Part 2 of some retrospective sensemaking of my research fellowship within the Policy Lab team in the Cabinet Office.
Phase 1 Infrastructuring: January – early May 2015
With my newly-gained, temporary insider status and confidence – enabled by the security pass which allowed me into some government buildings without an escort and by my emerging understanding of the civil service’s policy making environment, the first few months of 2015 gave me deep access to new developments in Policy Lab’s world. As well as continuing to deliver many one-hour or longer taster workshops to departmental policy officials, Policy Lab took shape through its demonstrator projects lasting over several months and ongoing discussions about its future in the context of a countdown to the general election.
One of Lab’s five demonstrator projects, with the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and Department of Health (DH) on health outcomes, kicked off in late January after two months of what Pelle Ehn calls “infrastructuring” – the briefings, proposals, meetings, emails, commitments and contracting that construct a project. In previous projects I had been more of an observer. In this project I took a more active role at the beginning, for example helping Lab’s project lead Cat Drew and the rest of the team design, facilitate and make sense of the policy “sprint” workshop. Unlike the earlier projects in which Lab and the government department subcontracted chunks of the project to specialists in ethnographic research and design, in the health outcomes project Policy Lab directly brought together and mediated between experts. They worked in close collaboration with one another and with staff from the two departments including policy makers, analysts and some of their advisers and other stakeholders. The two-and-a-half day sprint staged the project from the outset as a collective inquiry by articulating and iterating a goal, defining research questions and approaches, and building a shared, although provisional understanding of the issue.
Other demonstrator projects with HM Revenue and Customers (HMRC) on National Insurance numbers and young people, and with the Department for Education (DfE) on childcare, moved forward with combinations of ethnographically-informed research and analysis, design and prototyping. I participated in workshops in which Policy Lab and the wider project-specific teams shared research insights, supported collaborative design by civil servants and other stakeholders. I also participated in review meetings and sometimes helped edit or produce documents at key points in a project lifecycle. In one project I took a direct role as the lead for Policy Lab, on a consultancy basis. This project was for the small team serving the civil service’s Heads of Policy Profession Board with the goal of exploring and developing proposals for assessing and accrediting the capabilities of people working in the policy profession. I’ll discuss the ethical, political, and methodological implications of doing this alongside my fellowship in a separate post.
Projects that were more or less completed such as with the Home Office on digital policing, and the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) on family mediation, were still part of Policy Lab’s world, surfacing in team discussions about next steps and demonstrating Lab’s impact. The challenge for each was how to take forward what the Policy Lab project had produced but without ownership – as the policy areas lived in departments, not in the Cabinet Office – and without much resource in terms of time or money, nor yet much visible commitment from senior leaders in the civil service or ministers.
I became more aware of the importance of formal governance structures and processes in this civil service world. Crafting Policy Lab’s demonstrator projects involves setting up “boards” chaired by Paul Maltby, the director of the Government Innovation Group in which Policy Lab is embedded. These involve the Policy Lab lead and the policy officials leading the policy area but, crucially, involve senior civil servants from the departments involved. Punctuating the project journey, these boards invite senior people to review Policy Lab’s work including the research insights and emerging concepts and decide how to move forward and making commitments to one another, often across departmental boundaries.
In early February – in a very short space of time – the Open Policy Making team and Policy Lab organised 19 events for over 500 people with the title Open Policy 2015. Many of these were practical workshops and taster sessions for civil servants to try out tools and techniques including user research, behavioural insights, agile approaches such as hackdays, and working with stakeholders. While these approaches are not new to some policy teams, these were opportunities for participants to hear an experienced civil servant or external speaker share experiences of using a particular approach and then try aspects of it out. I attended some events such as Policy Lab’s prototyping workshop and also organised one for Policy Lab, which was discursive rather than practical, on ethnography in policy making.
As it got closer to the first anniversary of Policy Lab being set up – initially for one year in April 2014 – discussions among the team and with senior stakeholders focused on making sense of what Lab had been doing, and demonstrating its impact. This went in parallel with constructing future projects with departments and articulating options for senior civil servants to consider about its purpose, resourcing, and expected outcomes. Various ways of framing Policy Lab were discussed, with a recurring themes of experimentation, engagement and evidence and what it takes to make a project “land”.
My research at this time was guided still by Bent Flyvberg’s Making Social Science Matter, as well as by Jesper Christiansen’s PhD thesis entitled The Irrealities of Pubic Innovation based on his research/work at MindLab. Researcher Ben Williamson’s blog, the anthrodesign mailing list and the twitter hashtag #psilabs were also useful. I continued taking lots of notes and photos, doing some interviews, but decided against using video to gather data.
The UK general election date of May 7 marked an end point to this phase of the research. Owing to the relationship between policy makers and ministers, as well as to the particular uncertainty around who might win that election, the months leading up to the election had a particular intensity and urgency. Civil servants talked about the pressure of getting things done before “Purdah”, the name given to the period of time after Parliament is dissolved and before a new government is formed, when the civil service is not supposed to favour any political party. Although the civil servants in Policy Lab did not work directly with ministers at that point, this urgency to get things done shaped the working culture and expectations about the timeframes within which some of its projects with departments had to produce results.
As the civil service entered Purdah, it seemed ironic that parts of the civil service advocating and practicing open government decided not to have any online digital engagement during this time – even though some government departments did. For example the OPM team and Policy Lab were advised not to tweet or blog. With an inside/outside role, I changed some of my own online behaviours during this time too.
This phase of my research was still about building, connecting and expanding rather than making sense. Writing up a couple of blog posts for the OPM blog (the links are above) and doing a couple of keynotes and talks to early career researchers forced me to try to locate and digest the research to date. I found it very hard. In my application for the fellowship I had said I would co-design an evaluation framework for Policy Lab and made various efforts to do so, working closely with the team of Andrea Siodmok, Beatrice Andrews, Hannah Rutter, Cat Drew and Cabinet Office intern (and doctor) Lisa Graham. But I was still in the mess of being-in-the-work, trying to understand what Policy Lab was doing in its various emergent forms in a context of massive uncertainty and ambiguity. It began to get clearer – to me at least – that Policy Lab and its publics might benefit from an account of what it was doing – the difference it made to policy making – which needed to precede any framework.
 Ehn P (2008) Participation in design things. In: PDC ’08: Proceedings of the tenth conference on participatory design, Bloomington, Indiana, 30 September–4 October 2008. New York: ACM Press, pp. 92–101.