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Introducing service design and social innovation methodologies in the public sector

Francesca Rizzo and Alessandro Deserti

Introducing service design and social innovation methodologies in the public sector

For SIC partner, UNIBO, choosing an appropriate set of participants to involve in SIC’s participatory policy workshop - a methodology being piloted by SIC which aims to help policymakers explore new ways of approaching policy issues together using social innovation methods or approaches - was straightforward. Established by the Municipality of Turin, the Torino Social Innovation initiative sets out to integrate social innovation into the city’s innovation framework, and therefore presented an ideal platform to experiment with how social innovation and design approaches could support the emergence of new thinking in the way public services are conceived and delivered.

As part of SIC’s efforts to advocate for a more experimental, social innovation culture in the public sector, UNIBO has engaged in ongoing dialogue with the Municipality of Turin: meeting first in Fall 2016 to co-define a challenge where SIC’s methodologies could be tested. One particular challenge faced by the municipality presented a particularly ripe opportunity to test our participatory policy approaches: namely the need to formulate a more integrated response to the labour and housing problems of marginalised people living in Turin. Policy and service responses so far have been quite fragmented and misaligned with users’ needs. Furthermore, they do not factor in systemic problems, which for example would acknowledge that the issues of unemployment and poor housing are often related. Fragmented responses from different government agencies lead to inefficient and ineffective policy formulation and service design. Meanwhile including users, citizens, and external stakeholders in the co-design and co-production of such public sector solutions would be vastly beneficial to the process of designing better responses.

For this reason, UNIBO’s team introduced SIC methodologies and tools to conduct a series of service and policy design workshops involving different sectors of the Municipality, coming out with a more integrated and user-centred solution. In order to evaluate the results of the experimentation, we chose to conduct a participatory activity structured as a small but select focus group/roundtable, where participants, including experts coming from different sectors of the municipality, could freely discuss and reflect. The focus group was moderated by the UNIBO team, with the aim of putting participants at ease, allowing them to express their opinions freely and generate a large quantity of ideas and opinions. The participants included: Fabrizio Barbiero and Michele Lamanna, from Torino Social Innovation, two employees from Torino’s Social Care Sector, two from the Labour Policies Sector, one from the Public Housing Sector and one from the Organisational Innovation Office (HR Sector).

What we learned:

A number of issues emerged over the course of the discussion, which were seen to have wider relevance to public sector contexts across Europe. The following are the key policy ideas, proposals and challenges participants discussed regarding the introduction of service design and social innovation methodologies in the public sector:

1. Public employees are in need of new skills through hands-on approaches.

Many EU public administrations run teaching activities (internal or external courses) meant to re-skill their workforces. For many reasons, these activities are ineffective (old formats, dull topics, approaches that are far from having a practical application or the core interest of the attendees, etc.). According to those who took part in the co-design workshops, and affirmed also by the opinion of the head of the HR department of the Municipality, a hands-on approach (learning-by-doing in practical experimentation) emerges as a much better way of creating knowledge and skills in the context of capacity building for public administrations.

2. Public policy silos need to challenged and substituted with systemic thinking and user-centred approaches.

In most established policymaking frameworks, policies are primarily designed to provide answers to specific problems. Increasingly, the field of public sector innovation is asking more of the way policy and services are formulated: dominant public sector responses have a tendency to focus on addressing the symptoms rather than the root causes of social challenges. There is value in having public sector agencies adopt a more systemic, joined-up approach to specific policy areas  (e.g. labour, education, housing etc.), and seeking to understand users’ needs and realities. It is in fact rare to find policy and service solutions so visionary that they understand that problems (and responses) may be integrated and interdependent, which is exactly what is starting to emerge in Turin. If we look at the problem from the perspective of citizens, it is likely that problems of housing, labour market and social integration may systemically and disproportionately affect some groups or individual. Responses are currently diverse and non-integrated, being provided through separate silos of disconnected organisational units or by a scattered system of actors operating at different levels. Also, while the policymaking process may be driven by good intentions, the actual implementation of policies may be ineffective due to cultural and knowledge gaps, a lack of capacity and a lack of readiness.

In particular, the workshop discussion highlighted that policies and policymaking must be re-thought to assume a user-centred perspective: this means taking into account not only which actors, sectors and measures can improve outcomes for citizens, but also how better outcomes can be achieved through partnerships and collaborations with citizens. This calls for a much stronger integration of different actors around co-creation and co-production processes and tools beyond the skillset currently possessed by the average public sector employee.

3. Synergies can be found in connecting social and public sector innovation.

Public sector experimentation, such as this ongoing example in the Turin municipality, demonstrate the complex nature of challenges facing the public sector and the need for public administrations to open up to unprecedented forms of collaboration with citizens and external actors and stakeholders. This experimentation is also proving to be a promising opportunity to connect social and public sector innovation: two fields that until now have been largely analysed as separate phenomena.

In spite of this, the value of bringing these two fields of innovation more closely together is emerging. Co-creation with citizens and others, for example, is an emerging paradigm of public sector innovation which sits squarely in the field of social innovation and builds on its values.

The “To-Home” service, resulting from the application of SIC’s methodologies, represents a promising step in this direction: the service will respond to the needs of people at risk of losing their house due to insufficient income providing a comprehensive solution, including work integration, social care and housing services, and engaging the broad constellation of external actors operating in the ecosystem.

The results of the co-creation and policy workshops, together with the above-outlined reflections, were presented in a large event organised by the Municipality of Turin, involving representatives from the 12 Italian Metropolitan Cities.

Moreover, the experimentation will be presented to 20 managers of the Municipality and to external stakeholders, to mainstream and diffuse the methodology.