Sally Washington Lis Cowey

For the second year running, we awarded a joint LDC Fellowship - this time to: Lis Cowey, Principal Advisor on Strategy, Change and Performance, The Treasury and Sally Washington, Programme Manager, The Policy Project, Improving the quality and performance of policy advice, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Lis and Sally's research will look at public sector leadership in design thinking and innovation methods across the policy and implementation spectrum. Find out more about Lis and Sally's study and research in this presentation (pptx).

Design thinking - thinking design

We arrived today at the Darden Business School, University of Virginia, for the first step of our leadership for innovation discovery adventure.

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Design thinking tools

Day 1 of the course was focused on "What is design thinking and why do we need it?" Turns out that most of the group is familiar with the concepts - some quite exper - so that the course is being reframed as learning about the tools of design thinking as well as how to teach and coach others to use the tools. Perfect for us.

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Design thinkers think 'empathy'

Today we powered through a design methods exercise using a prepared brief, based on a multinational steel company's challenge to enhance its employee health and wellness programme.

We learned that the investment in understanding the problem and generating opportunities for solutions sets the foundations and can typically take more than 50 per cent of a good project's time. Of this, the critical ingredient is to develop a deep understanding of people's unarticulated needs (which design thinkers often refer to as 'empathy').

"Leaders of innovation are designers of conversations. Their key strategic choices are:

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Prototyping, learning launches and creating the space for critical conversation

Last days at Darden took us into the prototyping of our design and what Jeanne calls a 'learning launch'.

While many think of innovation as risky, we heard how risk is managed by prototyping, testing hypotheses and creating the conditions where people can experience the idea and give critical feedback. Critical feedback helps us to not invest in ideas that won't work. It means surfacing and testing assumptions - "what would have to be true for this to be a good idea?".  We thought this was a crucial point for policy - often we aren't explicit about the underlying assumptions of what we are trying to do or what success would look like.

Testing assumptions and prototyping also means not being wedded to any one solution ? Jeanne described this as "being able to call you own baby ugly"! It involves creating space for conversation with users and stakeholders, space for iteration, and space for allowing divergent views to surface and be worked through. This seemed to us to be the opposite of traditional notions of planning!

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Do - learn - do

"Do - learn - do" is the slogan of GovLab where we spent Monday, both in conversation with leaders and observing internal research and training sessions (such a privilege to be let in as a 'fly on the wall'). We had rich conversations with the principal actors - Alan Kantrow, Stefaan Verhulst and Beth Simone Noveck.

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At the New York City Mayor's Office

We were warmly hosted at the New York City Mayor's Office in the Centre for Economic Opportunity led by Matthew Klein, and had a range of different experiences of leadership:

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Speed dating - matching design skills with public policy needs

Chelsea Mauldin from the Public Policy Lab inspired us with her insight and deep commitment to the human centred core of design thinking. Technical skills (such as ethnography) need to be matched with the right mindset centred on designing 'for' and 'with' others, or "perceiving yourself as someone's hand" (being led by people's needs not your pre-conceived 'solutions'). She stressed that if you are asking people to innovate then you need to give them permission to do things differently, including accepting staff using their time differently (time out of the office, getting out working with and engaging people where they are). People at all levels need to be part of the process and the enabling infrastructure: senior leaders need to champion the change, operational people need to be part of the process, embedded in projects at the research and design phases so that they can "help to birth the baby and then to adopt it" (ensuring that 'solutions' are implemented and work for both users and providers).

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Innovation through human centred design at UNDP

We rounded out our tour of the New York innovation 'system' with a meeting with three officials in the Innovation Programme of the United Nations Development Programme, Patrick Tiefenbacher, Benjamin Kumpf and Bernardo Cocco. To the UNDP, human-centred design is very much part of their tool kit for democratic governance, with its strong emphasis on citizens as participants, rather than passive recipients or subjects of the State. We identified many common challenges when it comes to building innovation into the system.

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Innovation Unit Inside Out

We were privileged to be invited in to observe some of the inner workings of the unit. We were struck by how deeply they have collaboration built into their DNA, with a strong distributed leadership culture, with several co-leadership arrangements that play to people's strengths and build on their ethos of mutual respect and valuing diversity. This ethos also translates into relationships across the organisation, with staff actively encouraged to develop "dream" projects that would inspire them and keep them engaged. It also is evidenced in a leadership style designed to engender "fantastic relationships as people", for example, leaders sharing very early thinking and explicitly seeking both feedback and feelings from the team.

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Institute for Government - if only we had one

Many of us are avid readers of Institute for Government (IfG) reports - so having the opportunity to discuss issues and challenges with the people who research and write them was a treat. Jill Rutter entertained us with policy and regulatory stories that were only too familiar - where change is introduced to drive efficiency but because it is designed around the needs of 'providers' often makes life easier for departments but more complicated for end 'users'.

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Getting to grips with what drives people and what works

Along with a delegation of EU colleagues, we got to peek into the workings of two of the What Works Centres (the Education Endowment Fund and the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth), which provide impressively high-quality review of available literature, as well as running randomised control trials to generate new evidence on what works in areas where evidence is lacking.

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Head of the Policy Profession - 'steal with pride'

Discussions with the Head of the Policy Profession Support Unit (PPSU) Richard Banks and Helen Anderson (knowledge management lead) was like holding a mirror to our own attempts to improve the quality and capability of policy advice across government. Their work is similar to NZ's Policy Project (see www.dpmc.govt.nz/policyproject).

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Opening up the policy process: The Policy Lab

The day after election results that surprised everybody, we started the day with a colleague from the policy lab. There was an air of frenetic activity as the Cabinet Office was already in full swing gearing up for the next term of government.

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Social innovation every day and everywhere

NESTA, a financially independent entity focusing on innovation, particularly in the public sector, has an impressive suite of roles, operating from outside the formal system of government.

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Going international - OECD

Our main target for discussion in the OECD was the Directorate for Public Governance with a particular interest in their efforts to build an Observatory of Public Sector Innovation as well as their ongoing work on policy making systems (built around the 'Centres of Government' CoG network).

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Inspiration - by design

On our travels we've been inspired by the design we've seen around us - in the street or in the various exhibitions and museums we've been lucky enough to visit. We wanted to share this with whoever is reading this blog.

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