The following interview was done by Diseño Público with Jesper Christiansen, a public innovation thinker and practitioner who works as a Senior Programme Manager in the Innovation Skills team in Nesta, helping people and organisations improve how they innovate for the public and social good.

Previously he worked at Danish cross-government innovation unit Mindlab, which aims to create new solutions for society working collaboratively with citizens, communities and businesses. Jesper founded and directed MindLab’s research programme, focusing on capturing, analysing and communicating insights and lessons from the lab’s work. He also managed MindLab’s international collaborations, and worked with and advised several governments, public agencies and international institutions.

Jesper has a PhD in Anthropology. His thesis explores public innovation as a way of coping with current societal issues, and its potential to increase the effectiveness and legitimacy of state interventions.

Jesper Web

“As the environments and tasks of government change, so do the approaches, competencies and skills needed to be an effective public leader or official.”

Could you tell us about your work and why it is important?

The ability to innovate is ultimately about how governments operate to create public and democratic legitimacy. This was really the key element of my work at MindLab, applying human-centred design approaches to public problems. I am building on this experience in my current role in the Nesta Innovation Skills team. Here, we are working on systematising how innovation can best be organised and on building the skills and competencies needed to deal sufficiently with public problems.

We do this by collaborating with the wider global community of public innovation practitioners. For example, I am currently setting up an initiative called the i-school with support from Bloomberg Philanthropies. The i-school will orchestrate some of the world’s best people, organisations and knowledge to build a combined learning and capacity-building platform. This will strengthen the ability of public officials and public development practitioners in governments around the world to fulfil their duties.

What is the meaning of innovation and what do you think is its role is in the Public Sector (Central and Local Governments)?

As the environments and tasks of government change, so do the approaches, competencies and skills needed to be an effective public leader or official. In recent years, there has been an increased recognition of the complexity of public problems in areas like labour markets, healthcare, education and social services. But have the working practices of public servants evolved accordingly alongside our understanding of these complex problems?

This is what innovation in government and public sector contexts is really about. This involves the introduction and application of a range of new methods and approaches that expand on those currently used by government when it comes to creating public impact. Some critical elements are:

  1. Focus on outcomes – systematic focus on the practical outcomes of public interventions for the people that public service systems exist for.
  2. Citizen engagement – closing the gap between government and citizens and enabling a deeper understanding and appreciation of the everyday lives of people.
  3. Experimentation – abilities to test, pilot and improve promising ideas rapidly in order to explore and learn about what kind of initiatives will serve us best.
  4. Knowledge/data – abilities to harness knowledge from many sources and in multiple ways, and abilities to generate and use data of all kinds.
  5. Systems design – abilities to create user-centred, holistic and creative interventions that resonate with people’s lives and aspirations.
  6. Use of technology – abilities to make the most of successive generations of digital technology.

What do you think are the challenges organisations have in order to adopt an innovative culture in the Public Sector and what are your suggestions to overcome them?

This is a question too big to be answered here in full, but I would emphasise that any conversation about an innovation culture must also be about the general functioning of government. Therefore, it is really a question of the culture of decision-making (I have previously written about the need for a new culture of decision making and these suggestions still largely apply in my view). And if we are talking about how public decisions are being made, we should not only be focusing on organisational, administrative and developmental capacities, but also the relationship between administration and politics.

“The fundamental consequence of being legitimised by a democratic system and run by political leadership is that, as a public servant, your purpose is to actually shape the environment.”

As Geoff Mulgan has described in the ‘Art of Public Strategy’, public organisations cannot merely adopt a strategy of survival by adapting to their environment. The fundamental consequence of being legitimised by a democratic system and run by political leadership is that, as a public servant, your purpose is to actually shape the environment. 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 creating their intended impact. In this light, I see a core component of an innovation culture being about changing the identity of the public servants.

Practically, then, innovation should be about influencing the culture of planning, leadership and management among public servants to make them effective ‘shapers’ of the environment. In particular by introducing and legitimising a new kind of knowledge management based on experimentation and iterative prototyping that enables systematically researching, rehearsing and refining new policy ideas, concepts and/or intentions. This inherently has to go beyond developing new administrative processes and tools and also include creating better dynamic between political envisioning and technical appropriation. Innovation approaches are both new ways of working more effectively with political intentions, but they also hold the potential to enable and orchestrate a better and more legitimate mandate for change.

What do you think has changed that has allowed organisations to shift towards a more innovative culture in the Public Sector?

