who reap the rewards. This asymmetry means that public authorities often lack a clear incentive to undertake tasks in a way that is overall the best and least expensive for the individual as well as society. The challenge is complicated by the presence of a second asymmetry that emerges in practice: silo asymmetry. The public sector’s organisation into various administrative domains (horizontally), and into national, regional and municipal administrative levels (vertically) impedes holistic thinking. It is, of course, impossible to conceive of a public sector without any organizing principle. But the silo asymmetry means there is a need for much stronger and binding cross-sectoral management processes than we have at present, at the top level as well as the operational level. We have spoken of “joined-up government” for more than a decade, but where has anyone really implemented the leadership and management models that will allow the cohesion to become real?

Time asymmetry The outcomes of public sector efforts are created over time – in some cases over several decades. But those making the effort (e.g., national prisons making enormous investments in rehabilitation) are not those who will reap the subsequent rewards (e.g., municipal social services, which will save money when former convicts find employment). Where do we see actual new management models that take on this dilemma? This is where one could explore whether social finance or social impact bonds can help short-circuit the time asymmetry by finding investors willing to pay for long-range societal outcomes – in exchange for a return that reflects the risk they run. This requires a completely undogmatic approach to whether the investors are private, public or NGOs. This is one of the areas in which the British-American organisation Social Finance is working.

Relationship problems
The second challenge is that public governance and management is often based on a flawed perception of the relationship to citizens. There is still a widespread notion that public authorities best achieve results through control and regulation. At the same time, there is an opinion that as a public official one cannot take credit for the results of one’s efforts, because many other (external) conditions are involved. Nonetheless, we need a more radical shift from control to service; a service-oriented relationship to the public is generally much more effective and inexpensive. The Danish Tax Agency has already demonstrated this through its Compliance Strategy, and the Danish Working Environment Authority, with its new 2020 plan, is headed in the same direction.

Top executives in government must take responsibility for the results they create, even if they are achieved indirectly or through others. We have (again) spoken for many years about networked governance, but incredibly few organisations are explicitly practicing it. There needs to be far greater focus on what I would perhaps rather call value chain governance: a laser-sharp eye for those causal connections and resources outside one’s own organisation which will create value and results for the end-user. We must step back from the abstract practices of administration and toward a sincere interest in what will make a difference in the lives of real people. This includes, not least, an eye for how people’s own resources can be part of meaningful coproduction with the public sector – also as an “active citizen”.

Semiautonomous municipalities as frontrunners?
There is enormous potential to be realised if our public institutions seriously address these two governance problems. It would give us more holistic approaches to how to get the greatest outcomes for our tax income and catapult our public institutions into new value-creating partnerships, not least across municipalities, regions and the state.

Some rather radical innovation processes must come into play for the new governance models to become reality. Perhaps the small handful of “semiautonomous” Danish municipalities, which the government has recently given the license to experiment beyond current rules and regulations, are ready to pick up the gauntlet?

Christian Bason

What can public sector managers learn from Steve Jobs?

By December 21st 2011

This blog has previously been published in the Danish magazine “Monday Morning”.

I have always thought that there are limits to what public sector managers can learn from their private sector colleagues, but after reading the new biography of the late Steve Jobs, Apple’s founder and CEO, I have come to think differently.

In mid-September, I had the unusual experience of seeing a roomful of French central administration department heads being taught innovation by an American computer company. The occasion was a summit meeting on public innovation held by “Bercy”, as the French Ministry of Finance is popularly known. In that context, an Apple European director was invited to talk about the secret behind the California firm’s incredible ability to constantly innovate.

Think about it: The French central administration elite deigning to hear about the experiences of a private American company? The financial crisis must really be hurting the French public sector!

Nonetheless, the assembled appeared to listen attentively to the presentation. At one point the Apple director emphasised the company’s ambition that every new product be “magical and transformative”. In other words, customers must have a totally exceptional impression of what Apple does for them. During the ensuing plenary discussion among the French managers, the man next to me (a British consultant, the only other foreign participant) leaned forward and pointedly said: “Imagine if your services, too, were perceived that way: magical and transformative”.

The room fell silent. One could sense the managers’ pondering. Magical and transformative social assistance? Magical and transformative foreign service? Magical and transformative postal service?

And yet… Well, why not? It’s one thing if a teenager is willing to spend a month’s paper route money on an iPad 2 because it is so delicious (in Apple terminology) that one wants to lick it, but whether it should be magical and transformative to be treated at hospital, go to elementary school or be helped by the job centre is another matter. After all, our public institutions are responsible for a range of more fundamental and at times vital functions. Why isn’t the ambition so high as to make it a transformative experience to be in contact with the institutions that literally matter so much in our lives?

Apple’s founder, Steve Jobs, died shortly after the French conference, and shortly thereafter came Walter Isaacson’s biography of the man. I read it as soon as I could get hold of a copy, with a hidden personal agenda: Would there be other insights from his life or from Apple that could teach us something about innovation in the public sector? There were. Let me give three examples:

First of all, Steve Jobs always put himself in the customer’s place. He was never satisfied with what Apple’s hoards of engineers, designers and developers suggested. There was always something that could be done better to create a better user experience. Luckily, Steve Jobs was in many ways an archetype of the company’s target group: a culturally radical music lover. He insisted that computers and technology should be understandable and usable by ordinary people in everyday situations. That is why he was the first to commercialise the graphical user interface that we today take for a given in all computers, but which Apple still does best. And that is why he insisted that the company’s latest transformative technology, the iPad, should not have a pointer. The most intuitive thing is obviously to use our fingers to navigate the screen.

