Test-tube government

The Economist: “INCUBATORS, accelerators, garages, laboratories: the best big companies have had them for years. Whatever the moniker (The Economist once had one called “Project Red Stripe”), in most cases a select few workers are liberated from the daily grind and encouraged to invent the future. Now such innovation units are becoming de rigueur in the public sector too: Boston has an Office of New Urban Mechanics; Denmark has a MindLab; and Singapore has the more prosaically named PS21 Office.
These government laboratories provide a bridge between the public and private sectors. Sometimes governments simply copy what private firms are doing. MindLab is based on the Future Centre, the innovation unit of Skandia, a big insurance firm. Sometimes they get money and advice from private sources: the New Orleans Innovation Delivery Team is partly funded by Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York city and one of America’s biggest media tycoons. Whatever the connection, these units plug the public sector into a new world. They are full of people talking about “disruption” and “iteration”.
The units also provide a connection with academia. Britain’s Behavioural Insights Team, originally based in the Cabinet Office, was the world’s first government outfit dedicated to applying the insights of behavioural economics to public policy (it was known as the “nudge unit”, after the book “Nudge”, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein). David Halpern, the group’s head, says that its mission was to point out the “small details” of policy that can have big consequences (see Free Exchange). It persuaded, for instance, HM Revenue & Customs, Britain’s tax collection agency, to tweak the words of a routine letter to say that most people in the recipient’s local area had already paid their taxes. As a result, payment rates increased by five percentage points.
A new report published by Nesta, a British charity devoted to promoting innovation, and Bloomberg Philanthropies shows how popular these government innovation labs have become. They can be found in a striking variety of places, from developing countries such as Malaysia to rich countries like Finland, and in the offices of mayors as well as the halls of central government.
Whatever their location, the study suggests they go about things in similar ways, with a lot of emphasis on harnessing technology. The most popular idea is co-creation—getting one’s customers to help invent and improve products and services. Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics has produced a series of apps which provide citizens with a convenient way of reporting problems such as graffiti and pot holes (by taking a photograph and sending it to city hall, users provide it with evidence and GPS co-ordinates). The staff-suggestion scheme introduced by PS21 in Singapore has produced striking results: one air-force engineer came up with the idea of scanning aircraft for leaks with ultraviolet light, just as opticians scan the cornea for scratches….
The most striking thing about these institutions, however, is their willingness to experiment. Policymakers usually alternate between hostility to new ideas and determination to implement a new policy without bothering to try it out first. Innovation centres tend to be both more daring and happy to test things. Sitra, for instance, is experimenting with health kiosks in shopping centres which are staffed by nurses, provide routine care and stay open late and on weekends. The Centre for Social Innovation in Colombia has developed computer games which are designed to teach pre-teenagers to make sensible choices about everything from nutrition to gang membership. Sitra also tracks the progress of each project that it funds against its stated goals….”