How do we create mandate for change?


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 III in the blog series.

Sarah’s prompt: says that mandate is the authority to carry out a policy or course of action. We often hear the word after an election, when a decisive win gives the elected official the ‘mandate’ to push through their proposed reforms. This mandate supposedly comes from the people. From both the ‘average’ Joe on the street and the ‘elite’ in their high-rise. The challenge is that once the policy is passed, or the service is re-designed, who holds the real mandate for change? Ultimately for most policies to be successful, they have to be owned by the implementers: by the people charged with carrying out that policy, and with the end users who now have to act differently. Take, welfare reforms. It’s the street-level bureaucrats and the welfare recipients that ultimately have to embody the mandate for change over time.

So, why not start with them? And create a bottom-up mandate for continuous change? How can we get the folks on-the-ground to demand that their politicians – and the bureaucrats that service them – create the space for local experimentation? In other words, how can citizens agree to some of the risk that innovation entails and give politicians the assurance they need to back off from the regulatory red tape?

We haven’t always seen our work in this kind of movement-building light. Seven years ago, when we worked with the service design agency Participle, we saw our work as designing one new public service. But we neither built a bottom-up constituency for the service, nor had top-down authority to spread the service. Five years ago, when we worked with The Australian Centre for Social Innovation, we managed to create a bottom-up constituency: families who were powerful advocates for the new service we co-created. And yet the focus was still on building a constituency base for one new service or network.

So, over the past 18 months, we’ve started (and just barely scratched the surface) with building movements of families and service providers who aren’t just asking for one new service, but for the space and resources to continually develop new services that meet their needs and aspirations. These are families like Patrice and her daughter Jordana, who interfaces with the community living system. As Jordana’s needs shift with age, different solutions are required. The answer definitely isn’t a single new service or policy. But the answer just might be in their ongoing engagement in making, testing, and improving the services and systems with which they come into contact.

Jesper’s response:

In our work within the Danish public administration, one of the longest ongoing conversations has been about the responsibility of the policy-maker and the success indicators of the work carried out. We attempted to challenge the previous consensus that the job was finished once the policy was formulated, the law was passed or a decision had been made. Instead, we have tried to facilitate a conversation about outcomes; and not least the ways in which policy-makers are bound to them. In this light, much of what we do is aimed to at creating ‘professional empathy’ and bind civil servants with public problems and people’s experience in a more direct relationship.

The good news is that this conversation has been lifted up the ranks. Ministers and permanent secretaries are now publicly stating that “a reform is not a reform before there is an actual change in behaviours and experience in practice”. This emphasis changes the mandate for change significantly. It corresponds well with Sarah’s description above (and also with Michael Lipsky’s description of street-level bureaucrats as ‘everyday policy-makers’). This begs the question of how we are involving citizens’ experiences and the concrete practice of the frontline in the development and implementation of public policy?

So despite being an internal innovation lab deeply embedded in the central administration, the theory of change is the same: we need to reframe the development and implementation of policy as an explorative innovation task where the goal lies beyond developing a single new service. We need to public service systems where the backbone is the open and ongoing engagement of the public and the public sector ecosystem in making, testing, and improving the services and systems.

This is a cultural shift in the government role. It reframes public interventions as an actual change-making effort (inventing to intervene) rather than merely an analytical exercise. It is dependent on developing a qualitative intelligence base and feedback mechanism where citizens, practitioners and professionals in collaboration with (the official) policy-makers form new partnerships and create dynamic relationships between national initiative and local experimentation. In this way, a real dedication to outcomes and the continuous creation of the mandate for change require reversing the policy cycle and becoming comfortable with and capable of acting as a platform for bottom-up development.

To some extent, this characterizes MindLab’s current collaboration with the Danish Ministry of Employment. We are currently trying to assist an experimental effort to create joint ownership of reforms across central and local government. We are trying to redefine the implementation challenge of public policy from a ‘plan and deliver’ mentality to an outcomes-focused practice of realizing the political objectives through involvement, collaboration and co-design.

However, there is still a long way to go if we wish to work systematically with creating a bottom-up mandate for change. What is needed is for the lab itself to become distributed. While maintaining a positioning in the central administration as strategically focused user-oriented innovation unit, we increasingly become deeply involved in experimentation in local settings. We need to be creating and empowering local experimental platforms that over time are allowed to be the ongoing feedback mechanisms for policy development. And that will move innovation efforts beyond the project and reposition the central innovation lab as a more distributed entity.

Published by Jesper Christiansen

Jesper is a public innovation thinker and practitioner. His work is focused on how to deal most effectively with public problems in order to most effectively pursue the common good – in particular through better ecosystems for research and development. He is an experienced presenter and facilitator and has worked with and advised several governments, public agencies and international institutions around the world. From 2009-2016, Jesper worked at Danish cross-public innovation unit MindLab. He founded and directed the research program that captured, analysed and communicated the learning across MindLab’s project portfolio. He also managed MindLab’s international collaboration. Before this he functioned as a program and project manager with the responsibility for MindLab’s work with the Danish Ministry of Employment – with particular focus on employment policy for marginalized and vulnerable citizens. This was also the focus in his shorter term secondment to design agency ThinkPlace in Canberra in 2012. During the period at MindLab, Jesper also completed a Ph.D. degree in Anthropology with a thesis focusing on embedding human-centred innovation practices in public sector organizations. He also holds a Master’s degree in Anthropology from Aarhus University and an additional degree in journalism from the Danish School of Journalism.

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