Center for American Progress

24 Ways Governments and Organizations Are Generating Great Ideas in the Public Sector

24 Ways Governments and Organizations Are Generating Great Ideas in the Public Sector

Governments around the world have discovered myriad ways to generate great ideas despite barriers to innovation in the public sector. Here are some of the best examples.

Read the full report: Capital Ideas: How to Generate Innovation in the Public Sector

Governments around the world have discovered myriad ways to generate great ideas despite the barriers to innovation in the public sector. Here are some of the best examples, organized under five broad themes. Consider it a practical menu of proven approaches to stimulate innovation in any organization. Not all these examples will be applicable to every agency, but every innovation leader should apply at least one strategy under each of the following five themes.

Unleash the creative talents of agency staff
The Transportation Security Administration’s IdeaFactory | The U.S. Army’s field manual wiki | South Australian A-Teams | Iowa’s drive to improve government efficiency

Set up dedicated teams responsible for promoting innovation
Dedicated innovation strategists in the United Kingdom | The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement | Denmark’s forward-thinking innovation unit | Social entrepreneurs in residence in Britain | Innovation scouts

Divert a small proportion of your budget to harnessing innovation
HUD uses 1 percent to enact needed transformations | The Education Department’s i3 fund | OMB’s Partnership Fund for Program Integrity Innovation | The World Bank’s annual development competition | Regional innovation funds in the United Kingdom | The Young Foundation’s Launchpad

Collaborate with outsiders to help solve problems
The Navy DeepDives into innovative thinking | Crowdsourcing ideas with Innocentive | D.C.’s Apps for Democracy and other competitions | Department of Education’s Open Innovation Portal | Getting together at Social Innovation Camp

Look at an issue from different perspectives to notice things you wouldn’t otherwise
Using participatory rural appraisal to understand community problems | The United Kingdom looks at bereavement from the consumer perspective | The Netherlands’s Kafka Brigades | Patient Opinion brings transparency to the British health care system

Unleash the creative talents of agency staff

The Transportation Security Administration’s IdeaFactory



The Transportation Security Administration’s IdeaFactory website

The Transportation Security Administration developed IdeaFactory in 2007. It’s an online community where employees are asked to suggest ways to enhance their workplace. TSA has more than 60,000 staff members in many locations, and the website is a place where all TSA staff can see what others are suggesting and comment on what they think of the ideas. More than 11,000 ideas have been posted on the site so far, and a number of them have been implemented as innovations to the way things are done at TSA. The agency has, for example, introduced self-select lanes at airports that enable travelers to select one of three lanes based on their needs and knowledge of the screening process.

Asking staff for suggestions for how to improve the ways that organizations function can be a very powerful tool for generating good ideas. It also helps ensure scrutiny for those policies and practices that are in place merely because somebody once, long ago thought they were a good idea. These methods ensure that organizations are accountable internally for the bureaucracy that they place on their co-workers. The key challenge with these models is that they require sufficient time to process the ideas received and either respond positively or explain why the idea cannot be implemented. If staff members who submit ideas feel that the ideas are not being considered in sufficient depth, they may become demotivated from submitting further ideas.

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The U.S. Army’s field manual wiki


SOURCE: milWiki

The U.S. Army’s field manual wiki, which includes more than 500 manuals.

Updating Army field manuals can be a mammoth task—there are more than 500 manuals, many of which can be hundreds of pages long. But the U.S. Army has adopted a new approach: It started in fall 2009 putting its manuals on a wiki format so that any soldier could edit them. The Army has started with a pilot program of seven manuals being wiki-fied, including cold weather operations. Any soldier can make an edit, but changes are subject to review by a central team. Organizations with a strong internal policy culture would be able to apply this method to their own context. Empowering staff affected by rules to suggest specific changes makes it much easier to ensure that those rules are ones that actually work. Having a check from a central team on changes may not be necessary in the long term, but it is a good short-term measure to ensure that the release of power from the center is not abused.

