Innovate or sigh: are ‘labs’ helpful?


The ONS was in the news again recently and while the website got away unscathed for a change it didn’t make for comfortable reading.

The criticism from Andrew Tyrie, the chairman of the Treasury select committee, follows on from the initial findings of the Bean Review into Economic Statistics which while even handed was itself pretty clear in the concerns it set out.

There is a lot going on at ONS to respond to the Review and I am far from qualified to comment on that but what I have been interested in is the prominence of the trio of ‘digital’, ‘technology’ and ‘innovation’ in the review. They get a solid 40+ mentions between them — not bad in a 50 page report that is actually about economic statistics.

The criticism seems to be that ONS allowed itself to be left behind by the rapid rise of the internet age (I’d suggest if that was true we’d hardly be alone) and that it needs to quickly readjust not only to take advantage of the new digital possibilities but also, more importantly, to analyse its effect on the economy and report on it.

Now any mentions of digital and technology gets me interested even if it is slightly outside of my usual context (in fact that probably makes me more interested at the moment) and gets me thinking about what are the opportunities.

One of the things I am interested in at the moment is the prominence of ‘innovation labs’ or ‘(not officially) skunk works (because Lockheed Martin own the copyright)’ in Government and beyond and whether they are really helpful in accelerating transformation and development or whether instead they are a sleight of hand more than anything that breeds discontent with the staff keeping business as usual going while a privileged few get to play with the shiny tools.

For me at their best they should offer an opportunity not just to try out new technologies but also new ways of working. There is more to innovation than Post-Its and Sharpies but there is (in my opinion) great value in trying things like ‘design sprints’ and prototyping early.

The thing though is that these ‘labs’ shouldn’t be about noodling — there should be objectives and user needs to strive for and there absolutely needs to be an almost brutal adherence to the ‘fail fast’ idea — ideas need to be tested and if they do not meet expectations then discarded. There is a fair bit of ’snake oil’ surrounded the Lean Startup approach these days but there in gold in them there hills if you take the time to mine.

Potentially we are the sort of place that could come up with a heady mix of participants in this kind of project — data scientists, service designers, economists, developers, editors, UX and visualisation experts. Providing a multi-disciplinary team with tomorrows problems today and giving them the tools and space to try and solve them could forge a path that would mitigate the risk of being slow to react in the future. Maybe.

The privilege problem still exists though even if you do create a successful lab — are you cherry picking people from their day-to-day to work on the ‘cool’ stuff? How does that effect wider morale? Are you really only saying that only one team gets to ‘innovate’?

It isn’t any easy conundrum — not at all. It might just be worth taking the risk to find out though. For someone. Somewhere.

@jukesie