Testing government: policy labs and political experimentation

Ben Williamson

Public and social innovation labs are enjoying their moment in the political sun. Nesta’s Innovation Lab has become a key player in the global circulation of policy lab ideas, and a connective node in a variety of lab networks. The Cabinet Office has established Policy Lab UK, a lab at the centre of government. GovLab in New York, MindLab in Denmark, and many others are now part of a global movement of organizations seeking to apply radically new methods to the practices of government–not least advanced digital methods deriving from the field of data science.

Although ‘social labs’ have existed in some form for a century, the ‘labification’ of the policy field has rapidly accelerated since 2010, with policy innovation labs ‘applying the principles of scientific labs—experiment, testing and measurement—to social issues.’ The ‘labification’ of public and social policy is significant, then, in bringing particular scientific forms of methodological and technical expertise into the policy process, whilst ostensibly avoiding the politics, values and ideology of conventional policymaking.

But labs remain little explored, and for those of us with an interest in public and social policy, such as education, they are developing a potentially powerful role within government itself. In particular, they are making ‘methods’ such as data analytics, design thinking and experimentation into a powerful set of governing resources. Labs have the methodological expertise to understand social problems, get inside the public perspective, and generate insights for future policy intervention.

Naming labs
Labs go by a number of related terms, such as ‘policy innovation labs,’ ‘social labs,’ ‘innovation teams’ (‘i-teams’), ‘policy labs,’ and ‘government innovation labs.’ On Twitter they trend under the hashtag ‘#psilabs’. Indeed, social media is an important aspect of policy lab existence. A search on Twitter reveals that the hashtag #psilabs was first used on 15 February 2014, by Philip Colligan of Nesta, in a Tweet reading ‘wonder whether we don’t need a hashtag for tweets on public and social innovations labs #psilabs’. The hashtag itself is a significant actor holding together diverse ideas and organizations around the central lab ideal.

In brief, the policy lab is an organizational hybrid combining elements of the political think tank, media production, disciplinary expertise in social and political science, and digital R&D. It works by gathering, balancing and assembling various institutionalized resources from across the academic, political, and commercial domains, and assembling those resources into unique packages. Ultimately, the policy innovation lab is perhaps best defined as an experimental R&D lab for social and public problems, located in the interstitial borderlands between sectors, fields and disciplinary methodologies.

Lab methods
Policy labs are important emerging actors in public service redesign. Their methodological commitments are to digital R&D, data science and design-based research methods for diagnosing policy problems and generating policy insights and solutions. These methods are detailed in a ‘handbook’ of lab methods recently edited by the founder of MindLab that advocates a ‘design for policy‘ approach. It provides research tools for the ‘policy designer,’ from ethnographic, qualitative, user-centred methods to rapid prototyping and digital data analysis and visualization; encourages the ‘co-design’ of policy options between actors in the governance system and its end-users; and argues that design also creates tangible artefacts and deliberate user experiences that make services and products desirable.

Many of these methods and techniques are now being enacted by various labs, often working together in networks. For example, the Opening Governance programme (of which Nesta, GovLab and MindLab are all international partners) is intended to develop innovative methods for government reform, and is:

built around agile and empirical experiments with institutional partners such as governments and NGOs. Experiments are designed to apply and test the latest advances in technology as well as new scientific insights on collaboration and decision-making to improve real world decision-making in the public interest.

Much of the programme is being developed through a network of ‘living labs’ to ‘model’ and ‘test’ new ways of governing. Its aspirations are described in terms of ‘smarter governance’ that mobilizes ‘crowdsourcing,’ ‘open data’ and technology to ‘target’ opportunities for greater ‘public participation.’ The Opening Governance initiative demonstrates how policy labs are taking an increasingly significant role in the design of governance techniques, methods and activities, locally, nationally and globally too.

Writing on their experimental methods, Charles Leadbeater claims that ‘labs are places where people conduct experiments to test out theories. The new labs proliferating outside the hard sciences are a symptom of the spread of experimentalism as an ideology for how we should shape the future.’ In fact, the entire ‘design for policy’ approach adopted by many labs is based on the assumption that design can envision desirable futures and develop ways to makes those futures realities. Through these ‘designerly’ methods, policy innovation labs seek to produce the knowledge about citizens that is required by those who seek to design the services and interventions to govern them.

It is notable then that Policy Lab UK has recently produced an ‘open policy making toolkit.’ The toolkit is ‘based on the principles of open policy making – to be open to new techniques, new evidence and new expertise so we can make better policy and implement more effectively.’ It includes advice and resources for conducting citizen ethnography and design thinking; on applying social media analytics to trace public sentiments; on the use of data science and big data analytics to analyse and visualize data on particular government issues; and the use of ‘prototyping’ to test out ideas in the real world.