Secondly, the visionary Jobs made Apple employees tremendously proud of their work. One of his best-known sayings came when, at a company retreat, he invited his staff to join him in “making a dent in the universe”. Not a small ambition, yet one that you could say has been realised by what is today the world’s most valuable company, whose products are found in the hands of millions of people the world over. How many public sector managers have such an ambition?

Thirdly, Steve Jobs created a design-driven organisation. That is, Apple’s very organisational DNA – management structure, development processes, IT infrastructure, work methods, production, logistics and marketing – are put together with the sole goal of ensuring that the customer has a fully integrated experience of Apple’s stores, products, packaging and services such as iTunes and App Store. A central concept in this context is that Apples chief designer, Jonathan Ive, reports directly to the CEO. This means that it is design that guides the business’s decisions; not technology, not the financials, not marketing. The design is, at the end of the day, what the customer experiences. As design and innovation guru Roberto Verganti – a great Jobs admirer – so precisely said, good design is “the creation of meaning”. Apple’s organisation is highly geared to creating a meaningful experience for the user. A magical and transformative experience.

Could a public service organisation hire a “head designer” to report directly to the chief executive? Might it have a chief executive who is personally, deeply engaged in every detail of the concrete service provision, in citizens’ experiences and in inspiring employees to do things they wouldn’t think possible?

Naturally, we in the public sector can never create as elegant and coherent solutions and experiences as does Apple, given the necessity to balance conflicting political requirements, considerations and pressures in a social and institutional world that is all too complex and unpredictable. Nonetheless, I believe we are duty-bound to try, especially since our “business” does not concern something as banal as electronic products, but rather the lives and welfare of people. In this, Steve Job’s insistence that we all deserve a better experience can serve as a pretty relevant guideline.

Christian Bason

Public sector innovation must move from Strategy to action

By November 25th 2011

This blog has previously been published in the Danish newspaper “Monday Morning”.

Innovation strategies are currently being developed throughout the public sector – including in the government. This is encouraging and long overdue. But the challenge will be to create strategies that lead to innovation in practice. The following presents a little more than five examples of what this means.

 “Can you give me some concrete examples of innovation for our coming strategy process?” (city manager). “Can you give a presentation to provide inspiration to our strategic work with innovation, now that we are a free municipality?” (development director). “We are finalising our innovation strategy, but what can we do about the incentive structure?” (municipal development consultant). These are examples of enquiries I receive from the municipalities. At the moment, I hear them almost daily.

Right now, interest in innovation in the public sector – particularly in the municipalities ­– is rapidly growing. This topic has certainly been on the agenda for years. But it is no longer a matter of isolated projects or initiatives. Innovation is now a strategic agenda that has the undivided attention of top management – both in the municipalities and national government. After the election, the victorious parties have set a national innovation strategy in its programme.

It is nothing new that the government will propose initiatives to boost research, development, productivity and growth in Danish companies. But it is new that a national strategy for innovation also includes the public sector. And it’s good timing – not just in relation to developments in the municipalities, but also in relation to the world around us. Other countries are already in full swing. If the government establishes a strategy, it will place us in the current of countries such as Australia and Sweden, who in recent months have adopted ambitious action plans to promote innovation in the public sector. For example, Canberra passed an Australian Public Service Innovation Action Plan.

The need for a more strategic and systematic approach to public innovation has rarely been greater. The challenges are many, whether we are speaking of education, employment, health or even productivity in the public sector. As shown by the municipal leaders’ statements above, the question is not whether innovation is needed, but rather how we will choose to approach the task of innovation. So what key considerations must a public sector innovation strategy include if it is to make a difference? Here are five questions:

  1. What should the strategy be about? In my book, “Leading Public Sector Innovation” (Policy Press, 2010), I emphasise that a good public innovation strategy requires direction. What key challenges must the strategy specifically focus on? What significant national, regional or municipal initiatives will we invest in to increase the probability of finding truly radical, innovative solutions? What should comprise the strategy’s portfolio?
  2. How will we work with innovation? Which means, methods and processes should the strategy utilise? For example, will we emphasise new technology, research, employee-driven innovation, or strengthening the involvement of citizens and businesses? Or will we use a mix of these? Are we seeking incremental or radical innovation? Do we even have a clear idea of these different forms of innovation? Do we have the competences to use them?
  3. Who must be involved? Innovation is made possible from the top, but is executed from below. Should the strategy primarily involve stakeholders in the public sector, or should there be a collaboration between a range of state, regional and municipal organisations, private companies, NGOs, or citizens themselves? What activities can ensure that the involvement happens in practice and that it focuses on practical, effective solutions rather than special interests?
  4. How will we measure the success of the strategy? Public innovation occurs when new ideas are implemented and create value for society. The bottom line is completely different from that of the private sector. Or rather, bottom lines. There are four in all: Productivity, service experience, effects, and democracy. Are some of these dimensions to be prioritised more than others? How will we continually document that the strategy delivers results?
  5. Where will the strategy be rooted? Where will we embed the strategy in the organisation so that we both secure top management focus and a broad commitment? How and by whom is it to be executed and what governance structures will ensure that it happens?

In fact, there is a sixth question that may be the most difficult of them all. When the Australian government announced its new innovation strategy back in May, I received an e-mail from one of its key advisors. “They’ve even included ‘courage’!” he wrote. The Australians thereby point out that strong and courageous leadership is essential if we want to translate innovation to action. How will we choose to approach this challenge?

