Who should hold the risk in public and social innovation?

As a product on an immersive residency at InWithForward, Jesper and Sarah explored the next practice of innovation labs – focusing on factors of risk, accountability, power, and politics. This is Part II in the blog series.

Jesper’s prompt:

As an innovation lab, there is high tendency to be considered as a consultant: someone that comes in to facilitate a certain part of a process, deliver a piece of research or develop a ‘proof of concept’. At MindLab, we have always emphasized the different nature of being an internal innovation unit. We need to be able to move beyond the project and into real partnership – away from ‘one-off’ detached delivery to continuous, collaborative innovation efforts.

This is cultural change in how the public sector traditionally involves different sets of methods and processes to creatively ‘disturb’ its practice. As an internal innovation unit, we are formally public servants. This is something that we surprisingly have to remind our colleagues and ourselves of quite frequently. Perhaps it is because the staff of MindLab don’t fit the formal job description of public servants? Or perhaps it has more to do with the informal identification mechanisms of what it means to be serving the public? Both of which are relevant when we explore the role of a lab in the larger public or social innovation effort as well as in what way a lab is held accountable for the outcomes that are created.

We often talk about our work in terms of an evolution from ‘projects’ to ‘partnerships’. The notion of partnership is to highlight that we wish to build continuously on a diverse set of activities that will help our owners to succeed in creating good outcomes. We also wish to build long-lasting relationships with our partner organizations where a real collaborative exchange can begin emerge – which we consider one of the most important foundations of building capacity from within.

However, this partnership is an unequal one as well. As a lab, we are also saying that we are per definition not the ones that have the ultimate responsibility for the successful creation of outcomes. It is important that the responsibility remain with our colleagues that are directly tasked with developing policies or ensure successful implementation of these.

This is an important distinction for us. Not only because it is a way of managing expectations in light of our limited resource capacity. But also, more importantly, it is also a way of emphasizing that an innovation lab is not about creating a parallel development practice termed ‘innovation’ within public organizations. Actually, the real value-creation is about embedding innovation methodologies and practices within the existing operations.

So our ministerial and municipal owners are not just ‘owners’ of MindLab. They are ‘innovation leaders’ or ‘innovation partners’. They are tasked with the incredibly complex challenge of reforming public service systems. Our task is to help build the capacity for them to succeed in this endeavor. This is the partnership that we are engaged in.

In this sense, you could say that it does not live up definitions of partnership where you share the risk equally. But you could also say that this kind of partnership is reflecting a vision of contributing to the continuous creation of public outcomes. As a lab, we should supplement or reinvent the existing bureaucratic structures to increase the legitimacy and effectiveness of public interventions. Our role isn’t necessarily to redistribute power relationships or task responsibilities.

Maybe this is also a question of the difference between ‘public sector’ and ‘social’ innovation? Between changing the existing system or creating a new one?


Sarah’s Response

Words like coordination, collaboration and partnership abound with ambiguity. We all agree that change cannot happen alone. That we require meaningful relationships with multiple stakeholders in order to move from innovative ideas to actual realities. And yet, believing in the value of relationships is not the same as structuring those relationships so they yield transformative results. (I wrote a far too lengthy PhD on the topic, which you can read here at your own risk).

Where coordination is about stakeholders aligning their activities (a homeless shelter offering legal services one day a week), collaboration is about stakeholders aligning their outcomes and activities (the homeless & legal services both trying to get members housed). We see partnership as a step beyond. It’s about stakeholders sharing resources, outcomes, and activities. It’s about everyone putting some real skin in the game.

Our past projects, whilst always framed as partnerships, had no collective accountability mechanisms. When the funding ran dry, the design team faded away, and no one had the same ownership over seeing the solution come to fruition. Or, in the best case scenario, the design team felt real attachment to seeing the solution live, but were relegated to the margins of systems. Solutions went forward as separate social enterprises, rather than as instruments for wider systems change.

When we started InWithForward, we were determined to try and build that collective responsibility. We would not be consultants with briefs set from our funders. We would not come in for short amounts of time and deliver recommendations or proofs of concepts. We would put some of our own resource on the table to equalize the power relations, and demonstrate our commitment to longer-term change. We would be accountable, with our partners, for measurable change amongst end users and practitioners.

Over the past two years, we lucked out and found four extraordinary organizations (with Chief Executives, senior leadership, and boards) who want change as badly as we do. These are particularly reflective organizations (Burnaby Association for Community InclusionposAbilitiesSimon Fraser Society for Community Living and West Neighbourhood House) who can acknowledge their strengths, but not be content with them. They get that social organizations should be vehicles for social change, rather than self-perpetuating entities. We found them by sticking our necks out, and offering up our time and critique pro-bono. We knew that if organizations welcomed us without strings attached, and then offered to act on the ethnographic data we collected, we were on to a different kind of partnership.

