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Startup culture in the public sector

  • Rebecca Walsh on moving from product design in the private sector to becoming the first service designer in the public sector NI Innovation Lab.

    Can a government or its civil service act like a startup? Can an intrapreneurial spirit be sustained within large organisations with complex processes?

    Rebecca Walsh thinks that they can. She’s the first service designer in the Department of Finance NI Innovation Lab which was established in 2014 to respond to challenges where effective service provision for the public has proved most difficult. It aims to improve public services by creating new and groundbreaking innovations through transformation and invention.

    Speaking recently at the annual BelTech conference in Belfast (curated by Kainos), Rebecca used Nesta’s ‘innovation spiral’ to illustrate the difficulties that must be overcome to move from idea generation, development and testing through to producing a valid business case, implementing, delivering and scaling a solution as well as changing systems, behaviours and sometimes even laws in order to fully embed innovations.

    “Support for smaller teams to be innovative is where we can start growing a culture of innovation within government,” she says. “The Lab is a small team working on specific public sector challenges which makes it easier to do things innovatively and act like a startup. It’s when you get into the bigger culture and the systems and processes that support complex public sector services that it becomes harder to act like a startup.”

    Rebecca sees a move in the Lab away from participatory design to the use of co-design.

    “Merely having people involved in every stage of the design project can become a box-ticking exercise that invites service users to meetings but ends up losing the sense of it being human-centred.

    “Co-design has the involvement of everyone impacted by the delivery of a service, with the right people involved in designing with the experts. Not everyone has to be physically sitting with you at all times, but they will have involvement at every stage of the design process, right through testing, delivery and evaluation.”

    The biggest public sector challenges that come to the Lab are around health care, though the team has also worked with some other government departments, councils and arm’s-length bodies.

    The design team also work with behavioural scientists who can set baseline measures and help with project evaluation through trials.

    “The Lab doesn’t just need to understand the stakeholder and user groups who we are designing for, but we need to think early about how to evaluate because this is often the most difficult part in the design process. There’s no point doing all the upfront work – like creating brilliant patient journeys – and then realise that we can’t evaluate the outcome and prove whether the solution is making the right difference.”

    Entrepreneurs often find that their startup ideas take much longer to come to fruition than they first predicted. The same is true inside government. Many of the Innovation Lab’s interventions are still working through the design, pilot and evaluation processes and have not gone fully live.

    One project that has been running for 18 months aims to help chronic pain sufferers understand the different options they have to self-manage and de-escalate their pain.

    “The project began by talking to the service users and health care professionals. The people we talked to asked for more information so we’re connecting the public up with experts in the field and publishing the advice in new ways. An information campaign is now up and running on MyNI, a new government communication website currently in beta testing. We have started to ask people what they think of the content but we haven’t yet measured the impact on people’s lives.”

    A number of external innovations have also grown out of the chronic pain hackathon held in June 2017. Deepa Mann-Kler’s BreatheVR helps people relax and focus on their breathing using a VR headset to make an animated meadow respond to their inhalation and exhalation, encouraging a pattern of diaphragmatic breathing. The environment maximises the feeling of immersion and distraction from pain. Other companies are also working on pain-tracking apps.

    Design thinking consultancy IDEO coined the slogan “fail often in order to succeed sooner.” Rebecca cautions against embracing the word ‘fail’ too tightly.

    “By using ‘failure’ it’s difficult for your customers to envisage what they’re going to get out of a project because you’re saying to them at the end of a long process that we might potentially have the wrong solution and they need to be prepared for that.

    “It’s about making sure that you prototype cheaply because the further into the project you get the more costly it can become. We’re very honest when we do a proposal for work with any of the public sector bodies: we will get the right solution but the design process might take a bit of time and iteration.

    “Ultimately, if something doesn’t have an impact it doesn’t mean that you have failed on the project, it just means that you’ve learned from that outcome and you’ll do something different the next time.”

    Nesta Innovation Spiral used with permission

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