Jakob Schjørring

Small adjustments, massive outcomes

By October 21st 2011

Is the radical innovation of public services the Holy Grail for us working with public innovation? Experiences from UK Cabinet Office suggests that it is not always the case.

MindLab has for many years insisted that the road towards spotting the great potentials for innovation often passes through an interest for the little details in the everyday lives of businesses and citizens. Last week, I was offered yet a perspective on why insisting on this may pay off. David Halpern visited MindLab and presented his work on “nudging” that the UK Cabinet Office has commenced at their Behavioural Insight Unit.

What is nudging?

To make a long story short, Behavioural Insight Unit works on finding specific suggestions to how we can increase the probability that people voluntarily do what we want them to do; importantly without forcing specific patterns of behaviour on them e.g. through rules and regulation. It is this kind of “guiding the individual’s choice”, which is the core of nudging.

Behavioural Insight Unit works with nine ways that people can be nudged, which is collected in the acronym MINDSPACE. Read more here.

The devil is in the detail

What I found most interesting in Halpern’s presentation was that all his examples were on a very  basic practical level. And I think that there is a tendency amongst us working with innovation to overlook the basic practical perspective.

An American insurance company had for example moved the signature box from last to first page of their insurance policy documents. The fact that the customers signed on page one made them more honest when they stated their yearly mileage, even though it made their car insurance more costly.

In the UK all applicants for a drivers licence must concurrently consider whether they want to join the NHS Organ Donation Register. The initiative is only three months old, but the number of registered potential donors has already skyrocketed due to this simple solution.

When guests reserve a table on a restaurant is it common that the waiters asks if the guest will call back and cancel her reservation if she is unable to make it. Here research has shown that once that the guest has said ‘yes’ to that question, the probability increases significantly that the guest actually does call back and cancel if the waiter waits for three seconds before saying “thank you”. The small hesitation simply creates a greater sense of obligation with the guest.

An agenda for government executives?

When Halpern showed us his examples I could not resist asking him how he would get government executives to show interest in something as ordinary as pauses during a telephone call and the placement of signature boxes. He simply answered that a good business case can make any executive to listen.

This appeal to focus not just on radical and complex new solutions is hereby passed on. I personally think that Halpern’s approach is extremely suitable with regards to debureaucratization and directing citizens and businesses to choose digital over analogue solutions. Perhaps somebody already knows any other examples of small adjustments with massive outcomes?


Rasmus Kolding

Easy Innovation?

By June 21st 2011

Creating an innovative group of people is easy but expensive – that was the main point of a talk I heard the other day. Since innovation is usually thought to be difficult – why, after all, would we hire consultants to do it all the time – I think that the statement deserves further thought. The speaker was PhD-candidate Vaughn Tan of Harvard Business School, who does sociological research on highly innovative work groups; currently at high-end restaurants like the Danish Noma. Since in today’s haute cuisine there is a constant pressure to innovate, how do they create a group that will spawn new ideas continuously?

The reason that innovation then is expensive begins with the hiring process. According to Vaughn, innovative groups do not form if people are hired through a process where the seemingly best candidate for the job impresses in tests and interviews and thus selected accordingly. Rather Vaughn suggested that people enter the group through a process he calls “negotiated joining”, meaning simply that the candidate is given responsibility and works with the group for a lengthy period of time (like 2-3 months) before actually getting hired. This helps defining roles, clarifying mutual expectations and loosens up the work flows because it requires a flexible mentality and approach to the work. This is an expensive process, but pays off well according to Vaughn. Indeed, some of the worlds top restaurants work in this way.

Since this is expensive but easy, where comes the hard part? During the talk, I became increasingly aware of Vaughn’s emphasis that really innovative organisations have a tactical rather than strategic approach to their work processes. Tactical manoeuvring means that you as an organization constantly respond to how the world changes – and that means that decision making in the organization must be rapid and not constrained by bureaucratic structures. However, besides an organisational culture that allows this to happen, Vaughn also emphasised that all levels of management must endorse this for innovation to lead to success. This is what the top restaurants of the world have understood and it is reflected in their hiring processes.

I think Vaughn’s observations resonate well with our own experiences with public innovation. Setting up the team, identifying problems and developing insights is not the hard part. The difficulties enter when you need your insights to bloom within organisations, when large organisational change is necessary in order to achieve results, and when innovation carries risks to organisation and managers. This is not to say that it is impossible – indeed a well defined strategy can set a direction that may handle this. Incidentally, here at MindLab we have revised our own strategy to improve and foreground our work with organisational change. These are, however, baby steps in a complex process that requires much thought and skill along the way. We all know the societal challenges ahead, but which public organisation will be the first Noma of government?

Runa Sabroe

Strategic design in Helsinki

By June 17th 2011

Finnish design is more than Marimekko’s colourful flower universe and Aalto’s strict functionalism. Finland is in many ways a spearhead nation when it comes to strategic design. MindLab has visited Helsinki.

“Why wait if you can do it now and do it yourself?” asks Kalevi Ekman, director of Aalto Design Factory, Helsinki, when MindLab comes by to visit. Design Factory is a product of the fusion of the design school, the technical university and business school and has existed for just over two years. They work with design here and teach design in all its forms.

At Design Factory, most people seem to do their best to live up to Ekman’s motto. For example, when MindLab visits the walls are getting painted from white to black and red. A larger group of international students are having their lunch the same place. No one seems to take notice of paint buckets, high ladders and painting equipment used to the significant refurbishment. As a physical proof that the place is always changing.

