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Three lessons for government innovators from the IGL conference

Experimentation is one of the three pillars of our strategy at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Centre for Government Innovation. Under this pillar, we aim to foster a culture of learning by doing and encourage colleagues across government to test new approaches that go beyond “business as usual”.

I was therefore very much looking forward to attending the Innovation Growth Lab event organised by Nesta last week in the UK as an opportunity to compare notes with other practitioners interested in promoting experimentation as the new normal in government.

There are lots of insights I gained at the event, but these are the three things that particularly stood out for me:

The need to demonstrate evidence for innovation practitioners is growing, but so are the political and structural challenges

Being a public servant is a challenging job these days, as the pressure of limited resources - both financial and human - puts great stress on governments. Innovation is often seen as a shortcut for greater efficiencies, rather than a way to radically rethink how policies are conceived and implemented. Yet as Jesper Christiansen from Nesta put it, innovation practice should move from demonstration projects to “changing the default” of government.

This is difficult to do in an environment where efficiency and immediate proof of evidence of results are the key mantras. As was highlighted over and over again during the conference, conducting research takes time, the links between research institutes and governments or policymakers are often weak, and innovation “should work on the edges and not on the big flashy trails to make a difference”.

Structural challenges are compounded by what are often stronger cultural issues. As Michael Schrage put it recently in the MIT Sloan Management Review: “at most firms, management overwhelmingly favours planning, programs, projects, and pilots over the real-world benefits of experimental knowledge and insight. Most don’t realise how exponential economics of experimentation can bolster their innovation investment portfolios”. Participants at the IGL event seemed to agree that often this is the case also in the public sector.

We need a broader toolkit to conduct experiments in government

Perhaps not surprisingly, RCTs (randomised controlled trials) took the lion’s share of attention at the conference. However, the challenge that public servants face is that RCTs takes a long time, a luxury that they often cannot afford. So the question remains: how do we prove the impact of innovation policy? Solutions presented at the conference ranged from prototypes to stronger ties between governments and research institutes, from more systematic sharing of failures to qualitative evidence.

Overall, the message I took home is that we need to expand the toolkit for experimentation in government, but also broaden the base of evidence (to include qualitative and quantitative approaches) and replace the fidelity of implementation mantra with openness to adaptation. In addition, spreading an experimental mind-set will require structural adjustments. Andrés Zahler, Head of innovation at Start-up Chile, explained how the country’s Ministry of Public Sector Innovation created an inter-ministerial committee to promote ownership of innovation activities across government. This is similar to what the UAE government has created for the National Innovation Strategy: a committee that has members from seven ministries tasked to drive the innovation agenda in the country.

Can MENA lead the way on experimentation?

Many of the tools and approaches presented at the conference were new to me and I could not help notice that I was the only participant from the MENA region at the event (unless I missed someone!). This left me wondering: is there a way for governments in our region to leapfrog the current gap and take a leading role when it comes to experimentation?

We have a major opportunity in the UAE as we are building a cohort of chief innovation government officers and have just launched the first MOOC for government innovators in Arabic. As usual, it is always best to lead by example! As soon as I got back home, we inserted an hypothesis testing exercise in the training of our chief innovation officers, to start planting the seed of experimentation. And this is of course only the beginning.

What techniques are you using in your government to build experimentation skills? Leave a comment - I would love to compare notes.


Shatha Alhashmi

Shatha works for the UAE's Prime Minister’s Office as a Director in the Mohammed Bin Rashid Centre for Government Innovation.