If asked to identify the hotbed of social innovation right now, many people would likely point to the new philanthropy of Silicon Valley or the social entrepreneurship efforts supported by Ashoka, Echoing Green, and Skoll. Very few people, if any, would say the state capital or Capitol Hill. While local and national governments may have promulgated some of the greatest advances in human history from public education to putting a man on the moon, public bureaucracies are more commonly known to stifle innovation.
Yet, around the world, there are local, regional, and national government innovators who are challenging this paradigm. They are pioneering a new form of experimental government—bringing new knowledge and practices to the craft of governing and policy making; drawing on human-centered design, user engagement, open innovation, and cross-sector collaboration; and using data, evidence, and insights in new ways.
Earlier this year, Nesta, the UK's innovation foundation (which Philip helps run), teamed up with Bloomberg Philanthropies to publish i-teams, the first global review of public innovation teams set up by national and city governments. The study profiled 20 of the most established i-teams from around the world, including:
- French Experimental Fund for Youth, which has supported more than 554 experimental projects (such as one that reduces school drop-out rates) that have benefited over 480,000 young people
- Nesta's Innovation Lab, which has run 70 open innovation challenges and programs supporting over 750 innovators working in fields as diverse as energy efficiency, healthcare, and digital education
- New Orleans' Innovation and Delivery team, which achieved a 19% reduction in the number of murders in the city in 2013 compared to the previous year
How are i-teams achieving these results? The most effective ones are explicit about the goal they seek—be it creating a solution to a specific policy challenge, engaging citizenry in behaviors that help the commonweal, or transforming the way government behaves. Importantly, these teams are also able to deploy the right skills, capabilities, and methods for the job.
In addition, i-teams have a strong bias toward action. They apply academic research in behavioral economics and psychology to public policy and services, focusing on rapid experimentation and iteration. The approach stands in stark contrast to the normal routines of government.
Take for example, The UK's Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), often called the Nudge Unit. It sets clear goals, engages the right expertise to prototype means to the end, and tests innovations rapidly in the field, to learn what's not working and rapidly scales what is.
One of BIT's most famous projects changed taxpayer behavior. BIT's team of economists, behavioural psychologists, and seasoned government staffers came up with minor changes to tax letters, sent out by the UK Government, that subtlety introduced positive peer pressure. By simply altering the letters to say that most people in their local area had already paid their taxes, BIT was able to boost repayment rates by around 5%. This trial was part of a range of interventions, which have helped forward over £200 million in additional tax revenue to HM Revenue & Customs, the UK's tax authority.
The Danish government's internal i-team, MindLab (which Christian ran for 8 years) has likewise influenced citizen behavior.
Founded in 2002, MindLab's team has grown from five full-time staff focused initially on curating one-off collaborative workshops for public servants, to 20 experienced anthropologists, designers, and public policy experts, focused on achieving better public outcomes. Like the UK's Nudge Unit, MindLab clarifies a goal through field research, gathers the right cross-section of experts and practitioners to generate ideas, prototypes the most promising among them, and rapidly applies the prototype in the field.
In the case of the Danish Business Authority (DBA), MindLab's team explored the challenges business startups faced in registering online by conducting ethnographic field research across a sample of businesses. The team even created a film, which captured the hassle and confusion of the current registration process (which had a 25% error rate), then depicted an improved experience. Next, MindLab engaged multiple government agencies—from the DBA to Statistics Denmark to the Tax Office—in rethinking the service; prototyped and tested a radically redesigned website focused on user needs, and commissioned a cost-benefit analysis to make a compelling case for developing and implementing the new site. The analysis projected a 21:1 return on investment over three years. This service, titled "branchekode" is online and used daily by thousands of Danish businesses.
Subtle peer pressure to increase tax compliance and redesigning the user experience for registering a new business may not sound sexy, but the breadth of change and subsequent gains for society put such innovation on the bleeding edge of social impact. So the next time you're looking for social innovation, don't forget to look to government.
Christian Bason (@christianbason) was for eight years head of MindLab, a cross-governmental innovation unit in Denmark that involves citizens and businesses in developing new solutions for the public sector. Since November 2014 he is Chief Executive of the Danish Design Centre.
This blog is part of a November-December 2014 series on innovation labs, a joint project between Bridgespan and The Rockefeller Foundation. Please join us during the coming four weeks as we publish a broad range of insights from innovation lab practitioners, funders, and participants.