Or when some of the students develop a new videolink-equipment and place it in the common room/kitchen/coffee lounge, connects it to the new sister organisation in Shanghai and declares that it should be streaming sound and video 24/7. That should solve the potential problem with enormous physical distances between the two organisations!

Design Factory seems to be a living proof of what design can do. The whole place stems with a spirit where you localise a problem and without much hesitation use design methods to develop solutions in one format or another, with the purpose to improve them and perhaps give them yet another format.  Maybe this is where the basis of successful development lies. This basic passion and will to experiment is what the place builds on.

To use design as a strategic tool is the headline of Sitra’s new design unit, Design Lab, which MindLab also visited. Sitra is well placed in a Helsinki high rise, with a view where you feel that you can see all nooks and crannies of the city. As a manifestation of Design Lab’s goal of using design methods to rethink the system and through this develop new solutions. Here you literally see everything from the top.

Sitra is an independent funding organization and was actually a present to the people of Finland on the 50th anniversary of independence and has thus existed since 1967, but it is a novelty that they engage in strategic design.

Bryan Boyer is a member of the design team and tells us that they work with using design, not to give physical form to objects, but to create a better platform for decision making. For example, Design Lab has been taking up some of Finland’s serious challenges, like the increasing old age burden. The design team gathers twenty experts on the topic for up to one week and demands prototypes of new solutions by the end of the meeting. Not finalized new solutions, but provisional and qualified suggestions.

Christian Bason

Global impressions – Part II

By March 1st 2011

From The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) in Adelaide, to Melbourne’s VPS Innovation Action Plan, to Sydney-based strategic design firm Second Road, and to some cutting edge research environments, Australia is in many ways leading innovation in public and social services. During my 10-day visit there in late November 2010 as part of the Social Innovator Dialogues, covering five cities and engaging with public servants, social innovators and the academic community, it was clear that there is a rapidly growing awareness of not only the need for more innovation, but of how to bring it about.

Redesigning family care

Perhaps the most striking example I came across was in South Australia, where TACSI is engaging to help transform ‘chaotic families’ into ‘thriving families’. Chaotic families are typically characterised by high levels of alcohol abuse, violence, unemployment, and dysfunction. TACSI, a not-for profit, is applying ethnography and design thinking – much like MindLab’s work – supplemented by engagement with the state authorities, which are also co-funding the project. For the past eight months a public manager from the state’s Department for Families has been seconded to the project. In that capacity, she has no longer acted formally as a manager, but has participated together with a small team of a designer and a sociologist in exploring how the families live their lives, with the aim of finding new opportunities for helping them to become “thriving families”. When I visited, the project team was beginning to see the results of their work – going far beyond insights into the families’ lives, to generating concrete positive change in their situation.

The project has facilitated links and collaborations between the positive deviant families with the families at risk and is thus generating a positive circle of building resources and helping the strengthened network of families help themselves to tackle the challenges they are facing.

Carolyn, the manager seconded to the project, describes TACSI’s families project as a ‘resourcing model’, which is radically different from how she has worked during her 10-year career as a manager. “It is bottom-up, it has end-user focus, and there is no fixed structure, criteria or categories. The work has been extremely intensive. We have focused on motivation and on strengths within the families – identifying the ‘positive deviances’ where some families are actually thriving, even though they shouldn’t be, according to the government’s expectations. We have focused on finding entry points and opportunities, rather than just trying to mediate risk. It is a co-design, or co-creation approach, and it has been entirely new to me.”

Whether it will be possible to bring the project findings to bear on the public administration’s current practices, and actually redesign the state’s entire approach to at-risk families, remains to be seen. However, just like we at MindLab seek to demonstrate how new insights can lead to real change, TACSI has certainly already made a powerful contribution to how we think and act in such a difficult field of social policy.

Digital innovation enablers

A few thousand kilometres East of Adelaide, the Victoria Public Service continues to pursue its one-year old Innovation Action Plan, embedding collaborative networks through use of new social media. During my session with public officials there, there was constant blogging and tweeting via smartphones and iPads – still something rather rare amongst even the more innovative Danish public servants. As our conversation unfolded, listeners in the US, nearly a dozen time zones away, joined in and commented on the posted remarks. As there has since been a change of government in Victoria, it will be interesting to see whether the Action Plan is sufficiently resilient to adapt and work with a shifting political landscape.

Strategic design in practice

During the final stop of my tour, to Sydney, I had the opportunity to visit 2nd Road, a well-known design consultancy, and engage in dialogue with founder Tony Golsby-Smith and senior adviser Jenkins. Interestingly, the firm’s approach to strategic change has largely been driven from the field of rhetoric, emphasising ‘strategic conversations’ with decision-makers. Interestingly, Second Road has had a long-standing engagement with the Australian Taxation Office, making them one of the exclusive few private design firms with more than a decade-long experience with strategic design in the public sector. See the case here.  Moreover, 2nd Road’s Julian Jenkins has published their experiences rather extensively, which provides for very interesting reading on the potential of design for public organisations.

And now to something completely different…

Travelling from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere is much less of a change than the shift from Western culture to Japanese society – the final stop of my late 2010 journey. Part III of this blog will share the dialogues we had in Tokyo over the potential of Future Centres, space as ‘Ba’, and the role of Japan’s government in engaging citizens in new innovative practices.

Christian Bason

Making the big society work: Is trust the missing ingredient?