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South Australian A-Teams

The South Australian government is building on Google’s model of asking staff to think creatively in addition to their day jobs. It is bringing together young public servants and others drawn from universities and community groups to develop innovative ideas to tackle difficult issues such as homelessness, early childhood development, and improving confidence in the criminal justice system. A group of around 10 to 20 young people work together in each case as an “A-team” for a short period—perhaps six to eight weeks. They are encouraged to develop suggestions for improvement by canvassing ideas from the wider community, and they benefit from a senior sponsor within government. They present their recommendations to senior officials in government and their report is published. Some of the ideas are not easy to implement, but others have been taken forward and now form part of the government’s policy in fields including the creation of children’s centers and new programs for homeless people.

Even though Google’s model of 20 percent time is easier to make work for a large profitable firm than for public-sector organizations, aspects of the model are easy to replicate in government. It is relatively straightforward to ask teams of staff to spend some time thinking about issues that go beyond their dayto-day responsibilities and seek their views. Input from someone who is less familiar with an issue will often lead to new and valuable perspectives—and ideas that those who are closer to the problem miss. But this approach can only work where those who have lead policy responsibility for an issue are interested in others’ views and keen to consider ideas for improvement.

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Iowa’s drive to improve government efficiency

Governor Chet Culver

SOURCE: AP/Steve Pope

Iowa Governor Chet Culver delivers his Condition of the State speech in Des Moines on January 12, 2010.

Gov. Chet Culver in Iowa launched a drive to improve the efficiency of the state government in 2009. The administration worked with external consultants Public Works to seek views from staff on ways to improve efficiency. Ninety ideas emerged to save money over a four-month period—ranging from requiring new hires to have their wages deposited into their bank accounts (saving around $400,000 over five years) to improving energy efficiency in state buildings (estimated to save around $7 million over five years). Using an external organization to help facilitate the conversations allowed the staff of Iowa’s departments and agencies to develop a large number of innovative ideas for cost savings, and the overall savings are estimated at around $250 million over five years.

The Iowa example shows that staff can be very creative even when it comes to controversial issues such as generating cost savings. Sometimes external organizations can play a role in unleashing the creativity of staff.

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Set up dedicated teams responsible for promoting innovation

Dedicated innovation strategists in the United Kingdom

The British government set up the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit in 1998 to look at strategic policy issues facing the country and devise innovative solutions. The unit has undertaken dozens of reports ranging from encryption standards to fishing. There is a dedicated resource allocated in each case to look creatively at the issues—for a period of four to 12 months. The teams are specifically charged with accessing leading thinking from other countries and the academic community when coming up with their ideas.

Teams looking at an issue are typically made up of a combination of those who are experts in the subject—who might be on detail from the lead agency or a nonprofit with expertise in the policy area—and those who bring a fresh perspective. About half usually come from outside government—from NGOs, business, and universities, and from front-line service delivery.

The unit remains inexpert in particular policy areas, but is somewhat expert at the process of thinking creatively about policy issues. The key to the unit’s success is that those who work in the unit are insulated from the responding to daily events—and so they have the necessary time and resources to really think creatively. Other countries have now copied this model—including France, Australia, and Japan—seeing it as a way to keep the whole of government focused on longterm problems and solutions while also keeping it open to new ideas.

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The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement

The U.S. Department of Education has also set up a dedicated unit responsible for innovation. The Office of Innovation and Improvement describes itself as a “nimble, entrepreneurial arm” of the department. It administers a significant funding program designed to promote innovation in education, and also brings teacher leaders from public schools to the department to help develop policy on improving the quality of public education. It also publishes “innovation in education” guides that showcase effective forms of innovation across public schools.

Dedicated teams responsible for policy and program innovation are often small, but have specific responsibility to drive forward innovative practices. That means that they are often in touch with the techniques that other organizations are deploying, and the best way to harness the talents of others within and beyond the agency. They are also insulated from the day-to-day work that people with lead responsibility for a policy area often have, and so they will always have time to ensure that innovation is put into practice. But if they are given responsibility for driving innovation at the exclusion of the rest of the organization, then that is unlikely to be an effective approach. They work best when they work with the rest of the agency to help ensure that innovative approaches are developed.

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Denmark’s forward-thinking innovation unit

MindLab officer


The MindLab offices in Copenhagen, Denmark.