At about the same time, Nesta has produced a series of articles and reports detailing the importance of ‘experimental’ methods in the practices of government. A recent piece for The Guardian suggested that:

there are times when government must experiment on us in the search for knowledge and better policy. … We have to experiment on a small scale to have a better understanding of how things work before rolling out policies across the UK. This is just as relevant to social policy, as it is to science and medicine.

Nesta itself has detailed many of its own projects in public and social policy innovation to ‘make government more experimental.’ Nesta has also partnered with the government Cabinet Office to explore the idea of ‘a new operating system for government,’ based on the notion of ‘government as a platform’ articulated by web entrepreneur Tim O’Reilly. The idea of government as a platform assumes that successful technology innovations (such as the iPhone) can be used as models for the redesign of government services; for example, making government data open and accessible as a platform for the creation of ‘civic apps.’ Through developing this approach, Nesta and the Cabinet Office aim to anticipate how emerging technologies such as ‘data science, predictive analytics, artificial intelligence, sensors, applied programming interfaces, autonomous machines, and platforms’ might in the next five years become ‘ingrained into how government thinks of itself,’ ‘redefine the role of government, and even create a different relationship between state and public.’ This is an ambitious programme of work, one that anticipates how methods of prediction and automation might play an increasing part in staging the interaction between government and the governed.

Lab politics
Policy innovation labs emphasize the perceived neutrality, objectivity, rigour and effectiveness of methods and downplay the political values that underpin the work that labs do. However, as Marlieke Kieboom notes, the methods used by policy innovation labs are presented as ‘a-political’ forms of expertise, and thus by ‘denying their own political character, they depoliticize their own roles as political players.’ But the way in which labs define the problems they focus on, and the solutions they design, are fundamentally political acts.In this important sense, then, methods are powerful techniques for mediating the relationship between government and citizen. Methods are not merely neutral windows on to existing social and public realities, but ultimately participate in a shaping of those realities, making them visible and intelligible enough to be acted upon.

Ultimately, then, labs are designing new methods for the practices of government. Their ‘governing methods’ are a hybrid product of data science, design-based research and digital R&D, taking in laboratory experiments, RCTs, ethnography and new digital forms of data collection, mining and analytics. They are turning methods into advanced political techniques, and they are proposing that government itself should act lab-like, conducting experiments, running user-centred design workshops, and developing prototypes to ‘test out’ policy approaches. These methods need to be understood critically as specific kinds of political practices, not least as digital methods such as social media analytics enable the governmental gaze into our everyday online lives, and as practices such as predictive analytics enable government to anticipate future actions–and to design remedial solutions to predicted risks and problems. Policy labs are likely to play an increasingly significant role in education policy in coming years, and their technologies to influence educational practice, but as yet education research remains dimly aware of their methodological and technological power.

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4 Responses to Testing government: policy labs and political experimentation

  1. Lucy Kimbell says:

    Ben, excellent summary of the current context. I agree that the political character of these emerging practices is not yet clear or much discussed. This is something I’m studying in my AHRC research fellowship at Policy Lab (UK) and will be publishing a post on in the next few months. “Design thinking”, “service design” and “design for policy” are not (yet) reflexive about the power relations embedded in their practices nor in the futures they help constitute. But some of the originating fields shaping them such as Participatory Design, particularly the Scandinavian tradition, have this built into their modes of engagement with ‘users’ and other publics.

  2. Lucy, it would be interesting to explore the disciplinary and methodological genealogies of policy labs. What are the traditions, and ways to thinking that underpin different lab methods? How much do these matter? There is a lively sociological interest in the ‘social lives o methods’ at the moment, focusing on the origins of methods and their power to make the social world known and amenable to management.

  3. Lucy Kimbell says:

    Excellent questions. Some of which my colleague Guy Julier and I are trying to address through a project we are leading for the AHRC: “Developing participation in social design: Prototyping projects, programmes and policies” (Protopublics for short). This aims to prototype new kinds of research collaboration oriented towards achieving societal change and collective outcomes and to do so with critical, reflexive and historical lenses built in, rather than naively promoting ‘social’ designing as some policy labs are promoting. For example Celia Lury (co author of Inventive Methods with Nina Wakeford) will be doing one of the provocations at our ProtoPublics workshop next week.

  4. Pingback: Phases of the research: Phase 1 – Infrastructuring | Researching design for policy

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