At the latest GovLab Ideas Lunch, Christian Bason, Director and Ph.D. Fellow at Denmark’s MindLab and member of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance, shared lessons learned from his work redesigning governance in Denmark.
Far from the ivory tower, Bason and MindLab work with real-world institutions to improve processes and learn what really works in practice. For instance, MindLab is currently working on the largest reform of the public school system in Danish history. The project’s focus ranges from hours of school attended by students to the core curriculum the teachers will follow and their tools for evaluation.
This real-world experience allows Bason to speak from a knowledgeable perspective on the opportunity of governance redesign, like improving learning outcomes for students; the challenges, like institutional cynicism and comfort with the status quo; and the process needed to enable change, which involves moving past surface-level processes and changing the fundamentals of an institution – like creating a culture where public managers focus on discovering courses of action rather than just deciding between them.
Bason’s talk focused mainly on the three key areas where public sector innovation must find success if new reforms are to truly take hold: governance, redesign and leadership.
Bason argued that the goals and character of overarching governance models must be reimagined to truly enable public sector change. He noted that although we often hear talk about the many paradigm shifts occurring in government, we still are not seeing meaningful divergence from the status quo or sufficient real experimentation on the ground.
Bason’s experience working with MindLab helped him identify and articulate four key paradigm shifts that can help to enable the creation of new governance models, and to help push anecdotal success stories into more widespread and systematic governance reforms:
- Moving from the traditional delivery of expected services to the activation of citizens’ resources;
- Moving from a transactional understanding of public welfare resulting from the existing service-delivery infrastructure to a relational understanding built around leveraging relationships between people;
- Moving from a focus on the professional quality of governance services to a focus on the experienced quality in the real world; and
- Moving from systems of public welfare that aspire to provide equal rights to ones that aspire to provide equal outcomes.
Each of these shifts involves changing fundamental goals of governance activities. Rather than focusing on delivering expected, professional services through a process that appears equitable in theory, a new governance model should focus on providing the best possible lived outcomes to citizens, by whatever means.
Although focusing on outcomes seems like a simple enough proposition and organizing principle, Bason highlighted the importance of recognizing the complexity of developing, sustaining or reforming a governance model. He argued that, “The next public governance model cannot just be prescribed, it must be discovered.” Such an undertaking involves real challenges because not only do we not know the best governance practices in many cases, we often do not even know good practices. This complexity obfuscates any real sense of causality and renders meaningful reforms difficult to achieve.
To help make a new governance model become a reality, Bason described the process for redesigning public sector processes.
Although many seem to believe that a great, innovative new idea can change our entrenched systems of governance overnight, Bason discussed the need for developing solutions with a strong understanding of and engagement with governance systems as they currently exist.
The first step in the redesign process is cultivating professional empathy. Without an understanding of how citizens experience public systems in a real-world context, it is impossible to meaningfully develop solutions that get us closer to desired outcomes.
Second, creating divergence involves active engagement with the public organization to be reformed. Bason argued that, “To redesign a system, you need to engage that system.” With this in mind, MindLab focuses on developing things like ethnographies of their institutional partners to help them learn more about the people and processes that exist in the system to be reformed. Bason was sure to highlight the fact that such efforts to understand existing processes are not undertaken to the end of pointing fingers at failed practices, rather “it’s about getting the information to drive a better future.” Moreover, endeavoring to reimagine a system without engaging its current iteration is not only unlikely to succeed, it also removes the most expert, experienced people in a given domain from the process of improving it. The necessity of understanding the system as it currently exists is also the reason MindLab prioritizes a public management background in its own employees.
Finally, experiments that rehearse the future can help uncover what new governance approaches could work in practice, while giving the people on the ground – both public employees and citizens – a greater understanding of how these new approaches might work on a larger scale.
Often the missing link between governance and redesign, Bason highlighted the importance of leadership to new innovation efforts.
Although there is no shortage of public management leaders across governing institutions, Bason argued that they are often tasked with and expert at deciding between different courses of action rather than discovering new ones. In a new and more innovative system of leadership, public managers would move from asking “Which decision should I make?” to “What should I make a decision about?”
To enable this shift, public managers should work to:
- Question basic assumptions and not overly rely on the status quo;
- Focus on outcomes rather than traditional processes;
- Steward the unknown and embrace some level of uncertainty in the name of discovering what really works; and
- Make the future concrete by undertaking experiments that uncover the potential outcomes that will be experienced in practice.
Bason was not naïve about the challenges that exist in pushing these three areas of innovation forward to help reform the public sector, but the impact of his work at MindLab shows that real change can arise from reform efforts built around the best, most realistic strategies.