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Innovation Culture in the Public Sector: A learning Experience

The increase in social complexity and the reduction of public budgets requires of a new creative approach to how the public sector is changing and more precisely to how the solution to social problems is being designed, managed and sustained over time. Moreover, the vertiginous change in the expectations and demands of the citizenship, and the civil claim for transparency, user centered approaches, and agility in the delivery of public services through the new use of digital technologies, are leading to a new era of public and social value creation.

Governments worldwide struggle to remove policy barriers and enact much-needed reforms in the organizational structure and delivery of public services. The Public Sector needs and tries to innovate, adopting public administrations as partners in integrated and participatory governance approaches for the provision of public services, increasing effectiveness and efficiency to assure social cohesion, innovative public management and leadership approaches.

The relationship between public services and citizens has massively changed throughout the last decades. Public services are now being co-created and co-designed, working together with different stakeholders to understand the specific social needs and the strategic drivers for change inside public programs administrations. As a result, in the last decades new forms of internal units have emerged in public sector organizations with the explicit purpose of supporting innovative efforts, evolving into permanent governance networks – designed to foster cross-governmental innovation. At heart, innovation labs are designed to foster new forms of collaboration.

In this context, Innovation laboratories emerge as attempts to create an organizational response to the range of barriers to innovation faced by public sector institutions. Innovation laboratories are based on the idea that the competences and mentalities necessary for systematic innovation are not the same as those required for stable, daily operations and the provision of services at the front line. Innovation labs seek to provide approaches, skills, models and tools in which human-centered design and public innovation methods become engines to change the functionality of governments and public administrations.

Mindlab is one of the first innovation laboratories in the public sector in the world. We will learn more about it below.

Mindlab: From a creative platform to an enabler of a new public sector culture

“Innovation labs must transform from being facilitators of process and service design to enablers of the cultural change in the public sector, for innovation to disseminate as a culture of practice and leadership”. Thomas Prehn, 2015

In 2001, the idea of creating an internal “incubator” to promote creativity and innovation arose within the Danish Ministry of Economic Affairs. Partially motivated by the questioning of a group of outstanding academics who asked about the place of innovation in the public sector and about the influence of the laboratory of the Swedish company Skandia Future Center. This idea materialized formally with the creation in 2002 of Mindlab.

'Where does innovation live in your Ministry'? As the Ministry in charge of fostering innovation in the private sector, it was difficult to accept the challenge that should also take its own medicine, and show the way forward by incorporating innovation as a core organizational practice.

Currently, Mindlab is an intergovernmental innovation unit that involves the public sector in the creation of new solutions to challenges faced by society. It is also a physical space, a neutral zone for innovation, creativity and collaboration.

They are a part of three ministries and one municipality: Ministry of Industry, Business and Financial Affairs, the Ministry of Employment, the Ministry of Education and Odense Municipality and we form a collaboration with the Ministry for Economic Affairs and the Interior. The group of owners covers broad policy areas that affect the daily lives of virtually all Danish people. Entrepreneurship, digital self-service, education and employment are some of the areas they address.

A political laboratory is not a source of desires, where you can find solutions to all public problems. A common vision focused on how to strengthen government or public services is the essential basis on which a functional, creative and healthy political laboratory should be built.

The creation of the work areas of a political laboratory can take many directions: from a behavior-based approach to a user-centered approach. The important thing is to choose a focus to begin with.

We can describe three significant phases in the evolution of Mindlab The first phase, in which the focus was on Ideation; The second one, with the primacy of the user-oriented approach and finally, the third one, in 2015, in which Mindlab experimented a strategic shift characterized by the promotion of a new culture of leadership within the public sector. Mindlab, at this stage, is about innovation but even more is about a new way of working in the organization. This cultural push is materialized into:

  • Projects. Projects are used as platform for experimenting with ways of problem framing and solution finding—to prove ‘impossible’ wrong. This line represents the 70% of the work and Mindlab. There are two important things to remark: the first one is that Mindlab does not have projects. These are owned by the Ministries and; the second one is that all the projects face strategic political problems.
  • Lab rats. A pioneer-network of volunteer, brave officials revolutionizing the way ministries evolve—one small step at the time through everyday experiments

  • Projectx. Organizational interventions that change culture—by designing and pushing behaviors (habits of the organizations), vocabulary (How we speak about things), and artefacts (the physical representation of the culture) that stick.

