The staatslabor idea did not come from nowhere

“Good ideas move from one organisation to the next, continuously being further developed,” says staatslabor co-founder Alenka Bonnard. Photo: John Patrick Walder

Many strong projects are based on strong models. This also applies to the staatslabor, which has existed now for over a year. During this time, it has created a vision of new forms of administration for Switzerland, learning much from these sources of inspiration along the way.

Alenka Bonnard, one of the founders of this project, which was made possible by Engagement Migros, lists three especially defining platforms from England, Denmark and France, offering information on how these benchmarks were applied to Switzerland. Is copying an idea legitimate? Or does it arise out of a lack of originality or of one’s own ideas? It becomes apparent that good projects manage a balancing act between inspiration and originality on the one side, and adoption and adaptation on the other.

Nesta — We see a future full of potential, where new ideas solve the big challenges that matter to everyone.

Nesta (UK)

Nesta is a large British foundation. Its goal is to drive new ideas within society’s areas of conflict, such as health, education and culture, through innovative methods. The founders of staatslabor are especially impressed by this example from the UK, as it has the courage to consistently apply evidence-based methods and scientifically consolidate social innovation. “In the UK, there is another, more visionary, approach within foundations, a deftness for the future that doesn’t shy away from breaking with old structures,” says Alenka Bonnard. It’s not for nothing that this year’s Nobel Prize went to Richard Thaler, an economist whose research looks at how to support people by “nudging” them to take the best decisions possible. Consistently applying these findings from behavioural economics is already common practice in the Anglo-Saxon world — for which the staatslabor founders see great potential in Switzerland.

MindLab is a cross-governmental innovation unit which involves citizens and businesses in creating new solutions for society.

At first glance, MindLab seems similar to Nesta, but there is a great and decisive structural difference: the Danish initiative grew out of the administrative apparatus itself, as a place where overarching new ideas can be developed. Alenka Bonnard is also convinced that the complex challenges faced by today’s society no longer easily fit within departmental structures. “New, flexible forms of organisation are essential, more dialogue within the administration must be fostered.” This scrutiny and dissolution of established structures makes MindLab exemplary. The MindLab belongs to the forerunners of cross-governmental innovation. Its promotion of collaboration that spans departments has in the meantime found many imitators in other countries.

La 27e Région conduit des programmes de «recherche-action» visant à tester de nouvelles méthodes d’innovation qui privilégient l’expérience vécue par les utilisateurs, agents et citoyens, comme un point de départ pour réinterroger les politiques publiques.

The French initiative La 27e Région makes it possible for administrations to drive and implement innovation processes themselves. What also makes them noteworthy in the eyes of staatslabor founder Alenka Bonnard is their hands-on approach, blazing and exploring new paths for encounters between the state and its citizens through a direct, personal exchange. This focus on people and their needs and the possible options for making contact actually happen are exemplary for the staatslabor. The work is less scientific or rational, instead it is more participative and to some extent ethnographic. Who does the state deal with? People, not functional units. “In France, they are trying to find out how 21st century people function and how the state should best deal with people — we are pleased to let ourselves be inspired by their ideas,” says Bonnard.

Switzerland as part of an international movement
 
Since its beginnings, the staatslabor has exchanged ideas with all these organisations. “There is already an international movement — and Switzerland should be part of that.” This was what drove her from the start, says Alenka Bonnard. When she hears about a new initiative, she has no qualms about sending an email to find out more about it. This results in a kind of economy of ideas, an animated exchange and also reciprocal motivation. What works best where? What can be adopted — and how can ideas also be further developed? “In this way, good ideas move from one organisation to the next, continuously being further developed,” says the staatslabor co-founder.

“I live in Switzerland. I am familiar with this system and this culture — if I stir something up, it is tied directly to my daily life,” says staatslabor co-founder Alenka Bonnard. Photo: John Patrick Walder

One thing that the staatslabor would also like to work on in Switzerland is finding new ways to motivate delinquent citizens to pay their taxes. In England, this issue has been tackled strictly scientifically, using randomised studies to pinpoint how best to send out motivational signals. The method of study applies a medical approach: one group is “treated”; a second acts as a control group. Firm statistical standards are then used to identify what really works and what does not. The result of the English test series: the most effective method is showing delinquent taxpayers that many of their neighbours have long since fulfilled their civic duty.

“Taking over ideas from abroad as-is does not work.”

One thing the staatslabor founders have learned is that “taking over ideas from abroad as-is does not work.” Every country is distinct, and especially Switzerland has several of its own very specific peculiarities — such as federalism. For the issue of non-payment of taxes, Alenka Bonnard states that the staatslabor is therefore investigating specific needs with the cantonal administrations. It has suggested to one canton to carry out a randomised test series with young people who are caught off-guard by their first tax return. The canton can in this way find out how to best guide them towards civic duty.

An additional example inspired by ideas from abroad is the improvement of social security forms. The staatslabor is now working together with one canton to draft new application forms, in close collaboration with both applicants and administrative clerks. Because these are the groups that will be using these forms the most, their needs are therefore the ones to be met. This human-centred design is also quite new to Swiss administrations, says Bonnard.

There is no such thing as “the administration”

Of special importance in Switzerland is bringing together the various players, says Alenka Bonnard. The cantons especially are often decisive in implementing new forms of administration — there is therefore no point in in wanting to drive reforms at the federal level. This is exactly what makes the work of the staatslabor so interesting, says Bonnard: the multi-layered and detailed organisation of the Swiss political system, its “granularity” as she calls it. A purely centralised approach, as traditionally applied in England, would hardly work here.

The staatslabor sees one of its important tasks as finding ways to bring the various players to the table. In addition to established business meetings, informal methods like sitting together for a meal allow different administrative representatives to eat together and discuss ideas in a relaxed setting. Bonnard generally believes: “The fact that there is no such thing as ‘the administration’ in Switzerland has interesting consequences — also in terms of how the staatslabor will develop further.” She would in any case not want to work on these ideas anywhere but in Switzerland, no matter how interesting she finds the work done by the prototype organisations: “I live in Switzerland. I am familiar with this system and this culture — if I stir something up, it is tied directly to my daily life.”


Engagement Migros is supporting the staatslabor start-up. This centre of expertise makes modern innovation methods — which have already been successfully applied in private business and NGOs — accessible to public administrations.