In the last 18 months, the partnership with BACI, posAbilities, and SFSCL has taken us down some highways, back-lane ways, and plenty of dead-ends. We’ve had no map – and instead, have made lots and lots of course corrections along the way to get us closer to an unfinished destination: a future where Research & Development is a permanent function and where organizations are serving much more as a platform for developing solutions, rather than delivering services.

It turns out that being a partner engenders totally different feelings than being a project manager or innovation expert. When you know that you are in it for the long-term, you make different decisions in the short-term. When you know that everyone is sharing in the financial risk, you open yourself up to a different level of vulnerability. When you see your partners as courageous people – not just effective professionals – you put a different level of investment and grit into the mix. A level of investment and grit that we hope are important preconditions for innovation to last. No more one-hit wonders.


Inside or outside?

By Jesper Christiansen and Sarah Schulman
As a product on an immersive residency at InWithForward, Jesper and Sarah explored the next practice of innovation labs – focusing on factors of risk, accountability, power, and politics. This is Part I in the blog series.
Top-down? Bottom-up? Inside? Outside? New? Established? Every map of social innovation differentiates labs accordingly. InWithForward never fits neatly on the map. We’re outside government, but inside service delivery organizations. We start bottom-up, with the intention of reshaping the top. We’re a new organization, but building on more than a decade of practice in five countries. At first glance, MindLab appears to be the total opposite: an established and embedded lab within Denmark’s public sector, influencing top-down strategy, and regaling international imaginations.

We’ve spent the last three weeks learning from one another, and recognizing that we are moving towards a similar theory of change. That getting to the systems change we both desire requires much more than a project-based approach. That the job to be done is building Research & Development capacity, and mobilizing movements – of civil servants, of practitioners, of families, of individuals. Yes, we start at different places – reflecting some distinct values around politics & power – but ultimately we’re each trying to tear down the boundary line between policy and practice, and recast implementation as innovation.

Why would MindLab seek inspiration from InWithForward?

As an internal public sector lab, funded entirely by three ministries and a municipality, the premise of most of MindLab’s activities is to work from within public administration. This form of organization means that a significant part of the legitimacy of MindLab comes from its ability to enable better stewardship of political intentions and embed itself within existing structures and knowledge practices in order to improve them over time. While maintaining the emphasis on the qualitative experience of people, the main purpose of MindLab is therefore to make government better and more legitimate.

But being a centralized lab has its limits. While the task of reforming public services has become more urgent, frequent and complex, the ever-present policy challenge is to generate the right kind of intelligence and energy for changing public service systems.

When MindLab In 2014 included Odense municipality as part of its funding partners, it was with the intent of creating a site of local experimentation to enable outcomes-focused and practice-oriented feedback mechanisms. However, we are far from illustrating the any substantial alternative to top-down instruction and regulation. So while we as a centralized lab is a way of actively contribute to a new capacity in government to make the state more connected, legitimate and effective, we have a lot to learn about how to create better outcomes through bottom-up development processes.

InWithForward is pioneering new approaches within this domain. They are working directly with people and service providers to change outcomes and behavior through experimental co-design, social movements and peer-to-peer influences. And they are ambitiously attempting to design service systems that correspond with actualities of people in their communities and let this define the very intent of the new public service system. Both of which seems to be a significant part of what it could mean to develop public policies in the future.

Why would InWithForward seek inspiration from MindLab?

Aaron just graduated from high school, and is living in the gap between the special education system and the adult community living system. He’s been offered the suite of disability policy instruments: an individualized budget, an employment program, a day program. And yet none of these instruments have managed to draw out Aaron’s real potential – as a comedian or storyteller.

We’ve spent the last nine-months working closely with young adults like Aaron, and co-designing a range of new practice to build Aaron, his family, and staff’s capacities. We want to spread this new practice – without it getting perverted by the system’s existing contracting and measurement process. At the same time, we want to reshape how policymakers see the nature of the problem to be solved and revise the very intent of the solutions they design.

The question is, how? How do we really get to the big P policy change? Without such policy spawning plenty of low-fidelity practice knock-offs? When do we invest in bringing policymakers aboard? And when do we invest in the bottom-up movement of individuals and families that will demand change? Or do we do both at the same time?

One answer seems to be re-defining the role of the middle layer in all of this: the service deliverers. We initially partnered with service deliverers because we had a hunch that they could be a key lever for both bottom-up and top-down change. But, how do we reposition them from being contractors or implementers to being suppliers of policy intelligence, holders of risk, and movement builders?

MindLab has a track record of supplying policy intelligence, holding the risk for experimentation, and building internal movements of civil servants – all from a centralized unit. Their job is to find better ways to bring to life political intent. We see our job as finding ways to revise political intent. All by offering a viable alternative.

So who should get to set the agenda for change? Who should own the risk and have the accountability for change? What are the really practical ways to bring people along for the journey?

Collectively, we highlight the need to start thinking beyond the “lab” and taking a more networked approach to change: where we’re working to engage and mobilize the enthused at the bottom, the middle, and the top.