MindLab in Denmark is a particularly forward thinking innovation unit. It is run jointly by three government departments: the Ministry of Economic and Business Affairs, the Ministry of Taxation, and the Ministry of Employment. It has around 15 employees, some of whom are drawn from outside the public sector, and acts as a catalyst for innovative thinking across its parent government departments. It has worked on a diverse range of issues—from understanding and reducing red tape businesses face, to reducing workplace injuries. The underlying philosophy of the team is that they work to bring user-focused innovation into the three parent ministries by observing the impact that the ministries’ policies and programs have on businesses, consumers, or employees. Mindlab also hosts a number of Ph.D. projects run in collaboration with leading universities focusing on citizen and business involvement in public-sector innovation.

MindLab is also a physical space designed specially to be promote innovative thinking—with neutral colors, easy-to-move furniture, plenty of whiteboards, and a special workshop zone. MindLab’s values include challenging traditional thinking and bureaucracy, challenging each other’s thinking, and experimenting with the objective in mind. MindLab’s facilities and services are also available to each of the parent government departments. The investment costs of having a dedicated innovation space are relatively small and would be justified if it helps to change organizational culture. The issues that government is tackling are becoming increasingly complex, and there is real merit in agencies working together to develop innovative solutions to tackle these issues—and so jointly owned innovation capacity may be better than that owned by a single agency.

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Social entrepreneurs in residence in Britain

Eleanor Cappell

SOURCE: Anita Meric

Eleanor Cappell, a social entrepreneur in residence: “We have health challenges as never before. This is an opportunity to empower people and motivate them.”.

Another option is to bring in outsiders to help seed innovation from within. Two municipalities in the United Kingdom are experimenting with the concept of “social entrepreneurs in residence.” The initiative is designed to address two issues simultaneously: the need for public services to better mobilize innovation sources inside and outside their organizations, and the frustration experienced by social entrepreneurs who couldn’t win public sector support for their ideas, even when they were successfully proving results.

The first SEIR was appointed in the health service in Birmingham in 2009. Their job is to find, support, and then finance the most promising new ideas that would help the health service meet its goals. They report directly to the people in charge of commissioning services, but also manage a mediumsized budget to finance new and growing ventures at different scales. Some of these are run by NGOs and social enterprises; others are developed by nurses, doctors, and other staff, and in some cases spun out as new social ventures. Bringing outsiders with experience innovating in public policy contexts into government can help to seed innovative practices within agencies. They can help catalyze innovation by working closely with those who understand how the agency works.

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Innovation scouts

Innovation scouts in the private sector are responsible for discovering innovations that can be adapted, adopted, or replicated within their organization. Small and medium firms in northern Italy, such as the Emilia Romagna clothing producers in Carpi, form consortia to fund scouts of this kind. The scouts travel to international trade fairs and conferences to identify the latest technologies, and then report back through the region’s Centres for Real Services.

Many Japanese companies use a similar approach when thinking of ideas for new products, as do U.S. firms such as Proctor and Gamble. But the approach can also be transferred to the public sector. The Young Foundation in the United Kingdom has employed an experienced investigative journalist to play a similar role in health care, scanning for promising new projects and looking in detail at which elements could be adapted or replicated. This information is then provided to practitioners in the field—and also helps innovation teams spot major gaps. Unlike the private sector, where technology is protected by intellectual property, agencies in the public sector can work much more openly together toward solutions. Looking at what others are doing and “stealing with pride” from others should be part of that effort—scouting for ideas at state level, from other agencies that face similar challenges, or from those in other countries can all help to generate great ideas.

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Divert a small proportion of your budget to harnessing innovation

HUD uses 1 percent to enact needed transformations

The Department for Housing and Urban Development first sought approval from Congress in its fiscal year 2010 budget to set aside up to 1 percent of its budget for a transformation program. The department admitted in its budget justification that it is deeply in need of transformation—and asked for funds to help modernize the department. One of the objectives of the funding was to develop “better programs that serve more people with fewer resources.” Congress said yes, although it did set some conditions. Much of the money is to modernize the department through measures such as new IT systems, but some of the funding will pay for developing and evaluating innovative approaches to problems.

