This might just be the golden age of government

Is this the golden age of government? Or at least, of government innovation?

More than a hundred government-run innovation labs have opened around the world, from Alberta to Zambia and Spain to New South Wales. The British think tank Nesta estimates that a new lab opens somewhere every month.

Moreover, the techniques being used in those labs seem to be both effective and recently invented: human-centred design, agile prototyping, iterative policymaking and, perhaps most strikingly, behaviourial insights ('nudges'), which have been adopted in dozens of countries since the original Nudge Unit was founded in the UK in 2010.

On top of that come all the possibilities opened up by digital connectivity, as well as new public-private methods of financing services, the most important being the social impact bond.

So, aside from making "innovation" a buzzword, it seems that governments are coming up with an abundance of imaginative ways to address complex social problems. But is this all just window-dressing? Is government actually getting better at governing? And are mainstream departments working in a new way, or are these gold-standard techniques limited to a few special projects and micro-level demonstrations? Apolitical asked the experts:

Eddie Copeland, Director of Government Innovation, Nesta

Government has long been associated with lagging behind the private sector in adopting new innovations. But that's starting to change. Since 2010 we've seen significant developments with digital reform, the use of behavioural insights and a renewed focus on designing services around what citizens actually need. Progress has been very uneven to date, but I'm optimistic that we're reaching a tipping point where these new ideas will start to scale.

There is no plan B

As departments [in the UK] grapple with the most severe budget cuts in a generation, public sector leaders know that if they don't adopt new methods, there is no plan B. The important next step is for departments to recognise that these new techniques are not enough in isolation. Real reform will require them to adopt radically different ways of working to deliver more and better with less. Whether they're prepared to engage in that kind of hard organisational change, we have yet to see.

Thomas Prehn, Director of Denmark's MindLab, the world's oldest running innovation lab

We now get requests from labs all over the world almost on a daily basis, and I think of it in terms of generations: different countries are ready for different generations of innovation lab. For some places, it has to just be bringing in methods from other countries; for others, it's the human-centred design process; and, at least here in Copenhagen, because we've been working on this for so long, there's the whole thing about scaling. We're not so much talking about methods and process as about culture and leadership.

Different countries are ready for different generations of innovation lab

What's really interesting about the period we're in now - and why we're seeing all the labs - is that the pace at which things are changing is so rapid, and the complexity of the change is so high. The public sector is perfectly designed for administration and regulation, but not really for coping with a complex, globalised, fast-changing ecosystem. And administration and regulation are the wrong tool for that.

So what you're really looking for is to create a system that might detach from the original system and work in a more agile and iterative and experimental way. The public sector has to go from being an administrator and a regulator to something more like a service provider and enabler. And I think those are actually two different roles, which call for different processes. And the best answer at the moment is create a lab.

Alexander Stevenson, author of The Public Sector Fox and The Public Sector: Managing the Unmanageable

The public sector is a very good back-foot innovator. It's very innovative when reacting and you might say that's happening now because there's austerity. The public sector is responding and, you could say, not letting a good crisis go to waste. Shared services are a great example of that.

But on front-foot innovation, the structural barriers are still very much in place. The rewards for success aren't great and the penalties for failure are pretty stunning. Partly as a consequence of that, very few public sector bodies invest in R&D. While most private sector bodies have money and people set aside for research and new product development, it's very hard to make space to do that in the public sector.

The rewards aren't great and the penalties are pretty stunning

I also think the public sector is good at innovating on a micro-level, but there's a problem innovating to scale, because it's hard to get the financial model to work. A lot of public sector innovation is about how to pre-empt a problem, and typically that means one department giving money to another, which is a really hard thing to effect. If it's, say, prisons having to transfer money to the Department for Education, the prisons say: of course we're not going to do that, because you can't guarantee there will be fewer prisoners and we'll be left with a big old bill. Social finance is an excellent example of trying to address that. It's a great idea in principle, but it's so hard to do.

Aaron Maniam, the Public Innovators Network, Singapore

The sociologist Everett Rogers has a graph showing that ideas start with 2.5% of the population, they're your innovators, the next 12.5% are your early adopters, then the early majority, late majority and the laggards. And I think that at any moment in time, any system will have something like that number of innovators in it.

And if we are in a golden age, it's maybe because more innovators and more early adopters can find each other. They're enabled by technology, they are much more connected than they were before, and so that sense of not being alone and building the alliances to achieve change are much more powerfully felt - even if we're not all in the same place.

More innovators and more early adopters can find each other
I think government has got better at doing its job in the 12 years I've been in it, but I would add that as government evolves, the environment also changes. What we do with global climate change, with very complex interdependent health problems that individuals are facing? And that's where a more collaborative way of working has to come in.

However, I do think that we tend to assume that the times we live in are the most transformative of all. But policymakers after World War II or the collapse of the Soviet Union would all have required highly adaptive approaches. I think there is some truth to the argument that technology and globalisation are creating this great acceleration, but I would caution against assuming that complexity is a modern phenomenon.

The view from Apolitical

As our experts mention, the impetus for governments to transform the way they do things is necessity: economic stagnation, budget cuts and the growing burden of ageing populations mean that many countries must change or fail. Fortunately, bright ideas, imaginative projects and clever new means of designing policies are in no short supply - we have reported on hundreds.

There is no shortage of bright ideas

But the difficulty lies in scaling them through organisations as big and complex as government departments. There are ossified structures to contend with, and there is a growing recognition that the problems society faces cut across traditional departmental boundaries. To help a person who, say, has been released from prison but is likely to re-offend because he is homeless, doesn't have a job or much of an education and has mental health or drug problems, which department should step in? How can you bring all government's various resources to bear?

At Apolitical, we are seeing ever closer collaboration not just between departments but with private enterprise and NGOs. As wonkish as it may sound, the greatest positive effect on our societies may be exercised not by brilliant schemes for housing or transport, but by making government more collaborative, as well as more responsive and lighter on its feet. How to do that is not something for which there will ever be a straightforward answer. But the global mushrooming of innovation labs and the near-universal insistence on closer co-operation with other departments and sectors demonstrate that governments worldwide are making an unprecedented effort to find out.