Lessons from Evaluating the Northern Ireland Innovation Lab
The Northern Ireland Public Sector Innovation Lab (iLab) is part of a growing community of Policy Labs in the UK and around the world using innovation methods, such as design and behavioural insights, to develop public services and policies with users. According to Nesta there are over 100 Policy Labs globally and a report commissioned by the EU Policy Lab revealed that there are more than 60 in Europe and around 20 in the UK.
iLab aims to improve public services and policy by creating a safe space to co-create ideas, test prototypes and refine concepts with citizens, civil servants and stakeholders. Established in 2014 by the then Minister for Finance within the Public Sector Reform Division, iLab has led 18 projects in its first two years focused on a wide range of service and policy challenges. The challenges ranged from improving the use of data analytics within the government and reviewing business rates to encouraging people to pay court fines and optimising how patients manage their medication. It is testimony to the Lab’s success that it has been able to embark on such a diverse and ambitious portfolio of projects and gained endorsement from a range of departments.
After two years of activity it was timely for a review of the Lab’s performance and PDR, the International Design and Research Centre, was commissioned to perform an evaluation.
“The rise of Policy Labs using design methods is an innovation in public governance but perhaps due to the experimental nature of projects Labs tend to operate behind closed doors. The Northern Ireland Innovation Lab has commissioned an evaluation of its activities and governance that will enable Labs to share good practices and pitfalls in order to advance and consolidate knowledge.
The evaluation examined both the Lab activities as well as its governance including leadership, operating model, methods and capacity. This was carried out based on 30 interviews with Lab staff, the wider Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) and external stakeholders. As a result, four impact case studies have been developed. For example, although there are multiple factors at work, an investment of £60,000 in the Lab’s Medicines Optimisation project could result in cost savings of over £20 million per annum. Consequently, a series of recommendations have been made to capitalise on the Lab’s expertise, achieve further impact.
“We hope that the evaluation will provide impetus for other Labs to share good practices and lessons to create a community of practice from which we can all benefit.”
In a very tangible way, the Lab is already contributing to two significant NICS agendas – the Programme for Government (PfG) and engaging citizens and stakeholders in quality public consultation.
“One of the problems we have in policy development is direct citizen engagement. Involving citizens in the policy process is standard practice but we do not necessarily achieve quality citizen engagement. Our desired representative user groups find it difficult to participate in the formalised consultation meetings we usually hold. The methods used by the Lab have transformed our collaboration with citizens and stakeholders to genuinely co-create policy and services; not just tick a box.”
The Northern Ireland Public Sector Innovation Lab is uniquely positioned to drive more transparent and inclusive public decision-making. The Lab has considerable added-value both in monetary terms evident from the return on investment but also for transforming the interface between the NICS and the public. Some lessons can be learnt from the experience of iLab to support other Policy Labs. These are a selection of recommendations based on the evaluation:
Policy Labs should…
- Practice what they preach and use design methods to identify the value proposition of Policy Labs.
- Align activities to priority policy agendas.
- Communicate the outcomes from projects among colleagues in government but also to a wider stakeholder group.
- Develop clear criteria for selecting projects with an emphasis on senior management commitment to implementation where appropriate.
- Build evaluation into Lab processes from the outset.
- Develop a clear ‘project journey’ including milestones and deliverables to communicate to ‘clients’ in government.
- Engage senior civil servants in Lab projects, particularly in conducting user insights research.
- Set ambitious targets to engage large numbers of civil servants in projects or training activities.
- Develop a formalised approach to knowledge exchange in government on Lab activities such as accreditation or secondment opportunities.
- Codify a common approach to conducting user research.
- Experiment with policy teams to ‘prototype’ policy with citizens.