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.

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