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The Education Department’s i3 fund

The Department of Education has a specific fund dedicated to “Investing in Innovation,” also known as the i3 fund. Congress initially supported the program with $650 million in funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but the department is seeking $500 million in continuation funding for fiscal year 2011. The fund is specifically looking to accelerate the development of an education sector with a higher level of achievement at K-12 level, promote magnet and charter schools, and more effective teachers and school leaders. There are three types of grants: development grants aimed at finding a large number of promising ideas an early stage; validation grants focused on testing whether ideas have been successful; and scale-up grants that fund the scaling up of initiatives that have been proven to succeed at the small scale.

Development grants will, on average, be around $3 million—enough to see whether an idea that looks promising is likely to succeed. The existence of these funds means that many who have good ideas on how to improve education can now come forward with them and seek funding to see if their ideas can work. Many of these ideas will not work in practice, but others will, and those have the potential to pay back many times the initial investment. It is important that the department does fund some ideas that have relatively low chances of success but would bring enormous gains if they were successful. That would be much better than an approach that sought only to fund ideas that are very likely to succeed but have modest impact.

The department has worked hard to help those that submit proposals put the best ideas forward, for example, by holding workshops and webinars with potential applicants. There were more than 1,600 applicants for funding in the first round. The initial investment in the i3 fund was less than 1 percent of the Recovery Act funds allocated to education, and the subsequent $500 million is an even smaller proportion of the education budget in FY2011.

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OMB’s Partnership Fund for Program Integrity Innovation

The White House Office of Management and Budget has set up a $37.5 million Partnership Fund for Program Integrity Innovation, which provides funds to invest in innovative, collaborative work between states and the federal government aimed at addressing errors and improper payments in federal means-tested programs. The fund works to improve service— and maintaining or improving access is an important cornerstone. The overall level of improper payments was estimated at $98 billion in 2009, so the fund has enormous potential to save public money.

The fund invites ideas through a website and face-to-face meetings on what would work best at reducing improper payments. Initial ideas include capturing information on benefit recipients once and reusing it. It has set up an expert group to identify concepts that have the most promise, and members are drawn from across the administration, states, and other key stakeholders such as advocates, as well as fraud investigators. These ideas are then developed further and the program allocates specific funding to pilot projects. The program only aims to fund projects that, in aggregate, save as much money as they cost—and so the actual cost to the government should be zero.

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The World Bank’s annual development competition

World Bank Development Marketplace

SOURCE: Flickr/JamesQ68

The 2009 World Bank Development Marketplace.

The World Bank runs an annual competition called Development Marketplace that seeks innovative ideas from NGOs and others that have practical ideas they believe could have significantly improve development. There were 1,755 applications in 2009, and the World Bank chose 100 as finalists and invited them to present their ideas at an event in Washington, D.C. A jury comprised of development professionals and other experts identified the projects that are most innovative and show evidence of being able to transfer their experience easily. Winners of the competition receive a grant of up to $200,000.

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Regional innovation funds in the United Kingdom

The health department in the United Kingdom has set up a $350 million network of “regional innovation funds” charged with financing service innovations, particularly ones addressing long-term conditions. It aims to complement the roughly $1.5 billion spent annually on medical and technology research and development. The idea came when government leaders recognized the need for radical change in how health services are organized over the next two decades—with a much bigger role for primary care, a focus on enabling patients to manage their own conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, greater use of technology to provide information and feedback, and more emphasis on public health and prevention. The RIFs aren’t aiming to replace existing research and development support, but they will increasingly complement it by supporting service innovations.

The funds use a range of funding tools, including stage-gate investments, social impact bonds, equity, and loans—and complement a series of other new investment funds including a $150 million Social Enterprise Investment Fund for health. They have also developed a new set of tools for measuring the likely results and financial viability of innovations.

Each of these funding initiatives requires small sums of money to be invested in helping create solutions for the future. Even if a tiny proportion of the ideas that emerge are successful in transforming the way that government addresses a particular area, the investment will likely recoup the initial funding many times over. But they all also require courage among those responsible for putting together budgets—both in the executive and legislative branches—to invest money in ideas that are not yet proven to work in the hope that the research and development investment pays off.

