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Feb 13, 2015

Three pieces of advice for the federal government on its new Innovation Hub

February 13, 2015

This week the Privy Council Office launched its new Central Innovation Hub, which means Canada just joined a growing list of countries establishing innovation labs at the very heart of government.

These labs offer safe spaces for innovation. They bring together policymakers, front line practitioners, and external experts to analyze problems, think up potential solutions, and test their ideas. Some labs have flourished while others have faltered.

The Mowat Centre, in partnership with the UK’s Institute for Government, recently investigated this growing trend. We conducted interviews with those working in policy labs around the world — as well as right here in Ontario — and identified a number of common success factors.

Most labs are set up as pilot projects and have to demonstrate their worth before they can find more secure funding.

Our three key pieces of advice for the Privy Council Office (PCO):

  1. Demonstrate quick wins in high-profile policy areas
    Labs don’t always last. Australia’s DesignGov was shut down after just 18 months. Why? Because most labs are set up as pilot projects and have to demonstrate their worth before they can find more secure funding. Demonstrating quick wins is essential — even better if they can be achieved in areas that are politically popular. When the UK Cabinet Office set up the Behavioural Insights Team in 2010, it made the smart decision to test innovations through short, randomized control trials. This gave them big wins in areas such as tax compliance and jobseeker assistance.
  2. Develop a careful engagement strategy
    Labs located in central departments, like PCO, risk becoming isolated. Departments can sometimes be resistant to implementing lab innovations, while political sensitivities or even legal restrictions can limit the extent to which labs can engage with those outside of government. The Hub must build relationships with willing departmental officials. This often involves seeking out what Ontario’s MaRS Solutions Lab refers to as the “5% of the people in [the] system already committed to change.” And while labs may face some restrictions on who they can bring into the innovation process, they should at the very least go out in the field and understand the service user experience (e.g. through ethnography, interviews, and focus groups).
  3. Find the right mix of people
    All too often governments make the mistake of treating innovation labs as physical spaces. Far too much focus is placed on creating “well-designed meeting rooms” — as one lab director told us — rather than recognizing labs for what they are: a specific mix of people using relevant methods and processes to facilitate innovation. Labs need a flexible staffing model. At their core, they need a small (more permanent) team that is skilled in facilitation, design methods, and testing (e.g. setting up randomized control trials). They also need to be able to bring in subject matter experts on a short-term basis. This will be particularly important for PCO’s Central Innovation Hub, which will likely have to tackle a range of policy areas. Without this flexible approach to staffing, labs often lack the right mix of expertise needed to be useful to departments.

You can find our International Delivery report examining the growth of innovation labs here.

Jennifer Gold

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