Many factors can be mentioned as part of this wider shift that is only just in its early stages. The main element in my perspective is a shift in the understanding of the character of public problems, and the conditions wherein you have to work as a public servant: as economic, social and environmental challenges are becoming increasingly complex, governments are struggling (even more) to effectively solve the problems they are facing. This fuels a more widespread acceptance of complexity and uncertainty as the fundamental premises for developing new interventions and solutions.

It is understandable that the emphasis on innovation gets stronger in this light. Approaches relying on creative exploration and learning-oriented experimentation – as most innovation approaches do – are much better suited for such environments and policy-making contexts. The big shift in terms of reforming centres of government has yet to be seen though, especially when it comes to creating a better institutional resilience – the institutional capacity to learn and adapt from every policy and reshape the governance and management systems accordingly.

Could you tell us about a successful project that you have developed and what made it succeed?

Typically, reforms and other public change initiatives are designed and developed by a small number of people who then play no active role in their implementation. Therefore, the practical challenges and dilemmas of the implementation process are seldom part of policy decision-making processes or administrative implementation. One of the biggest challenges lies in planning initiatives in a way that allows for an understanding of the causes of problems and the practical consequences that the new initiatives bring with them.

One of the projects that I am most proud of dates back a few years in my time at MindLab (it is actually still unfolding in its fourth or fifth iteration currently). Starting in 2013, MindLab and the Danish Ministry of Employment refocused the implementation of reforms related to social benefits, early retirement and flex jobs. The reforms aimed to fundamentally change employment initiatives for citizens at risk with the goal of reducing (in particular) the number of young people outside of the labour market.

The reforms were completed partly through a more holistic and multidisciplinary approach, and partly via a shift from a focus on activity to a focus on the outcomes for citizens. It was no longer about the number of cases closed or maintaining a uniform process for citizens. Instead, it was time to invest in creating positive change in the citizens’ situation, through interdisciplinary collaboration and greater professional freedom in case processing and public sector initiatives.

In that sense, the reform involved a significant professional, managerial and administrative adaptation and was a paradigm shift in employment initiatives. The success of the reform depended not just on a fundamental break with the current compartmentalised organisational framework, budget allocations and administrative procedures, but also the adaptation of new professional practices and a new way of relating to and involving the citizen. In short, it posed a huge implementation challenge.

“A key element in this effort was reframing implementation as an experimental process.”

How do you even begin such an effort? Our answer was to introduce a new (simple) notion in the project: the aim of the project was not to find out whether the reform worked or not, but to focus on how it really worked for citizens, in job centres and in the everyday practice of frontline staff. Therefore, partnerships were created with various municipalities, whereby ethnographic methods were used to engage citizens, case workers, middle managers and job centre managers. These explored questions such as: how were citizens actually experiencing new public sector initiatives? To what degree are municipalities geared towards managing the objectives of the reform?

With this vantage, the project illustrated the numerous practical implementation challenges for municipalities and made them subject to human-centred processes, resulting in reframing these challenges and practically exploring how to deal with them in new ways. In this way, the project also helped to balance expectations of the implementation process by illustrating the challenges, conditions, extent and implications of the changes. This enabled national decision-makers and local practitioners to co-analyse insights, co-create new ideas and co-design a number of supporting activities and areas of focus to deal productively with the implementation process of the reform.

Some of the initiatives concerned specific changes to legislation to ensure that the policy objective was followed, while others focused on creating a fruitful interaction between existing operational practices and new initiatives. These activities were also about creating joint ownership across central and local government and doing away with the trend of implementation tasks becoming a matter of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Instead of the state blaming municipalities for their failure to implement policy, or municipalities blaming the state for being out of touch with the reality of actual practice, this project encouraged teamwork between the two entities.

A wide combination of elements helped it to succeed, but some key ones were:

  1. An ambitious citizen-centred reform agenda.
  2. Significant investment in both user-research and expert knowledge, combining deep knowledge about people with important insights on the practice of policy implementation
  3. Starting with a smaller project to illustrate the potential early on and building the awareness and buy-in of key people in the ministry to work as ambassadors for the cultural change needed.
  4. Continuously looking beyond the project to see how it could contribute as an investment in wider capacity-building processes.

A series of new projects and partnerships are now underway that aim to create an entirely new approach to public policy in the Ministry of Employment. A range of change initiatives were initiated to work with the wider organisational capacity of the Ministry to embed new design-led approaches in every phase of the policy cycle – creating a better dynamic between policy and practice. A key element in this effort was reframing implementation as an experimental process in which the systematic involvement of citizens and practitioners increases the likelihood that policy initiatives create the intended outcomes.