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Moving beyond prototypes – MVPs as a new type of political initiative

By launching political initiatives in the same way that startup companies launch their products, politicians can replace woolly symbolic policy with viable substance policy says MindLab's Jakob Schjørring.

When a media storm arises demanding political answers faster than fast, politicians tend to feed the hungry news monster with swift calories á la symbolic policy: acknowledgement, big words, and promises of political action. And just like candy, which tastes heavenly and satisfies immediate hunger but is not in fact real food, symbolic policy does not fix the real issue. On the contrary, lasting solutions need to accommodate the complexity of the political issue. But complex issues do not necessarily need complex solutions – they need a different approach. Minimum Viable Product is my proposal.

In my experience, the hunt for better ways to achieve desired public or citizen outcomes is recognised by most of civil servants who are engaged in the on-going improvement of public services and public policies. So if this is the case, why do we still see so many examples of unproductive or even counterproductive initiatives coming out of central and local governments around the world? Until now, the public sector innovation lab community has mainly explained this paradox with two frequent flaws in public sector innovation:

  1. Civil servants tend to misunderstand the problem that is to be solved, thereby developing the perfect solution for the wrong problem.
  2. Civil servants launch new initiatives that citizens or businesses do not use because they are not connected to the experience of their daily lives.

Political leadership as a driver of non-productive policies and public services

The two flaws above are definitely valid, and public sector innovation labs should indeed continue to show ways to deal with them. However, there is an extra issue that needs to be added to the equation in order to understand why civil servants and politicians launch non-productive policies: when an issue arises in the media, politicians are urged to provide quick solutions in order to show leadership. In these situations, civil servants often give up in advance on finding real solutions to the pressing issue as they are more occupied with avoiding a potential political disaster. This happens mainly because civil servants are aware of the two flaws mentioned above and therefore do not have the time to devise a strategy to resolve the real issue. Instead, they turn to the development of symbolic policies in order to show vigour and political leadership.

Public sector innovation labs should recognise this need for politicians and chief executives to show political leadership by helping them launch initiatives that do not contain too much risk. Furthermore, labs should acknowledge that from a civil servant’s point of view, showing political leadership is equally as valid as the quest to achieve real societal or citizen outcomes. If not, the chances are that civil servants will see the innovation processes promoted by labs as a utopian endeavor - one that they can all agree to but find very hard to implement in the fast-paced political development cycle.

The limitation of prototypes

So, how do you accommodate the need for a quick political response on hot media topics, while heightening the probability that civil servants and politicians will not find it too risky to aim for lasting solutions?

The best answer we as labs have given so far is introducing fast-paced prototyping. It is a way to try new initiatives in settings where mistakes and misconceptions do not have to lead to tabloid front pages, since the prototype is kept inside the walls of the civil service. Prototyping is merely a learning platform for another iteration in the policy development cycle. It is not a product in its own right. The prototyping approach has without a doubt proved its worth in numerous public sector innovation projects over the last decade. However, it has one big limitation: it happens behind the scenes and involves very few people, and hence does not provide a minister, local politician, or chief executive an opportunity to show political leadership. These leaders have to wait until the learnings from the prototyping iterations have been translated to a political initiative that can be launched publicly.

Minimum Viable Products as a way to learn through the introduction of new initiatives

I suggest that we look towards the latest Silicon Valley trend in entrepreneurship, as in the Lean Startup approach, to find a way to inspire civil servants on how to reduce the risk of aiming for real initiatives in the situations where fast political leadership is required.

A core element in the Lean Startup approach is the Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Basically, an MVP is a new startup company’s first offering on the market, the very first product or service that is able to function outside the developer’s office. Not all first offerings can be considered MVPs though. To qualify as an MVP, the product or service is primarily launched as a learning opportunity. The launched MVP holds only those features - and no more - that allow potential customers to judge whether or not the core concept resonates with their needs and desires. The market response to the MVP will thus provide the startup company with valuable feedback on their market assumptions. This feedback is used to develop the next and more ambitious offering on the market.

Since the MVP is a real offering (in contrast to the prototype), the MVP will also allow the startup to earn both cash and brand value – a need that echoes politicians' and top executives' needs to show political leadership.

MVPs in a public sector innovation context

I have yet to see public organisations intentionally launching MVP policies or public services as a learning opportunity. I have, however, stumbled across one initiative from the UK charity New Horizon Youth Centre that has not been launched intentionally as an MVP, but works as a great example of what a public sector MVP might look like.

Based on their inspiring idea, let’s imagine we are a public organisation trying to find new ways of securing shelter for homeless people in London. During a brainstorm session, an idea to strengthen the way that spaces with public access can serve as a shelter for the homeless begins to materialise. Exploring this innovative potential, the development team quickly come up with three questions on how the market will react to such initiatives and that would determine whether or not such initiatives would be successful:

1. How will non-homeless users of the public space respond to it as a shelter for homeless people?

2. How will front-end professionals working in that public space respond?

3. How will formal owners of the public space respond?

With a prototyping approach, the development team would do interviews, future scenarios or co-creation workshops to learn about whether or not these market questions hold true. With an MVP approach, the organisation would skip this and instead launch an actual initiative: Providing free night bus tickets to homeless young people so that circular-route night busses can act as a shelter for them.

What makes this initiative an MVP is that the market feedback will provide valuable knowledge about the market assumptions mentioned above. This therefore gives the organisation an idea of whether or not they should continue exploring the innovation path of using public spaces as shelter for the homeless when they once again have the opportunity to launch new initiatives.

On top of that, because the MVP is a real initiative and not just a rehearsal happening behind the scenes, the MVP in itself enables the organisation to show political leadership and to mark the start of the organisation’s work on achieving their desired outcome - to provide better shelter for homeless people. Built into the concept is the disclaimer that this is just the start and that more ambitious initiatives will be launched in the future, based on the feedback from the first initiative. Launching the initiative as an MVP also helps to manage expectations, making it more legitimate for the initiative to contain flaws - mainly because it is launched with the double -sided interest of learning and beginning to create impact.

A call for collective action

In the year to come, MindLab will bring the MVP mindset into the public sector innovation projects we take part in by exploring what MVPs could look like and what it takes to enable politicians and civil servants to launch and learn from such initiatives. In this context, I welcome everyone to share examples on public sector initiatives that match the core essence of the MVP, private sector examples of MVPs that might inspire public organisations, and insights from civil servants and politicians on the complex bottom lines that guide policy development and how MVPs might satisfy these.


Jakob Schjørring

Jakob is account director at MindLab, the Danish cross-public innovation unit, with an overall responsibility for establishing and managing MindLab's project portfolio.