Navigating innovation in the public sector

Innovative approaches in the public sector are growing in numbers. But when is service-design the right choice and how does that differ from positive deviance? How can we use open data and what is behavioural insights? When should we use serious games in the course of good? Here is a brief overview.

The public sector faces a lot of challenges these years. With a growing field of tools for innovation, we can choose between more and more ways of approaching these challenges.

In the short perspective the public sector needs to learn which approaches are useful in a given situation and how to find the right experts to assist in the use. In the long run the sector needs to also upscale on its internal competencies to utilise the tools on a day-to-day basis, in R&D, in providing use-centered services, and in developing policies and transparent governance.

Picking the most relevant approach can be difficult. To the many it still seems opaque what the diffenrence is and why the old and proven ways need to be supplemented. I here present a brief overview of some of the major trends and tools in public innovation along with relevant links.

The mentioned approaches are just a few examples of methods that are becoming still more refined. As we have seen it with design, a growing number of organisations and bureaus experiment with them and with the different combinations of them.

In Singapore they have a unit for Design and Behavioural Insights in the Ministry of Manpower. And in the US President Obama has published an updated version of Strategy for American Innovation, and established a strategic unit for Behavioural Insights.

UNDP has established an innovation facility with knowledge of all approaches and a number of administrations have sat up internal labs to experiment and learn from in-use situations.


In 2007 I was part of starting up the public sector innovation unit MindLab. In MindLab we used ethnography and design processes to improve public solutions to anything from services to reforms.

MindLab became a front runner on public sector innovation and as such has advised both other governments and large international organisations, like the UN and the EU – on the innovation approach itself aswell as on the organisational set-up needed to carry through with it.

Back then it was a rarity to find good examples on service design from the public sector. That has changed. The uptake on the notion that design can be used not only for improving services, but also for policy development, is spreading.

DESIS Lab at Parsons the New School for Design promotes the use of design and designers in public sector development, by doing showcase projects on public challenges in collaboration with New York City. The most recent programme is designing for financial empowerment of low-income New Yorkers.

Transdisciplinary Design students are also engaged in the projects, and Parsons, along with a growing number of universities worldwide, is an important nest for future capacity to use design strategically in both private and public sector.

In the US, compared to Denmark, there are many design bureaus that work with design, increasingly also on public and social issues. Design bureaus like IDEO, whose use of design processes commercially was part of the inspiration when setting up MindLab, has opened a social innovation branch in NYC. Small bureaus like Foossa and their impressive case from Rwanda, and The Public Policy Lab show their own results.

Design is also spreading in the work with developing issues with examples of both in-house expertise, for instance at German GIZ, UNICEF, and in the form of bureaus with this expertise like Reboot in New York City.

Behavioural insights

Behavioural Insights, also known as nudging, have become an established approach and part of many administrations. And Behavioural Insights Unit has been growing explosively in the UK and has now established itself in the US with possible extensions to other markets.

The method is built on four principles for the solutions, the EAST-model, easy, attractive, social and timely.

The method is, opposed to the design method, charaterised by systematic and measureable tests, so-called randomised control trials. Randomised control trials are originally known from the medical world, where patients are given either a new product or placebo which enables direct measurement.

Big data

Big data has been a phenomenon for some time now, but the usability in a public sector setting has been a bit of a black box as it comes with the risk of misuse of personal data.

In the use of big data, the challenge is to transform very large amounts of data into useful information that can help us understand and change existing patterns. The method has proven great results commercially, while the good public sector examples have been fewer. However, they exist, here an example from the educational world that describes how data can be used to prevent dropouts.

Open data

Open data is making data assessable to anyone interested.

It has the potential to create massive added value. Not only can companies use the access to data to identify needs and markets, but when the public sector frees its data it also potentially reveals problems to be fixed.

A favorite example is from New York City, that opened access to data on parking tickets and a private citizen used it to point to severe wrongs in the authorities' enforcement of the law.

Positive Deviance

Positive Deviance is based on identification of individuals in a group who choose other ways than the common, with a better success rate – despite the same point of departure and the same access to resources.

The method is very interesting in especially local settings where there is a need of changing a general behaviour.

By identifying the positive deviants, a new strategy for the rest of the group can take form.

There is an international conference on Positive Deviance going on in Copenhagen Oct 31st-Nov 3rd.The topic is the refugee crisis.

Challenges and prizes

The use of challenges and prizes is rather widespread, especially in the US where organizations like USAID put forward challenges openly.

Challenges and prizes are well-known and widely used in the tech field and for instance NASA uses the approach. It is a newer trend that the method is also used on social challenges as when Michelle Obama last fall announced a competition to increase students’ ability to choose the right education.

Huffington Post also wrote on the phenomenon.

Serious games

Finally, serious games are engaging tools of involvement and development. The method builds on advanced knowledge of change theories, psychology, leadership styles, and often many years of experience in working with strategy and change.

Examples come from all over the world and in the form of tech-based learning solutions as well as hard copy game boards, and from all sectors. Examples are Game Research Lab, Workz A/S and Fields of View.

At Workz, we pride ourselves at being experts in involvement for change and we have the transdisciplinary staff that it takes to access which processes are good for reaching the desired value.

The ongoing experimentation to find how to best navigate in the jungle of promising approaches and pair the right challenge with the right approach is not only important because of the need for new tools, but also because the world needs the capacity to actually use them.

While the public sector, despite the increasing amount of uplifting examples and steps in the right direction, is still only using these approaches relatively small-scale, many bureaus already have the ability, the experience and the competencies to make the educated choices. It is my hope that this expertise will be used, while at the same time an internal capacity build-up takes place.