By February 11th 2011

During my recent three intensive days in London, presenting at the Department for Communities and Local Government, at the Overseas Development Institute, and at The Guardian’s Public Services Summit 2011, the hot topic was the Coalition Government’s vision for a Big Society. In the face of some first setbacks, such as the withdrawal of one of the pilot cities, Liverpool, will the vision prove resilient enough? And more fundamentally, how to make the grand idea a reality while public service budgets are cut so massively?

What to make of it?

On the one hand, Britain is clearly endowed with extremely smart, engaged and capable public servants and not-for profit and business leaders. They are asking all the right and difficult questions about how a big society vision could be made practical and workable. They are searching for innovative solutions that can help, and they are extremely open to outside input. Even better, in many pockets around the country, it seems that innovative models for new forms of collaboration, engaging citizens and communities, are already up and running. From time banks, were citizens can earn credits for voluntary work and “cash” them for other services, to diversifying service provision to ngos and businesses, and to a growth in service design projects run by the likes of Participle, ThinkPublic and the NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement, new approaches are flourishing. Most want to make the big society work.

On the other hand, one senses confusion and frustration. Implementing a major vision for society alongside almost unprecedented cuts to public services is a tough call. As one panel participant said at the Guardian’s public services summit, communities should be seen partners with the state, not as alternatives to it. Following this line of thought made me think that devolving power, finance and responsibility to local governments implies that the local level must become more, not less, of a partner with central government. However, when the new UK local government bill not just devolves power, but also requires an amazingly detailed level of transparency of public expenditure and reporting of it (public bodies must publish all expenditure items above £500 online, and the salaries of senior officials), one can’t help but think: Does central government really trust the local level to be able to step up to the challenge? Are central government departments prepared to let go, perhaps limiting themselves to demanding better outcomes, at less cost, in return? Are national politicians prepared to, in their own words, stop tinkering? If not, can the Big Society become a success?

Christian Bason

Global impressions – Part I

By January 12th 2011
How can we in government change our thinking and current practices to tackle a much  more turbulent and difficult economic environment? How might we connect in more meaningful ways with citizens, businesses and communities to bring about real change? How do we, ultimately, get more and better services for less? These are some of the key questions currently facing public sector leaders. During the global launch of my book “Leading public sector innovation: Co-creating for a better society” I’ve  had the opportunity to connect with government colleagues in several countries to discuss where public services are heading.  Here are some first impressions.
In London, the point of departure is that public services have become financially unsustainable, and that radical new and more cost-efficient delivery models must be found. “Ouch!” was how The Economist, in their editorial, characterized the austerity measures introduced by the Coalition Government, starting with a harsh emergency budget in June 2010.


Following subsequent historic budgetary cuts of nearly 20 percent over the next four years, the  UK discussion is now focusing on, amongst other things, a major devolution of power, and of how a ‘Big Society’ model might enable everyone — ordinary citizens, community organisations, third sector organisations and business — to engage in co-production of what was formerly known as ‘pure’ public services. In that context, the RSA Public Services 2020 Commission has proposed the compelling vision “From social security to social productivity”. At a major Summit at the RSA in November, members of the Commission emphasized how three shifts are necessary to secure the UK welfare state for the future: A shift in power from (formal) government organisations to (informal) actors; a shift in finance to new models of co-finance and/or individual investments, and a shift in culture to a more  democratic and socially responsible society. See my own, and other’s, contribution to the RSA Journal on how the vision of a Big Society could be realised.
In London there was also the opportunity to engage with the Innovation Unit, and discuss their excellent work on radical efficiency. Radical efficiency is a comprehensive approach , based on study of more than 100 cases across a number of countries, of how to deliver radically different, better and lower  cost public services. Read The Innovation Unit’s blog about the book launch session co-hosted with the Institute for Government.
In Paris, the discussion is more about how to build the political momentum and courage to actually embrace more fundamental change. In France, irrespective of the fact that the country’s economic challenges are pretty much as significant as elsewhere, it is apparently more legitimate to focus on better and potentially more costly public services, than on how we could really achieve more with less. However when I shared the Innovation Unit’s point in that perhaps it really is a question of “more for more”, because radical efficiency is largely achieved by leveraging more resources, just from outside of government, it caught the French’s attention! Visit the site of French innovation lab La 27e Region to see how service design is being applied in fields such as education, regional development and sustainability.
In Brussels — from the European perspective — the thought leaders at the Lisbon Council reinforced the point out that what is needed now is political leadership. See for instance Executive Director Ann Mettler’s passionate call for European action, “If not now, then when?”. During our book launch session there,  the conversation with key policymakers at member state and EU level emphasized that the problem isn’t for politicians to get reelected in spite of new austerity measures. The track record from countries like Greece and the UK so far shows that the public at large does understand that such measures are necessary. The key problem for politicians is to find the radical new solutions necessary in a world without abundant funding for public services. This is where, of course, the message of co-creating for public services enters. Read about Lisbon Council’s work in innovation and see my Brussels presentation here.

Lisbon Council book launch: Panel session

So, public services in the Western world are under increasing pressure, the hunt for better models of service creation and delivery is on, and new models and approaches are emerging fast. The twin messages of innovation and co-creation seem to make sense in those contexts, but in different ways. How about other parts of the world? Watch this space for Part Two about trends and solutions in Australia and Japan…
Christian Bason

Leading innovation: A journey, not a destination

By October 27th 2010

Today my new book, Leading public sector innovation: Co-creating for a better society launches.


Flipping through a copy, still almost warm from the printer’s, it strikes me that if there is one key message in it, it is that building the innovative public organisation isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. Why? Because…

It is not enough to start talking about innovation and what it means to the organisation.

