Alex Roberts, Innovation Specialist at the OECD Observatory of Public Service Innovation – Early to rise, early to fall – the destiny of vanguard projects in the public sector?
Written by Alex Roberts, Innovation Specialist on 31 March 2021
In my 20 years of being a public servant I have been fortunate enough to have seen or read about quite a few innovative projects (Have we told you we have a database of case studies? Why not submit your own? We have also opened a Call for Innovations on Cross-Border Collaboration). These have taken all sorts of forms and have involved varying degrees of novelty, though all shared a desire to make a difference. One thing I am starting to suspect, however, is a common tendency (and perhaps fate) for projects that I would describe as being forerunners or those that are at the vanguard – the ones that truly break new ground. In this blog post I would like to test some observations and consider why it might be that those projects that are at the forefront can struggle to find sustainability or longer-term permanence in the public sector, and consider why that might be a problem at an innovation system level.
Public sector forerunners and vanguards
Have you ever come across a project or initiative that sort of gives you a jolt because it’s just so different or new and it opens your eyes to a new way of thinking or seeing what is possible? I can still remember when I first heard about the ‘Rules as Code’ approach that underpinned the ‘Better Rules, Better Outcomes’ work in New Zealand and I felt buzzed from it, because I had never thought about digital transformation in quite that way (and so it was no surprise to me when it was later featured in our Global Trends work). Or the time a colleague introduced me to the work being done by MindLab, which at the time (2009) opened my eyes to the possibility and potential of innovation labs. These are the sorts of projects I mean when I refer to the forerunners and vanguards – the ones that just don’t fit with what you’ve known previously or that connect pieces in new, potentially revelatory ways.
I can think of a number of forerunner efforts that have attracted varying degrees of acclaim. Some of those that I have found particularly inspiring would include:
- MindLab – one of the first public sector innovation labs and one that not only introduced a structured approach to innovation for the public sector but made significant strides in building awareness of the need for a structured approach to public sector innovation
- Helsinki Design Lab – which did some amazing groundwork in demonstrating what strategic design could mean and involve for the public sector (if you haven’t read Dark Matter and Trojan Horses then you’re missing out)
- Alberta CoLab – which, in my opinion, did some great thinking and maturation of process by melding different methodologies and did some important demonstration work re building public sector capability in new methods
- Service Innovation Lab – which brought together digital and service design in order to combine a connected government perspective with a citizen-first perspective.
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