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In order to embed skills into an organisation and make innovation an everyday practice, it’s essential to think about what opportunities for learning and development you can create. Nesta commissioned a piece of research to interview a collection of people working on public sector innovation initiatives to find out how they approach this topic. Below, researcher Daniela Sangiorgi discusses the insights from these interviews.

Training and building capabilities

When planning to embed design capabilities in public sector organisations, it is useful to consider the full cycle of learning. This could include a range of learning opportunities, including strategies which government and public sector organisations may also be applying at different levels, such as:

  • Taught classes and seminars: ‘I make my knowledge explicit’
    These are generally taught via dedicated workshops, aiming for large numbers of participants and often introducing the use of specific tools or methodologies.

  • Learning by doing: ‘I apply and internalise your knowledge’
    This generally involves small circles of staff participating in projects that may run for longer periods of time. Sometimes this is organised around projects specific to the team involved, or around cross-departmental challenges.

  • Peer-to-peer learning activities: ‘I spend time with you to understand how you do things; your tacit knowledge’
    This may involve secondments, where staff spend time within innovation labs or studios to familiarise themselves and experiment with the methodology or approach and then ideally bring it back to their own team or department.

  • Toolkits or formalised approaches: ‘I translate this approach into tools and processes that people can read and memorise’
    These learning tools may be specifically designed and tested for and with a specific unit or department, that people can download and use in different situations.

Public sector organisations should pay attention to what kind of change these initiatives are aiming to achieve – and how sustainable and scalable this can be.

First, there is a growing awareness that teaching individual tools is not enough, and that learning should centre more around an overall approach to innovation. At the same time, it is also very important to consider how these learning initiatives will be adopted by civil servants; Stéphane Vincent, director of 27th Region, explains that “innovation is not just a toolbox that you can take and use the tools from. It’s more about craft; it’s more about skills. The idea is that the civil servants become amateur innovators. I mean, they are amateurs in the sense that they have some practice but they are not professional. But the amateur innovator civil servant can work more efficiently with professional innovators.”

Secondly, exposing just few people to design and getting them familiar with it is not going to change the way that innovation is done across the broader organisation – meaning that scaling innovation practice is an issue. Most of the time, then, training should aim to create ‘change agents’ – people who can formally or informally introduce this practice where they work. Innovation teams including the 27th Region and ExperioLab, for example, are working to train and select people who will go on to form innovation teams in other organisations. And the OPM lab is consciously using secondments to create ‘change agents’: “They get to spend six months learning about what is it like to be a start-up innovation space within a government entity. They get to learn about design, and get to start to participate and grow their own skills in a way that doesn’t really exist anywhere else. And then they also become change agents back in their own agency, and spread this mindset so people start coming back wanting to learn more, to grow and look for opportunities to bring this innovation capability into their own space and change the way that their agency is working.” (OPM Lab)

Finally, when aiming for larger scale change, hiring strategies need to be revised to also consider design skills. Creating links with policy schools can encourage the teaching of design and creative skills within public sector core education.

Key learning points:

  • Combine different modes of learning.

  • Be aware that you don’t just teach tools, but an overall approach and mindset – and that you are not trying to turn civil servants into professional designers.

  • Scaling is an issue: think of training ‘change agents’ as a possible strategy to consider.

Building and managing learning communities

Introducing a new way of doing things, whether in the design or delivery of services, requires supporting a learning process. This can often take the shape of a ‘thought movement’ that gradually engages and convinces a growing number of practitioners. Creating and managing this kind of learning community has become an inevitable ingredient of initiatives that aim for systemic change.

In the case of many innovation teams, this process happens naturally as people become enthusiastic about the new approaches they are experimenting with, and try to apply them in their own environment. At the same time, there needs to be an intent to support these motivated people in becoming part of a wider community of practice that keeps in contact, sharing experiences and key learning points, but also helping to promote the work of the innovation team. This may be done informally, for example, through a closed Facebook group (in the case of ExperioLab). It can also be done in more structured ways, for example by creating a network of alumni that can be contacted for advice (as Policy Lab UK have done), or through periodic sharing meetings (27th Region): “Once they’ve completed La Transfo, they are part of ‘inter-Transfo’. This means that every six months all the local authorities and governments involved who have been involved with the process gather for a meeting where they exchange experiences and share feedback on what they have done, where they have failed, etc.” (27th Region).

To support this growing community, innovation units are currently working to formalise their cumulative knowledge on dedicated platforms to make it available across the network of practitioners. MOM BDU has created a Behavioural Insights Platform, while Policy Lab has developed an Open Policy Making toolkit in order to become better at transferring its practice.

Key learning points:

  • Systemic change requires the creation and support of a larger and growing learning community that enables participants to share experiences, and helps to promote and spread the new approaches.