Testing governance: the laboratory lives and methods of policy innovation labs

Ben Williamson

Digital technologies and new practices of data analysis are increasingly playing a significant role in techniques of governance in sectors such as education as well as healthcare, urban management, and in government innovation and citizen engagement in government services. But these technologies need to be sponsored and advocated by particular individuals and groups before they are embedded in these settings.

Testing governance cover

The new working paper Testing governance: the laboratory lives and methods of policy innovation labs examines the role of innovation labs as sponsors of new digital technologies of governance–technologies that complement and extend their approaches to using both data and design methods for policy purposes. By combining resources and practices from politics, data analysis, media, design, and digital innovation, labs act as experimental R&D labs and practical ideas organizations for solving social and public problems, located in the borderlands between sectors, fields and disciplinary methodologies. Labs are making methods such as data analytics, design thinking and experimentation into a powerful set of governing resources. They are, in other words, accommodating digital methods into their repertoires for understanding social and public issues, and in the creation and circulation of solutions to the problems of contemporary governance–in education and elsewhere. They may be seen as key actors in the design of a new model of ‘Essentially Digital Governance’ that Patrick Dunleavy and Helen Margetts have detailed, an approach to redesigning ‘the state in the era of social media, cloud computing, robotization and big data,’ who note that, increasingly, ‘many or even most government departments and agencies “are” their information systems and digital presence – the only part of them with which many citizens will interact.’

The working paper analyses the key methods and messages of the labs field, in particular by investigating the documentary history of Futurelab, a prototypical lab for education research and innovation that operated in Bristol, UK, between 2002 and 2010, and tracing methodological continuities through the current wave of lab development. Centrally, the working paper explores Futurelab’s contribution to the production and stabilization of a ‘sociotechnical imaginary’ of the future of education specifically, and to the future of public services more generally. It offers some preliminary analysis of how such an imaginary was embedded in the ‘laboratory life’ of Futurelab, established through its organizational networks, and operationalized in its digital methods of research and development as well as its modes of communication.

By taking a historical and genealogical perspective to the study of labs, it becomes clear how their current concerns, ideas and methods have been formed over time in concrete organizational sites and inter-organizational networks. The purpose of the working paper is not to evaluate labs’ methods, but to explore the longer continuities of thinking that animate them, their inter-organizational and ideational connections as ‘ideas organizations,’ and in particular to examine the imaginaries or visions of the future of public and social services that they share.

Innovation labs are proposing to introduce more experimental and digital methods into strategies of contemporary governance, and testing out new practical ideas and digitally-mediated techniques for managing relations between the state and its citizens. The working paper locates Futurelab as one nodal actor in a network of labs that is spatially distributed but which also needs to be understood as historically produced and maintained: how innovation labs work, and the ideas they produce today are dependent upon longer lines of thinking and chains of ideas that have been developed, shared, and aligned over time. Focusing on individual labs like Futurelab can provide a way to trace some of those connections. Recent studies of MindLab by Jesper Christiansen and Policy Lab UK by Lucy Kimbell, as well as an earlier PhD study of Futurelab by Philippe Ross, provide other prominent examples of what can be learned from such approaches.

Conducting detailed genealogical case studies and situated ethnographic research of the laboratory life within specific labs, as well as documentary analyses of their products and resources, are necessary next steps in social scientific and policy studies of innovation labs.  The working paper is a first step in that direction, and pulls together a number of previous posts from the Code Acts in Education project to offer both a historical sketch of one lab, Futurelab, and a broader mapping of the organizational and ideational networks in which it has participated as a nodal actor.

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