It is not enough to put an innovation strategy in writing.

It is not enough to recruit a talented, diverse workforce.

It is not enough to leverage new digital media to drive collaboration, and to power new service solutions.

It (even) is not enough to build innovation labs or put into practice new design-driven methods for co-creating new solutions with citizens and business.

It is not enough to start measuring  innovation activities and results.

…and pure, raw courage to initiate new ideas and solutions in the face of stark opposition is not enough either.

The most ambitious, professional and results-oriented public managers I know are, rather, trying to leverage all of these dimensions, and more, in order to create truly innovative organisations. They recognize that reshaping public bureaucracies for the 21st century  is a long and difficult journey with no final destination in sight. As times of economic austerity clashes with demographic change and rising  service demands, it is a challenge to even keep pace with the wicked problems that are facing us every day.

For simplicity,  I therefore argue that the journey towards the highly innovative public organisation must be led simultaneously across four dimensions:  Creating consciousness of what innovation is and means to the organisation; building capacity to innovate, from political context over strategy and organisational structure to people and culture; mastering a process of co-creating new solutions with people, not for them; and finally, to display the courage at all levels of management to really lead innovation.

Although many are trying, I have yet to see a public organisation that can honestly say it is working effectively on all four dimensions.

Who will be the first?

Christian Bason


By August 15th 2010

One of the things that most struck me the most when I left my 10-year career in management consulting to lead MindLab was all the guessing that went on in the Danish central administration. Public servants were routinely guessing what their boss thought would be an appropriate course of action on a given policy. They were also guessing what their boss’ boss might think (this would be the deputy permanent secretary). And, obviously, most of all they were trying to guess what the permanent secretary might eventually think. (Who of course has been guessing all along what the political boss — the minister — is thinking). Tremendous amounts of time is spent on this guesswork, not just on the guessing, but on drafting courses of action that might (or, more often, might not) be what the ‘hieararchy’ is looking for. Compared to my experience in consulting (in a much flatter hierarchy, and in a very different organisational culture), this guesswork seems to me to be a significant waste of time and, thereby, tax payer’s money. I have seen policy development processes that arguably should have been completed in a year or less take twice that time, with no discernible increase in quality or political relevance.

Of course there are some reasons for all the guesswork, and the time the policy development process takes:

First, policy development is often a complex progress, where the positions of various stakeholders (such as political majorities and minorities, lobbyists, industrial organisations, etc.) need to be taken into account. And there are of course delicate matters of timing, which may mean that a wonderful piece of new policy can be put in the drawer for months until the time is ripe for launch.

Second, senior managers in government have very tight schedules. They must be available at all times for their own boss and particularly the minister. They simply can’t fit in the time and resources to engage systematically in collaborative dialogue, brainstorming and idea generation, just because some of their staff need it. At MindLab, where we regularly run workshops focusing on high-level policy development, it is a rarity that anyone above the level of Head of Division can spend more than an hour in a work session, if that much.

Finally, paper work takes time. The century-old tradition of drafting papers to go up the multiple rungs of hierarchy and back lives on. Sometimes the process can be extreme, with little benefit. Recently, a senior official told me that a case concerning just 5 mio kr. (less than USD 1 mio) had dragged on for more than two years during which several government departments had haggled over who was to foot the bill.

These all (somewhat) understandable reasons.  But still, it seems the process just isn’t good enough. How to rid ourselves of all the guessing going on, and how to conduct the policy innovation process more efficiently?

First, as I wrote in an earlier blog post, even though innovation is a terrible word, we do need a language of innovation. We need it because we need to be more conscious about creating more efficient and creative everyday working practices. As British professor Fiona Patterson, who studied everyday innovation practices across more than 800 companies has found, “(…) organisations that clearly articulate what is meant by ‘innovative working’ are more likely to be successful in their attempt to encourage innovative behaviours”. No  serious new discipline  has, I believe, ever taken root in modern organisations without having a distinct vocabulary.

Secondly, other than speaking in meaningful ways about innovation, we should simply start meeting in a different way.  Key public servants desperately need to meet with each other  in better prepared, more focused sessions to actually craft policy together, rather than to just let lowly minions guess their best in writing and then give them the thumbs up or down. Senior public servants, advisers, junior staff, and — even — external stakeholders such as citizens, businesses, academics, interest organisations  and ‘wild cards’ need to collaborate much more consciously and intensively, if we are to come up with the effective and intelligent solutions we need. Smarter collaboration would save tax payer money, not just because we’d save substantial time and frustration by reducing all the guessing. It would also save tax payer money because such forms of co-creation have a much higher chance of producing  outcomes that actually work.

Christian Bason

Why is innovation a terrible word?

By July 12th 2010

I’ve had my government-issue HTC smartphone for a while, but it wasn’t until recently that I noticed that the phone maker has written ‘htc innovation’ with miniscule letters on the side of the unit. As if the company wanted to make really sure that I realise I am holding an innovative piece of technology. Probably the wording was slashed on last-minute by the marketing people. ‘It can’t hurt’, they might have been thinking. Who doesn’t want innovation?

Innovation is everywhere, and everyone is claiming it. From my phone maker to producers of washing detergent to space agencies and national governments, innovation is something many people agree is somehow important, but few can really express how. ‘Innovation’ becomes a panacea for any problem because, in essence, it expresses that whatever the challenge is, it is being dealt with successfully. But like a wet bar of soap, ‘innovation’ somehow eludes a firm grip. Paradoxically, we want it, but can’t really express it. That is why, when we at MindLab drafted our communication strategy three years ago, it stated that “‘Innovation’ is a terrible word. But there’s nothing wrong with its content”.