Governments sometimes find it particularly difficult to invest in things that have the potential to make a significant impact but don’t yet have the evidence that they will. The risk is that if things don’t go as well as they might, government is blamed for investments that have failed. Government employees sometimes lack the skills necessary to make those kinds of investments—the skills are more often found in venture capital houses or grant-making foundations that are used to making investments in the hope that they will collectively bring a significant return, even if some individual investments are unlikely to succeed.

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The Young Foundation’s Launchpad

LaunchPad event

SOURCE: Flickr/The Young Foundation

Health Launchpad’s senior associate, Jacques Mizan, introduces case studies.

The London-based Young Foundation administers programs called Launchpad that offer small-scale investment funding for promising ideas that could transform education or health policy. They look for ideas from budding social innovators who think that they have come up with something that could radically improve the way things are done. Ideas with a marginal expected effect are unlikely to receive funding, but those that could have a large national impact may, even if they are little more than an idea.

Shortlisted innovators are invited to present their proposals in person, and the session is videotaped and posted on the Internet. The initial investments are small— from as little as $5,000 to $50,000, and investments follow a stage-gate approach: small seed funding is available for ideas that are wholly untested, and the funding contribution increases as they take off and become more successful. Funding for the more commercial ideas is provided in the form of loans, equity, and quasiequity. But often it’s the advice that counts for more than money: shaping ideas into viable new enterprises with sound business models.

Examples of Launchpad projects include a network of new schools that will begin to open this year, an apprenticeship program linking unemployed teenagers to builders and plumbers that the new United Kingdom government has committed to scaling up to 100,000 places, a web platform for teachers and learners (, a radically different model for supporting people with long-term conditions (Neuroresponse), and a company testing out different types of incentive payment for healthy behavior and measuring the savings achieved for hospitals.

The advantages of schemes run at arms length from government is that they can help to ensure that funding decisions are kept away from political influence. There is also a real benefit in ensuring that those who allocate funds are experts in their fields and have expertise in grants or investments. A third benefit is that the arms-length approach gives government some distance from projects that might seem politically controversial at first—there is some scope for politicians to plausibly distance themselves if things don’t go as well as they might since decisions are made by an independent organization.

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Collaborate with outsiders to help solve problems

Government does not have a monopoly on wisdom, and it often can benefit from collaborating with the private and nonprofit sectors to develop innovative solutions. There are two main ways of doing this—either by working with successful commercial organizations that can help government be more innovative, or by harnessing the energy of those in civil society who want to help address social issues but are rarely asked for their thoughts.

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The Navy DeepDives into innovative thinking

DeepDive is a facilitation technique initially developed by the design consultancy Ideo and now operated by Deloitte. It enables teams to rapidly brainstorm new thinking. The U.S. Navy, for example, recently brought together 180 commanders from around the world to find ways to reduce the carbon footprint of bases by 25 percent over the next decade. The facilitators led a two-hour session to get the creative juices flowing—it started with groups of eight developing their own solutions for 30 minutes. This was then followed by “the frenzy”—a 15-minute period where people go round the room, learn about others ideas, ask questions, and steal the things they like. Teams then reconvened and developed their final ideas. They had a minute to present to the rest of the room and were then asked to vote on their favorites. All the participants walked away after the two-hour timeframe with 23 different strategies to address the issue and a sense of how to apply and test innovative thinking.

Bringing in outside facilitators to unleash the creative talents of public-sector staff can be an effective way to identify the ideas that often sit untapped in publicsector organizations. The process need not be that expensive, and in some cases, organizations might be able to develop their own internal capacity to help facilitate creative brainstorming sessions.

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Crowdsourcing ideas with Innocentive

Innocentive is a commercial organization that works with companies to identify scientific problems that need a solution and posts them online. It then invites scientists to work up solutions, and there is an award available if they are effective at addressing the problem. There are more than 200,000 people working to solve problems that are posted on the website. The identity of both those who seek solutions and those who provide them is kept anonymous, and the process is handled by Innocentive. This approach is now being applied in the social context through a partnership between Innocentive, the Rockefeller Foundation, and GlobalGiving under which the Innocentive solvers are being asked to address five water related challenges in developing countries.

