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Jesper Christiansen is Head of Research at MindLab, Denmark’s celebrated government innovation unit. We asked him to reflect on how public sector labs have the potential not only to improve the way public services are designed but may also have the power to change the culture of government.

What does pursuing the common good as a public servant actually entail? In recent years, there has been increased recognition of the complex character of public problems, whether we look at reforms in labour markets, healthcare, education or social services. But have the working practices of public servants evolved alongside our understanding of these complex problems? And what happens to the legitimacy of our democratic decision-making processes if public policies fail to deal with public problems?

Working as an internal cross-governmental design lab, MindLab has experimented a great deal in recent years with the human-centered design of public services, policies and governance models to create better outcomes, productivity and democratic value. Design approaches offer a practice-oriented, human-centred and holistic perspective, as well as an iterative process of learning-through-action. This enables a more dynamic approach to public policy that involves citizens and frontline workers, as well as local authorities and communities, in a collective effort to develop and implement policy ideas.

By embedding human-centred design in the central government, public sector design labs can play a part in systematically shifting the culture of decision-making and public policy.

By embedding human-centred design in the central administration of government, public sector design labs can play a part in systematically shifting the culture of decision-making and public policy. A lab can provide a dedicated space for discovering and applying new ways to address problems and design processes to turn new ideas into practical outcomes.

In particular, a lab carefully examines and considers the context, experience and circumstance to be influenced and then explore and experiment with new solutions. At the same time, the lab is systematically providing new insights and learning to inform existing decision-making processes. Over time this helps create a new professional approach to change-making activities.

To work in this way, the dedicated space of a lab must cut across different levels and aspects of government. At MindLab we combine a number of different approaches in each project. These include:

1. Service design

Changing the ‘front-end’ of public services – using the lab to explore how different outcomes could be created in the interactions between citizens and the public sector.

2. Policy design

Working with public policy – using the lab to allow for experimentation in the development and implementation of large-scale laws, reforms, policies, regulatory efforts and other change-making initiatives that target the public.

3. Governance design

Working with the back-end governance systems – using the lab to explore and rethink system logics and relationships of accountability in order to create a more outcome-focused operation and support of public service systems.

4. Capacity building

Improving the design and change-management skills of government through project collaborations – using the lab to rethink new decision-making practices and knowledge management processes.

5. Scaling labs

Learning about and experimenting with local solutions in order to understand how to create large-scale impact – using the lab to enable what works locally to have systemic impact.

MindLab bringing the citizen into the policy process

These different aspects of change-making activity represent ways of enabling experimentally proven societal change to occur as a consequence of public interventions. Change should not be ‘bottom-up’ or ‘top-down’, but should create and build on a productive dynamic between ideas (or policies) and their potential impact (practice).

Using design thinking and design methodologies as part of government interventions not only aims to develop new human-centered service systems, but it also becomes a process of experimenting with the very functioning and culture of government itself. This includes procedural, administrative, political and democratic processes and practices, the failures of which are talked about far less than the ‘solutions’ at the frontline.

A significant part of the functioning of government is the culture of decision-making and the professional expertise of public servants. Whether government interventions come in the form of laws, reforms, policies, regulations or the like, they have to be dealt with on the basis of their actual functionality: different processes of creating change in society. Consequently, public servants are ‘change agents’ (not solely analysts) responsible for enabling and processing political intentions and ideas in ways that will increase the likelihood of their intended impact.

We need to understand the role of the public servant in this light. And design approaches, methodologies and attitudes have the potential to influence the culture of planning, leadership and management of public servants. Design can leverage a new kind of knowledge management based on experimentation and prototyping that enables public policy to systematically research, rehearse and refine new concepts, ideas and/or intentions. All of which – I would argue – allow political intentions to become more human and practice-oriented, and thereby increase the legitimacy of public interventions.