The Journey of Denmark’s Mindlab: SIx Generations of MindLabs

Throughout these 15 years of Mindlab's trajectory for public innovation, we have been able to meet 6 important "generations" that characterize the evolution of Mindlab in its conception of public governance and the creation of public value. These generations are:

Mindlab as a Creative Platform (2002-2006)

This stage was characterized by placing the focus on the interior physical space seemingly innovative and radically different from MindLab. This space had the practical purpose of being a place capable of bringing together people from all sectors and organizations in workshops. Its main objective was to move from the "meeting culture" to the participation of people in "collaborative problem-solving activities”.

This phase also gave rise to an ambitious research agenda at MindLab, and investments were made so that the PhD projects were part of MindLab's value creation. Beyond this, the work of MindLab was characterized at this stage by a significant emphasis on the design of the service as a method to create new concepts of solution and organizational development.

Mindlab as User Oriented Innovation Unit (2007-2009)

In this second stage, Mindlab focused on a long-term approach to user orientation, creating new solutions through qualitative knowledge of people’s concrete experiences and their interaction with public services. In 2007, Mindlab is constituted as an intergovernmental unit between the Ministries of Taxation and Economy and Commercial Affairs.

Mindlab as a Catalyst of an International Movement (2010-11)

At this stage, an increased demand emerged from international governments, public organizations, research institutions and other actors to incorporate innovation into their public activities. In response, MindLab invested heavily in raising awareness and creating an extended international community of innovation practices. At the same time, Mindlab was facing a stage of internal reflection to redefine its mission that would allow it to overcome "the challenge to the system" towards "co-worker of the system".

This connected productively with an emerging agenda outside the green doors of MindLab where "co-creation" and "co-production", offered innovative perspectives on how to develop new solutions with people and not for them.

Mindlab as Strategic Change Partner (2012-13)

At this phase, the objective is to become a better strategic change partner for the ministries. In order to achieve this goal, a new work program outline was built around important challenges, agendas and policy areas in the ministries. MindLab also acts proactively: to connect the content of the new governance platforms with the work, methods and research agendas that MindLab, with a human-centered approach, could approach in an innovative way.

The internationally-oriented work becomes more strategic in this period. For example, MindLab partners up with international institutions like the UNDP to develop their innovation capacity. At this time, MindLab also advised the President of European Commission José Manuel Barroso on innovation strategy.

Mindlab as Developer of Capacity (2014-15)

At this stage, the function of MindLabs focused increasingly on working systematically with the creation of capacity for change in the ministries to guarantee better results of the political initiatives. In particular, MindLab plays a key role in creating a new mindset for the formulation of policies of the Ministry of Employment through a combination of activities, research and leadership training. These efforts were also supported by an explicit research agenda that focuses on linking the results of more innovative policies and practices.

In 2014, a temporary partnership with the Ministry of the Interior was established, fearing to explore new governance models for public service systems based on trust. At an international level, MindLab was actively involved in the creation of innovation laboratories around the world.

Mindlab as Enabler of a New Public Sector Culture (2016- from now)

At this point, the main focus is how innovation disseminates, not as a process or facilitation, but as a culture of practice and leadership in the public sector, so that the public sector overcomes the obstacles of modern society and creates a qualitative value for citizens and businesses.

For Mindlab, the challenge is to develop organizational and structural changes through a change in vocabulary, narrative and behavior.

"The great challenge is to make innovation a strategic leadership priority", MINDLAB