An interview with the Director of The Policy Lab Professor Jenny Lewis. (This Q&A originally ran in The Mandarin)

There is growing interest in policy innovation and experimentation, and ‘public sector innovation labs’, what do you see as the challenges that have led to this new interest in innovation?

It’s a combination of things. There is recognition that so many policy problems are complex and interconnected, that they don’t fit within any specific portfolios or boundaries. There are complicated problems that can’t easily be solved and there might not even be agreement about what the problem really is. So you are grappling with a world where you easily identify a problem and then find a solution.

Also after the global financial crisis, governments are trying to introduce austerity, and innovation is seen to be one way of being cleverer and doing more with less. Along with that, there is also rising citizen expectations, and that feeds into it too.

How do you see The Policy Lab at University of Melbourne addressing some of these challenges?

The Policy Lab can particularly help with work around innovation and design thinking, around new ways to approach these challenges. We now know quite a lot about public sector innovation and about user engagement — and the benefits of actually designing things with users, not saying ‘we built this, now you can use it’.

It is about getting people involved right at the start. Don’t do something and then run a consultation process. Right at the start you need to get people to define what the problem is from their perspective.

And design thinking is about the notion of trying to be creative. So instead of thinking about an ‘evidence based approach’ to policy making — where we just ‘collect the data’ and be rational about it — this is actually about being creative. Getting away from thinking ‘if we do this, then that will follow’. We need to use ideation and be playful.

Another thing is that a lot of design work is being done around services. People might say ‘we want to have this new service, and we want to do it in a different way’. But one thing we are really focussed on is how can you change the whole policy system, not just a service here and there. But how can you use some of these design principles to rethink the whole way that policy is developed?

Many new social innovation or policy labs are within governments or NGOs, what’s different about a policy lab within a University?

It is the research expertise — particularly if we can do research in a serious way and combine that with how we work with governments and address issues that they want to work on. The policy capability and research capability within departments now is very small. If the University has that research capability and can make the connection to policy, then that is really strong.

When we see policy labs being created within governments they are often very small. They might offer a range of things, like the government giving innovation grants. It tends to be very practical, about innovation in particular services. Often it is not looking at the whole policy system and that is where the research expertise and capacity within Universities can really help.

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