How does innovation become a terrible word? In organisations that are not used to working in new ways, which do not enthusiastically embrace new ideas, and which do not necessarily thrive on on-going change, innovation can become a diffuse, abstract and perhaps even dangerous term. Innovation may be perceived as  anything from wild creativity, ‘letting your hair down’, to a management fad, or to loosing control to risky experimentation. No wonder that some people, and in my experience in particular people in government, dislike the word.

However, if ‘innovation’ wasn’t part of our vocabulary, we’d have to invent it. Innovation is the only term we have that captures the notion of creating something new that works. It embodies the dialectic of inspiration (generating the new ideas we need to create the future we want) and execution (the practice of getting things done to create value).

As opposed to ‘creativity’ or ‘invention’, innovation is therefore, and perhaps surprising to some, highly practical. The best of  the (vast) literature on innovation not only offers extremely useful perspectives on strategy, leadership and organisation. It offers a set of professional approaches, tools and methods which can help make the process of creating the new solutions we need, whether it be a new product or a public service, conscious, strategic and systematic.

Because the concept and practice of innovation offers us something valuable, or even essential, we need to take very seriously those who dismiss it. Rather than just slapping the word on everything we, as scholars and practitioners, say or do, we must take care to give it the meaning and content needed for the sceptics to become curious and, eventually, embrace it.

But to place the practice of innovation more squarely at the heart of government, we need to continue to show what it is, and how it works in practice. That is why we at MindLab spend so much time documenting and sharing our cases with others within the ministries we are part of, and beyond — online and in person. To be convincing, innovation has to be concrete.

As for my phone? Well, it works OK. But honestly? There are more innovative models out there.

Jesper Christiansen

“Give me the map and I will reshape the territory!”

By March 31st 2010

Since I very enthusiastically engaged myself in the work at MindLab it’s been a part of my motivational narrative that MindLab as an ideological project stands out. Especially in terms of its attempt to grasp the experience of the citizen and using this research to create grounds for new policy solutions to make bureaucratic practices more in tune with real lives as they are actually lived. An even more significant ideological project, however, is how to think about and use the knowledge which is created.

More often than not, project leaders at MindLab are struggling to justify methodological choices and ways of doing research. MindLab is researching the public sector qualitatively.  The problem is not the creation of new knowledge itself, but how to put it into legitimate use.

Drawing on John Dewey’s ‘The Public and its Problem’, Bruno Latour argues for a more realistic definition of “what it is to know something scientifically” (Latour 2007:2). The problem, says Latour, is that the cognitive abilities with which civil servants act are linked to science rather than research. This is far from the same thing. Science in this sense is linked to objectivity, an already finished ‘map’ from which political plans can be drawn out and followed. The notion of research takes the learning process seriously and links action and knowledge in a more fruitful way:

“Whatever has been planned, there are always unwanted consequences for a reason that has nothing to do with the quality of the research or with the precision of the plan, but with the very nature of action. It has never the case that you first know and then act. You first act tentatively and then begin to know a bit more before attempting again” (Latour 2007:4)

The state is therefore never allowed ‘to act like a state’, Latour writes. This means that civil servants are forced to put their knowledge into calculated forms that, in the name of governance, has to be ‘picture perfect’. But precisely because the public sector is changing constantly and every policy and political decision have unintended outcomes, they are bound not to stay that way. Observations of consequences of for example welfare services are subject to error and illusion, since the public welfare sector constantly is posing new contextual settings in the interaction between the state and the citizens.

The legitimate use of ‘research’ rather than ‘science’ in policy making would be an ideological shift that could create a much more fruitful space for innovation in the public sector. Since ‘the state always has to be rediscovered’ (Dewey 1927:23), the emphasis should be put on exploring and learning about the realities of the citizens and accepting that unintended outcomes comes with the premise of action itself. Not calculating what we already know. If you want to redraw the map, you cannot know the right thing to do in advance. Instead, you can accept that ‘the map’ needs constant redrawing since it will never fully fit the real landscape. This important ideological and scientific distinction is what MindLab in my view is contributing to illuminate.


Bruno Latour (2007): ‘How to think like a State’

John Dewey (1927): ‘The Public and its Problem’

Quote in headline: Latour 2007:5

Christian Bason

Can diversity give us systematic innovation?

By March 16th 2010

So, yesterday morning I was interviewed by Danish national radio about systematic innovation. What is that?

The occasion was that on March 15th, the Copenhagen-based think tank Monday Morning launched its ambitious “The Entrepreneurs of Welfare” report on how innovation happens in Danish government. More than 2400 people from government, business and the third sector (myself included) have contributed to the study, which emphasizes that what everyone wants in order to create change is ‘freedom’ and ‘responsibility’. OK…?

More interestingly, although the report shows that new welfare solutions are certainly bubbling up to the surface everywhere in Denmark’s public landscape, the depressing fact is that very few of the innovations are goundbreaking or transformative. Further, the solutions often happen randomly, carried through by a few lonely entrepreneurs and in spite of the multitude of barriers we all know characterise new thinking in government.  My answer: Seems like we need more systematic and strategic innovation.

What is then systematic innovation? ‘Systematic’ is about conscious, explicit, with purpose. And ‘innovation’ is about divergence and variance. Maybe even risk.  So… could we systematically, purposefully, stimulate the variance that drives innovation?