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D.C.’s Apps for Democracy and other competitions

The D.C. government created a website in 2008 that posted more than 200 sets of government data online in real time from 311 service requests to public space permit applications. D.C. asked computer programmers under the Apps for Democracy initiative to come forward with applications that would present this data in a user-friendly manner—and promised a prize fund of $50,000 for the best idea.15 The competition lasted a month and led to developers putting together 47 applications—all of which are available to the public for free.

One of the two gold winners was, an application that allows users to type in an address and find out where the nearest shopping center, post office, and convenience store are, among other things. They can also find out about recently reported offenses in the area and access colorful pie charts giving demographic information on their neighborhood. The D.C. government estimates that its modest investment of $50,000 produced around $2.3 million of value in terms of IT development. The contest has continued and many more applications have been developed as a result. A similar competition was run in Australia (called MashupAustralia) and led to 82 entries—among the winners was an application to honor service men and women allowing users to find their photographs, service records, and maps.

This idea has now been transferred to more specific contexts. The U.S. Department for Agriculture, for example, is now working with the International Game Developers Association to organize a competition for software developers, game designers, and young people to work together to develop computer games and other applications that would help promote healthy lifestyles among children.

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Department of Education’s Open Innovation Portal

The U.S. Education Department has developed a special website, the Open Innovation Portal, that encourages collaboration among education professionals to help tackle difficult educational problems. Challenges are posted on the website, and members are asked to come up with their ideas on how to tackle the issues. Users can also post ideas unrelated to the challenges that they believe will lead to improvements in education. Website users can rate the ideas and are invited to post comments so that their suggestions on how to improve the idea can be incorporated. People who submit ideas often revise them to reflect comments received. The website can play a role in generating excellent ideas as well as help to disseminate them across the education profession. There is currently no funding available through the website, but ideas can seek funding through the i3 fund discussed above. And some of the challenges are likely to have prizes for the best ideas in the future.

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Getting together at Social Innovation Camp

SI Camp website


The Social Innovation Camp website.

A recent model for widening the menu of creative ideas is the Social Innovation Camp. These are run over a weekend and bring together 100 to 200 people, roughly split between web designers and software programmers on the one hand, and volunteers from the public sector, business, and civil society. The organizers gather challenges in the run up to the event and then divide the group into teams. Their task is to design a working website that solves the problem by Sunday evening—with prizes going to the best examples. Social Innovation Camps can be generic or they can be targeted at specific issues such as tackling obesity through developing computer games. And they have so far had a high success rate in generating sustainable models—for example, a site to link disabled people and product designers, or to orchestrate feedback to the police—and creating new organizations around them.

It can be very powerful to link those outside government who want to make a difference to society and have real expertise in particular areas with those in government who are seeking to tackle big social problems. These approaches are turning around the old model where government would clearly define how to solve the problem and then go through the procurement process to find contractors to deliver it. There are modest transfers of money in some of these cases, but in most cases people don’t work on these projects for the money—they do so because they have altruistic motives or value the public recognition. The result is that the ideas are much more innovative than government could ever create, the solutions are often developed by outside experts collaborating with each other, and the costs to government are much less than under the old approach.

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Look at an issue from different perspectives to notice things you wouldn’t otherwise

Using participatory rural appraisal to understand community problems

Participatory rural appraisal is a technique developed in the 1980s that works by really trying to understand the perspective of those who live in poor communities in developing countries. Techniques include asking groups of residents to walk around their neighborhood and create maps of their local community—which reveal the things they see as important—or asking residents to rank different issues that could be addressed, or different ways of addressing issues. The techniques have developed beyond “rural” communities and are used to bring real customer insight into development policy.

Simply walking and noticing things can be a surprisingly powerful tool for seeing possibilities in a new way—the Shodh Yatra, organized by the Honeybee network in India, is a particularly good example of a program that goes out into the community to generate new ideas. The program aims to find, improve, and disseminate the best methods being used for farming and nutrition.

