Innovating Policy: Transdisciplinary Practice and the Politics of Co-Construction in Policy Labs

Labs and governmental innovation

The complexity of our present world is moving us to transdisciplinary modes of knowledge and practice. The need to address political, economic, social and cultural dimensions of any given situation has called for new approaches, which are able to tackle concrete issues both horizontally, by combining frameworks across disciplines, and vertically, by mingling stakeholders and citizens. Such transdisciplinarity can now be seen in collaborative platforms and/ practice-oriented sites that allow for closer contacts between all actors.

More specifically, policy labs are increasingly becoming the focus of governmental innovation providing an acceptable arms-length unit for innovations in policy-making. In their extended role, they are engaging more people directly, introducing a participatory and problem-solving attitude, and exploring ideas and insights from novel perspectives and pilot approaches. Not only is greater access being offered to the affected citizens and stakeholders by integrating their inputs, but civil servants and researchers are meeting in new contexts where outcomes are co-constructed as well as evaluated.

A diverse reality

Labs working generally for social and policy change go by a variety of terms, such as ‘policy innovation labs’, ‘social labs’, ‘innovation teams’ (‘i-teams’), ‘policy labs,’ and ‘government innovation labs’. Their use of methods and tools can also be very diverse, including participatory and social design, foresight, behavioural insights, randomized control trials, ethnography, rapid prototyping, data analytics and many others. Their actual deployment depends on the issue at hand, the context and the required type of intervention.

The panelists gave a multi- and international perspective according to their experience, with a number of approaches and projects mostly from the UK Policy Lab, Moldova Innovation Lab, and EU Policy Lab.

Lucy Kimbell’s work within the UK Policy Lab (summarized in a recent publication) has further developed the intersection between open policy making and design thinking. In their case, an “experimental” approach is closer to the ideas of “interventions” or “disruptions” coming from collaborative, creative and situated experience methods, such as ethnography, instead of the usual connotations with randomized control trials or other behavioural insights experiments. Ongoing and future activities also include establishing PhD studentships to further develop new connections between academic and policy contexts, and to expand training on design thinking and open policy making for civil servants.

The UNDP and the State Chancellery of the Government of Moldova are working together within the framework of the Moldova Innovation Lab (MiLab) to support user-led redesign of public services, with a number of projects from redesigning maternal benefits and optimizing “red tape”, to reframing the phenomenon of migration in rural communities. Through the use for example of civic engagement and alternative data to inform public policies, they strive for democratisation, bringing in fresh ideas and groups not represented so far. They also aim to put in place feedback loops between all groups, support innovation ecosystems between the government, citizens, the private sector and other key players, and change the culture of public servants in order to guarantee sustainability.

The EU Policy Lab defines itself as a safe, collaborative and experimental space and a way of working, gathering interdisciplinary experience in three main areas: foresight, behavioural insights and design for policy. As such, different methods and tools are applied – for instance future scenario building, brainstorming, storytelling, prototyping, serious games and other co-creation techniques – depending on the project at hand. Our projects are very diverse in scope and subject, ranging from the sharing economy and the implementation of EU regional policy, to the application of Behavioural Insights to policy, or the advances and experiments in participatory sensing.

Despite their differences, it is clear that policy labs, teams or structures are, above all, experimental and practice-oriented spaces able to open up knowledge creation and use, working towards expanding the source of inputs for policy and building new opportunities for collaboration. In a word, almost “transdisciplinary”!

Lab practices and their impact

Opening up governments and public administrations is one of the core activities of all labs. It closely relates to how co-creation and participatory perspectives (for instance from design and social science) are increasingly becoming common parlance in describing methods of policy-making and advising. With this rise of human and social-centred approaches in policy-making and implementation, what are the new ways of getting and incorporating inputs from the people affected by the policies?

Generally speaking, the politics of participation has changed over the years towards more bottom-up perspectives. More people engage with each other and/or are brought together to think and do things differently – locally in their neighbourhoods, schools, city councils or associations, or thanks to civil society organisations and social movements, or more globally through online and at a distance engagement such as open source and/or crowdsourced initiatives. Nevertheless, in order to radically change the connection between society and policy we still need more concerted efforts in mutual learning, education and distributed governance models. In this context, as Ann Light pointed out, do we need one policy lab per region or country, or do you need six billion policy labs?

The national, regional or local context for such participatory practices is also of major importance. For example, the Labs in Eastern Europe supported by UNDP (not only in Moldova but also in Armenia, Macedonia and Georgia) are navigating their particular set of conditions when trying to build bridges between public administration and civil society. They face political uncertainty, general lack of trust towards political bodies, insufficient and/or underdeveloped ways of direct engagement with citizens, and existence of “pockets of informal innovation” still unrecognised or adequately supported.

Labs in the political sphere

How to adopt openness and collaborative engagement as key guiding forces in policy-making (in the same way civil society has done) is still an open question. A comment from the audience during our dialogue session argued for the potential role of existing ‘civic labs’, ‘urban labs’ and other types of bottom-up initiatives, which have risen from civil society, think tanks, academia or other groups not directly related or engaged with governments or public administrations. How do we connect their valuable insights and experience to labs inside or close to government, or give them visibility in this new policy innovation narrative? While the knowledge and the expertise currently set up for policy-making are still coming from the ‘usual suspects’, new links and recognition systems between diverse actors need to be put in place for labs to find their way into current policy practices.

As already mentioned, although human and social-centred perspectives underlie a certain democratic understanding of reality, any intervention will greatly depend from the particular context. recent research underlines precisely the need to avoid a naïve or detached approach, and instead to confront the flows of power and deal with messy (and inevitable) circumstances, such as disagreements and conflicts, misaligned expectations, or asymmetrical controls over the processes and the goals of any initiative.

This is not to minimise policy labs ‘disruptive’ effect on governments’ and public administrations’ mode of operation, when they are truly successful. Policy labs can be seen as ‘agnostic spaces’ in the sense of being primarily confrontational spaces. What is yet to see is if they will be able to give rise to radical shifts, capable of shattering intellectual, ethical or political limits. Can policy labs become transdisciplinary and transgressive spaces able to inspire real change?