Cat Drew reflects on her experience as an expert to the EU Policy Lab, who are trying to bring design-led approaches to European Commission policymaking, and what that might mean for organisations closer to home who are creating their own internal innovation capability.
In August 2016, just after the UK voted to leave the EU, I found myself starting an 18 month stint as an expert to the newly created EU Policy Lab. I and other experts such as Geoff Mulgan (Nesta), Stephane Vincent (27e Region), Marleen Stikker (Waag Society) and Francoise Waintrop (Ecole Nationale d’Administration) had been asked to act as design advisors to a Lab Connections programme which sought to bring together policy or innovation labs across Europe and link them with European Commission policymakers to help them understand the citizen perspective of the problems they were working on.
During a large event in October last year which brought together over 40 labs across Europe, we led workshops on a number of different policy challenges that had been put forward by Commission policymakers from the various Directorate Generals. These ranged from how to create an e-citizen portal? how creative hubs could prepare young people for work in the digital age? how to end segregation and discrimination of Roma communities? how to create ‘third spaces’ to bring about place-based change? The workshops co-designed an initial design methodology to produce answers to these questions. We’ve spent the last year negotiating/refining/adapting these methodologies and carrying them out in workshops and immersive sessions across Europe. Today – at our final meeting in Brussels – was a chance for us to swap notes, learn and reflect on the challenges and opportunities of bringing citizen voice into the heart of bureaucratic decision-making.
As more organisations start to create internal innovation labs – and build their organisations to do so – there are some reflections that will be relevant for the UK audience:
- There is real value in going out and listening directly to citizens voices. It was inspiring to hear how the workshops with citizens in France and Portugal developed insight about what citizens wanted from an e-citizens charter, and how this has informed not only European Commission policy, but also services in the town in Portugal where the workshop was held. It provides a different perspective from speaking to stakeholders, but is more challenging to do. There is a danger that – unless we keep insisting on this – ‘policy design’ could slip back into just talking to other – albeit smaller – organisations rather than residents themselves.
- The policy owner – not the Lab – has to be the one owning the problem. After the initial workshop, the challenge I was working on (around creative hubs) took about 12 months to finalise. We had to make sure that we were solving a problem that the DG was interested in (and could do something about). After lots of discussion, we were able to find an opportunity to link it to the creative hubs Peer2Peer programme and create something that would help hubs collectively understand how best position themselves for further funding. It is tempting (as I also know from my time at Policy Lab) to push ahead with these sorts of ‘demonstrator projects’ as you want to show the value of design. But without the policymaker owning the problem, they won’t own the solution and good ideas won’t be implemented.
- There is huge value in policy labs coming together. I learn so much from my peers in other agencies and organisations (not just design). Our reflection session left my mind buzzing with potential new ways of doing things (and not doing things). For example Stephane Vincent spoke about the importance of ‘boring innovation’ – the innovation in culture, procurement, communication and regulation in bureaucracies which is essential to create the shiny new ideas. At Uscreates, we’ve recently started bringing together local councils, national charities and social enterprises who are innovating around homelessness to learn from each other. As well as sparking innovation within an organisation, its important to catalyse innovation in the system that surrounds it.
It’s been a privilege to be part of such a thoughtful and experienced expert group, to meet and be part of the wider network of policy labs across Europe, and of course work with ‘real people’ – young people using cultural hubs in Limerick, Cordoba, Marotta and Matera. Although the UK might be slowly and sadly leaving the EU, our work with European partners is strong, with other Uscreates projects with the EU Policy Lab on the use of blockchain in healthcare, and with the Commission to create a knowledge hub.