Intragovernmental Collaborations: Pipedreams or the Future of the Public Sector?

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

A new tool for collaboration

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

Five ways policy labs facilitate successful intragovermental collaboration

To examine how labs do this, we conducted a multiple-case analysis of policy labs in the European Union and United States.

1. Reducing potential future conflict through experiential on-boarding processes. Policy labs conduct extensive screening and induction activities to provide policymakers with both knowledge of and faith in the policy lab’s approach to policymaking. …

2. Utilization of spatial cues to flatten hierarchical and departmental differences. Policy labs strategically use non-traditional spatial elements such as moveable whiteboards, tactile and colorful prototyping materials, and sitting cubes, along with the absence of expected elements such as conference tables and chairs, to indicate that unconventional norms—non-hierarchical and relational norms—govern lab spaces….

3. Reframing policy issues to focus on affected citizens. Policy labs highlight individual citizens’ stories to help reconstruct policymakers’ perceptions toward a more common and human-centered understanding of a policy issue…

4. Politically neutral, process-focused facilitation. Lab practitioners employ design methods that can help bring together divided policymakers and break scripted behavior patterns. Many policy labs use variations of design thinking and foresight methods, with a focus on iterative prototyping and testing, stressing the need for skilled but politically neutral facilitation to work through points of conflict and reach consensus on solutions. …

5. Mitigating risk through policy lab branding….(More)”.