One afternoon about six years ago, I sat with my colleagues at the U.S. Department of Labor in a room that fulfilled all appropriate stereotypes of government buildings — windowless, drab carpeting, harsh fluorescent lights, dark faux-wood paneling. The meeting began with annoyance and agitation, complaints about this new policy and that old requirement. And then, my boss quieted the crowd to play a recording of a teenager, who had participated in a program for school dropouts administered by our office. His voice was tentative, but hopeful. He was grateful for the second chance and thoughtful about how the program could better reach youth like him. The mood in the room shifted, as my colleagues and I took on the perspective of a youth who’d had a difficult time in life. A meeting that began by focusing on what we couldn’t do became a collaborative discussion about what we could do better.
That meeting has stayed with me as a real-life example of how important it is for government officials to maintain a connection to the citizens touched by their services and actions — or the “end users” as they are often referred to in our tech-centric world. To that end, several countries — including the U.S. — have established innovation labs to help embed a more human-centered and collaborative approach into program design and problem solving. It’s a task that requires rethinking the role of public agencies in tackling social challenges.
“The public sector becomes more like a facilitator in figuring out how to bring the stakeholders together, rather than just a provider of services,” said Runa Sabroe, a project manager at MindLab.
MindLab, a government innovation unit in Denmark, approaches each problem by working across sectors and maintaining a focus on the end users of services. One project targeted at improving the management of industrial injury cases and helping workers return to work brought together injured workers, public officials, unions, and businesses.
“This is a difficult problem that the public sector can’t solve on its own,” said Sabroe.
MindLab interviewed injured workers about their experiences and then used the insights from those conversations to map out the service path from a citizen’s perspective. The MindLab team also helped clarify where the interests of the many stakeholders could conflict and result in a loss of focus on what should be a common goal: helping as many injured workers as possible return to productive employment. According to Sabroe, the process helped the public sector rethink how it delivered services — in collaboration with its partners — and led to the implementation of a new team-focused approach to serving injured workers.
Even with its successes, MindLab has learned that bringing a human-centered approach to problem solving in the public sector is an incremental process. Sabroe believes that by actively engaging agency staff in MindLab’s work, the innovation unit is slowly helping to bring about the necessary change in mindset.
“We take [the public officials] along as we do our work and they become like ambassadors,” said Sabroe.
Since MindLab is supported by the government, it can work with agencies over a long period of time to solve problems. Sabroe views this as a major advantage.
“We aren’t like consultants who you hire and just work for a short time,” Sabroe said.
MindLab also tries to choose projects where the stakeholders, including the public agencies, are willing and ready to engage in a new kind of problem solving process. Each year, it engages in a strategic planning process with its board members — the secretaries for business and growth, education and employment as well as the chief executive for the Odense municipality — to decide where it will focus its efforts. Sabroe believes that this planning process helps to ensure that the findings from work on the ground get translated up to the ministries at the federal level.
Nonetheless, solving problems that involve multiple layers of government, different funding streams and cross-sector stakeholders can be daunting. Because of political constraints or concerns about the impact of a service change (particularly any increase in costs), public officials may hesitate to fully engage in the MindLab process.
MindLab doesn’t yet have an answer when it comes to cutting through bureaucracy, “but what we try to do is to focus on the goal and the end user,” said Sabroe.
U.S. federal agencies have long adopted the language of business, partly as an effort to emphasize the end-user for public services. Many programs have “customer satisfaction” metrics. The workforce investment system is a “dual-client” model referring to the jobseekers and employers who interact with the system. And as my meeting from several years ago demonstrates, public officials have tried in the past to incorporate the perspective of end users (that is, citizens) into efforts to improve programs.
The work of MindLab and other innovation units — like the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s Innovation Lab — is valuable because it helps to move the focus on citizens beyond rhetoric and gives agencies the tools to gather and incorporate citizen feedback in a methodical and systematic way. By giving public officials the right tools and helping them rethink their role, human-centered design could help to transform how government works, making it more adaptive to the needs of citizens and consequently more effective.
But change isn’t going to happen overnight. Like any new initiative, innovation labs need time and support to make a real difference in how the public sector operates.
Photo courtesy of MindLab