Does a homogenous welfare state like Denmark not need to strengthen the ability of institutions to experiment with their own unique models of service delivery — and arrive at what they believe is the best way of creating value to citizens? If yes, we might need to forget the ‘one size fits’ all model, and start accepting a greater divergence of delivery models. Should we encourage more privately-run day care institutions, schools and hospitals? Should we strengthen the opportunities for NGO (third sector) actors to contribute with their skills, expertise and commitment in care for handicapped or for tackling environmental challenges?

Should governments’ role be less of running the core operations of the welfare state in search of ever-higher homogeneity, but rather to encourage vastly different delivery models,  only measuring them on their results? What might be required of our systems,  organisations and (not least) funding if we were to accept that innovation is driven by variance,  not homogeneity? Could ‘systematic’ innovation also be about government consciously encouraging and managing diversity? What might that mean to equality, and to what we define as the welfare state? And more importantly: What level of energy and passion might be released if we embraced diversity and rewarded success?

Nina Holm Vohnsen

Labour market montage 1

By October 26th 2009

Academic work I // sketch for a presentation. I take a shower. Make a cup of coffee. Nescafe. Hotel room. I only pour half of it in my cup. Or I won’t sleep. I sit at the desk. I forget what I’m doing. Stare at the paper. Write the heading. The coffee. Tastes bad. Look at my cellphone. There is sand on the table. Look at the paper. Thoughts wanders off. The coffee. Tastes bad. Makes even real milk taste UHT. Why do phone cords always coil? Look at my mobile. Turn on my computer. The coffee. Surprisingly bad. I forget why I turned on the computer. Then I remember, though it wasn’t the reason to begin with. I switch to standby. One bullet on my list. I look at the coffee. Was it that bad? Yes. I finish it. Almost. I go insane. Push it away. Look at the mobile. Lean back in chair. Look out the window. Look at my mobile. Put down my pen.

Thought I // inspired by David Mosse. What if all the clever plans and schemes that policy makers go about developing serves no other purpose than being creative obstacles to those whose job it is to translate the politicians’’ intentions into practice? Thought II // inspired by Tim Ingold. How might you rethink policy (understood as an attempt at a prescriptive design) when you take seriously that shape giving is a constant process resulting from people’s engagement with life, each other and their physical surroundings and not an execution of any grand plan?

Irrelevant detail I // green eyes. Her irises are at least twice as big as any I have seen until now. They stabbed me or no one in particular through the stench of urine. Two gigantic jewels hovering above the cardboard box. Oh! She was just a junkie.

Academic work II // field work. He holds out a plastic bag. I don’t understand what he is saying, only that he wants me to look inside the bag. Guesstimate; there is about 40 boxes of pills in this plastic bag that he has brought with him into the computer room. He brings coffee and tea for the employees and the participants who have been referred to ‘the ‘sickness benefit package solution’. He hands me a cup of coffee with milk and asks me who I am? Praises the employees. And then; the plastic bag. He intents something but I have no idea what. I look into the bag at the pills. I think he tells me that he wants to talk to his caseworker about the pills. I know nothing about pills. Here is what I know: He holds a string of rejected job applications; if he doesn’’t get a job he wont be able to bring his wife to the country; the municipality has invested in a ‘sickness benefit package solution’ to get him full time employment; they pay around 1000 kr a week for 25 hour that are meant to put him ‘the citizen’ at the center and bring him closer to the labor marked. Here is what he knows about me: Nothing. 0. Zero.

Christian Bason

Must innovation labs be value-driven?

By October 25th 2009

On Oktober 12-13, 20 leaders of innovation labs gathered with academics and policy experts from the European Commission to formulate a vision for labs in Europe by 2020. The challenge was to show how innovation labs might help solve complex social, environmental and economic challenges through sustainable, human-centered and democratized innovation. See Stepháne Vincents photos from the event, which was held at MindLab, here.

Lots of topics were discussed, drawing on insights from the practical work taking place at diverse organisations like NESTA Lab and the Innovation Unit of the UK, la 27e Region of France, and Medialab Prado of Spain. One of the most fascinating aspects of the conversation was the question whether innovation labs are value-driven? Because if a particularly strong sense of mission and purpose is crucial for labs to be effective, what does that mean for the potential of labs, and what are the implications for how to create, lead and grow them? To shape relevant future policy, might we first have to better understand how values are selected and cultivated in a ‘lab’ enviornment?

The discussion made me think back to early 2007, when we started on the journey towards the second generation of MindLab. One of the first things we did in our newly assembled core team was, in fact, to formulate a set of common values. Through a creative process, we arrived at the following five value statements, which have proven to be, in fact, central to our daily work:

Challenge. We challenge traditional thinking and bureaucracy

Communication. Our communication is inspiring and straitforward

Cooperation. We challenge each other’s thinking

Atmosphere. We drink black tea and green coffee

Results. We experiment with the objective in mind.

We often refer to these values when making key decisions: Who to join the team, which projects to take on, how to relate to the barriers we encounter, how to treat each other, who to collaborate with externally. (Ohh, and what kind of coffee to drink!).

Our values are, in many respects, of greater operational importance than our strategy.

So, yes, MindLab is value-driven. And perhaphs innovation labs have to be, in order to maintain a strong sense of purpose and direction in the midst of a chaotic, complex and difficult reality.

I would therefore like to extend an invitation to our fellow innovation labs around the globe to join the conversation here on MindBlog:

What are your values, and what do they do for you?

Because perhaps by understanding the role of values better, we can also learn how to create effective innovation labs that can help shape the future we desire.

Older Posts »