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The United Kingdom looks at bereavement from the consumer perspective

A similar approach in the United Kingdom is looking at customer journeys. The government published a report in 2005 that looked at the experience of interacting with government when a loved one passed away. It found that in a typical case, the relative was required to contact local and national government agencies 44 times—for example to stop payments of the deceased’s retirement pension and to cancel their passport. The family encountered a number of instances of disjointed service including a day when they received two letters that gave them conflicting information about how the process was meant to work. The government had no idea that it was so difficult until it looked at the experience of bereavement from the customer perspective.

Individual agencies had developed stovepiped processes that seemed to make sense from their perspective but failed to do so from the citizen perspective. The realization that government was imposing such a process at a time that a citizen needed support because they had lost a relative led to the government piloting a new approach so that citizens only had to “tell us once” when there was a birth or death in their family. The process has since been used to look at other interactions with government from the perspective of the citizen, such as being called for jury service.

Looking at issues from the perspective of citizens rather than government can be a refreshing and unusual experience for those in agencies. Formal techniques such as participatory rural appraisal can be borrowed from the world of development and applied in other contexts. And looking at the customer experience can often lead to public servants learning that the impact of their collective actions is quite different than they had intended. Often developing solutions to the issues that these techniques raise can be relatively easy—the real work is in understanding issues by looking at them from different perspectives. While formal techniques will be relevant in many cases, there are also others where the mere act of trying to understand the perspective of those affected by government can help to better inform policymaking—so ensuring that all those who work on policies toward business spend a day a month with businesses understanding how their policies affect business can be almost costless but bring in new perspectives.

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The Netherlands’s Kafka Brigades

“Kafka brigades” in the Netherlands work to develop solutions to instances where red tape is causing citizens or businesses aggravation with government. The approach was developed by a think tank called Kennisland working with a private firm, and public agencies have adopted it when they are keen to find ways to improve a bureaucratic process. The approach works over a three-month process and starts by building some examples of the bureaucratic experience from the citizen or business perspective—for example, they might produce a short film that summarizes the user experience. Experts from the public sector are then brought together with citizens and/or businesses to form a Kafka brigade, reviewing the user experience and suggesting improvements, which leads to the development of an action plan. The approach has looked at issues from restaurant licensing procedures, to regulatory barriers, to volunteers working with disabled people—in each case using an understanding of the user perspective to develop improvements to the way that government conducts its business.

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Patient Opinion brings transparency to the British health care system

MindLab officer


Patient opinion website.

Patient Opinion in the United Kingdom adopts a similar approach using a web platform. Patient Opinion is an independent, nonprofit website that allows patients to share their experiences of health care—from visiting a local doctor to inpatient care at a hospital.2 Patients are encouraged to explain their experiences (good or bad) in some detail so that others can access that information. The site carries no advertising but is funded by subscriptions from health care providers who value access to the detailed comments that patients leave on the site. Those comments give them a much-improved understanding of how their service feels from a customer perspective—and helps them to develop improvements to the service. Subscribers can also post replies to comments and ensure that comments go to the most relevant managers in their organizations. After reading one post on the care that a dementia patient received, for example, the hospital responded by promising to circulate the story to all ward managers and review the training their staff received.

Public agencies can adopt approaches similar to those developed with Kafka brigades or Patient Opinion so that customer feedback is used to provide detailed insights into the customer experience, and public-sector organizations work with customers to address the issues they raise. Large organizations can develop their own in-house capacity or work with outside consultancies or nonprofits in this space. Smaller organizations might want to work together to develop capacity or work with others outside.

Public services use many other methods to understand things from a different perspective. Some make creative use of peer review to engage people from other backgrounds to look at a service and how it could be changed, for example airport specialists looking at hospitals or disability specialists looking at transportation. Or they engage children to report on public policy and services and to recommend changes.

Another of the simplest tools to accelerate innovation is the use of regular scans of proven and promising practices from around the world. Many pressing problems are being solved effectively somewhere, and understanding how it works and why it works can spur on innovation here even if it’s not possible to copy something directly. Indeed, one of the tests of any senior figure in the public sector should be a reasonable familiarity with the world-class examples in their field. Finding ways to look at issues from different perspectives is a very powerful and relatively inexpensive tool to think creatively about social issues—and one that all leaders in public service should adopt.

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Read the full report: Capital Ideas: How to Generate Innovation in the Public Sector

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