The following interview was done by Diseño Público with Stéphane Vincent, who is the founder of the La 27e Région, a French “public transformation lab” which collaborates with local governments to design and implement public policies. It mobilizes the capabilities of multi-disciplinary teams composed of designers, idea generators, and social scientists from many fields (ethnography, sociology, participant observation) and engages in ground-level actions. Both these approaches prioritize the concrete experience of users, civil servants and citizens to serve as the starting point for re-examining public policy.

Previously, Stéphane in 2008 worked in a think tank called Next Generation Internet Foundation and led the innovation policies in the Limousin Regional government for 6 years.

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“In our experience it’s important to follow a critical path and to progress step by step, and to re-interrogate your methods and results on a regular basis.”

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

Originally La 27e Région was a spontaneous idea launched in 2008 by a small group of people -civil servants, officials, consultants, researchers- all passionated by the public sector. Passionated, but also frustrated by the negative impact of liberal movements like the so-called “new public management” from the 80s. There was no space where we could explore new approaches that would be not just trendy management toolkits, but that could contribute to a cultural change, through a dialog with other disciplines such as social sciences, but also arts, design and DIY movements. That’s why we created La 27e Région as an open platform where we could test these ideas in real life, on real problems. We started with a partnership with the 26 French Regional governments. After 2 or 3 years it was clear that there was a strong potential and we decided to become a non-profit association in 2012. Since then our activity is mainly based on action-research, meaning we’re not a commercial consultancy, we prefer to build knowledge and to share it as much as possible with our partners and audience -mostly local, regional and national governments and administrations.

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

Innovation is an ambiguous and polysemous word that we all use, but which is not precise enough to define what we really try to do. Many projects are qualified innovative, but how many of them have positive impact on citizens who really need it? Our starting point is not much innovation theories, but the policy process and how could we improve it all along from a user perspective, so that it creates more adaptivity, more creativity, more reflexivity, more sense, more impact, but also brings more democracy for beneficiaries, civil servants and officials.

What do you think are the challenges to innovate in the Public Sector and what are your suggestions to overcome them?

The easy part is to identify potential champions within administrations, people under the radar who are already in the mood -or who are desperately looking for it. I see the challenges related to 3 different areas:

  1. The “white elephant”: there is a risk in institutionalizing teams or “labs” too early, before a certain period of tests. In our experience it’s important to follow a critical path and to progress step by step, and to re-interrogate your methods and results on a regular basis.
  2. To “think in silos”: one can consider user-centric methods just as an additional approach for better public services. But there is a risk to remain in the margin and just to focus on a few. If your goal is to influence the culture of your organization at a higher stage, then you’d better have a systemic vision including strategy, management, personal, budget, evaluation, and, of course, a cross-sectorial vision of the different policies led by your organization. This requires that the people in charge of innovation are curious and humble enough to get a better understanding of the deep routines, practices and all the red tape within the organization. Personally I don’t really believe in the myth of the ingenuous designer that can tackle public challenges without having some knowledge and practice about them.
  3. Evaluation: How do you measure the outcomes of a project powered by design methodologies? There is controversy between management-driven approaches such as “evidence based policy” promoted by the anglo-saxon world, and other movements that prefer more contextualize and qualitative measurements. There is no clear answer to this, and certainly the answer is somewhere in-between.

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

The “Lycéo” chip card is a scholarship distributed by the Regional government of Champagne-Ardenne to 70.000 students, so that they can obtain discount prices in theaters, museums or libraries. But after 7 years and despite communication campaigns, only 20% of them use it. Why did that happen? and how to fix it? Our goal was not only to explore their practices and to suggest new solutions through user-centric design methodology; it was also to train and empower a group of 20 volunteer civil servants with design skills, and to test weather they would be able to do it themselves, all together, with the support -of course- of professional sociologists and designers that we provided. It took them one week to analyze and rethink “Lycéo”:

  • on day one, they investigated in a few schools and theaters, interviewed students and families, collected data and evidence through a camera;
  • on day two, they collectively analyzed the outcome, they draw the user-journey of Lycéo’s users and identified touchpoints that needed to be improved in priority, such as the contract signed by the partners which appeared much too complex, or the absence of communication on social networks;
  • on day three, they built new prototypes -e.g of the contract, a Facebook page, a new chip card presentation, etc, and test it directly with their audience;
  • on day four, they modified they prototypes according to the feed-back of people, and
  • on day five, instead of producing a report, they created an exhibition in the lobby of the Regional government to present the results to public managers and politicians.

A few months later the main ideas where implemented and after six months, the user rates increased 22% and the number of Lycéo’s partners was doubled.

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We had other good and much more disruptive experiences since then, including those where we were able to get the civil servants challenge not only the public policy itself, but its deepest motivations and goals. But even 3 years later -we did it in 2013- this example remains a must for us. It was the first time that we had the possibility not only to legitimate the use of user-centric approaches, but to prove that civil servants could use this process.

By looking at things from a user perspective, you can improve the impact of policies, but you can also create a meaningful experience between civil servants and enrich their work and happiness in the organization. That’s what we’re trying to improve now, through programs like “La Transfo” that we test in regions and cities like Paris or Mulhouse.

Could you tell us what the importance to consider the citizens (users) in the projects that you develop is and any methodology that you use towards this end?

Users are both the starting point and at the core of potential solutions. Words like “participation” and “user expertise” are now usual in the public sector, but most practices remain top-down. When they really take the perspective of users, public organizations can change their mindset and think in a more systemic way, more aware of the kind of impact they create on population. Public managers can’t design public policies like they used to do decades ago: now citizens are more reflexive and active, they need to be part of the design of public policies.

Our approach consists in exploring citizen’s real practices, more than just the needs they express during a conversation. We combine methods inspired by ethnography (e.g. several weeks embedded in a school, an hospital or a village) with others inspired by human-centric design (like rough prototyping, user journey, mook up, backcasting, etc). At some stages we need to work with a very limited number of users, for instance “extreme users” -those who know public policies even better than civil servants themselves, or at the contrary those who are eligible to a policy but never use it. At other stages we need to confront our results to large audience of 80 to 100 people. But there are also many moments when our teams need to work alone, with no contact with users.

Do you recommend any books or blogs that could help public servants to learn about innovation in the Public Sector?

Books:

Blogs: