The challenges of running a public sector lab
Whilst the examples in the Landscape of Labs post demonstrate the potential of public sector innovation labs to achieve results, like any new organisational form, there are of course hurdles that must crossed to make the business case for innovation labs. Below are some of the common challenges faced by labs, whatever their remit.
Effectiveness of method
Innovation labs are by their very nature experimental. The diverse mandates and missions of these organisations alone demonstrates the extent of their ambition. Innovation labs need to be allowed a degree of separation from the political short-termism often found in government.
Labs need to be allowed a degree of separation from the political short-termism often found in government.
Naturally, timescales allowed should also depend on the scale of the problem being tackled. It’s important to note, however, that it may not be possible to demonstrate major progress in the short term. And at the same time, it may not be useful in the long-term to have innovation labs set up as permanent structures either. Getting the balance right is critical. Allowing a timescale of three to five years can focus attention on proving the lab’s value and effectiveness – by working to solve quick and easy wins alongside bigger, more systemic challenges.
Evidence of impact
The i-teams report, a piece of research produced by Nesta and Bloomberg Philanthropies, looked at 20 examples of innovation labs and teams around the world tasked with making innovation happen in government at all levels. Interestingly, this research demonstrates that although all the innovation labs featured used qualitative or quantitative methods to scope and develop their programme of work, only half measured the impacts of individual projects in terms of outcomes and savings.
There is a strong ethical imperative to assess what works before rolling it out regionally or nationally
Impact measurement of course poses a challenge not just for innovation labs – but for general government projects too. In the UK, for instance, the National Audit Office has suggested that £66bn worth of government projects have no plans to evaluate their impact. Innovation labs may lack the resources, skills, or cultural appetite to carry out evaluations on individual projects. Yet the effort for those that do it well pays off.
Identifying and evaluating a lab’s impact is not only essential to capturing and communicating progress, highlighting success, and proving its value to others – there is also a strong ethical imperative to assess what works before rolling it out regionally or nationally.
Innovation should never be the responsibility of one team
While this point may seem to contradict the very notion of there being an innovation lab or team in the first place, this is crucial. The value of innovation labs comes from their providing the insights, methods, guidance, capacity and support to tackle key challenges in novel and collaborative ways. If government leaders are truly committed to seeing these new approaches and methods become embedded into its standard operating systems, then it needs to share the responsibility with the rest of government, identifying clear owners who are tasked with implementation and delivery.