Lessons from the USA

What has been the experience of using design-led innovation in the US Government?

On Tuesday we had the opportunity to hear from Stephanie Wade, Director of the Innovation Lab at the Office of Personnel Management.

While in Canberra for a day, Stephanie met with a number of the Innovation Champions for breakfast to share her experiences, gave a public presentation kindly hosted by the Canberra Innovation Network, and met with the innovationXchange team. It was great to hear from Stephanie and I’d like to share some of the main points made during the visit.

  • Stephanie noted that the Lab began as a space – in a sub-basement level room (an old nuclear fallout shelter)

  • Physical space is important. Different spaces evoke different emotions, and can transform how we think or feel – just think about a prison, an airport or a kindergarten

  • If we want people to work differently, then we need to support that with a space that gives the right non-verbal cues. If people walk into a traditional bureaucratic space, then they’re likely to approach things with a traditional bureaucratic mindset

  • The lab now has moveable furniture, white boards and other elements that allow the environment to be structured according to the work and the style of work that they want to see

  • But physical space is only going to get you so far – the space is a spark, an inspiration, but it’s not enough on its own. The Lab has been successful because it has married the space with a methodology that gives people the tools to do things differently – human centred design (or design thinking)

  • Stephanie noted that sometimes we don’t really understand what people need. A lot of quantitative data will tell you what people are doing, but design gets to why they do it. Design helps you understand human complexity and allows you to empathise. This is what leads to the ‘ah-ha’ moments that allow you to understand the problem, and to innovate

  • This involves spending time in the community with individuals and trying to understand them as a whole person, what’s stressing them out, what’s going on in their lives. What are all the different community, economic and social drivers that are impacting their decision making?

  • Design is also a great tool for helping reconnect public servants with public service. Bureaucracy tends to put a lot of distance between public servants and the citizens that they joined the public service to serve, to help. Design can help overcome that

  • The Lab has three different goals – as leaders, as doers and as teachers. This includes supporting a community of practice of innovators, doing projects with agencies, and running design training for public servants

  • The lab currently has a staff of ten that all have training in design and together support the design projects, communication and operations of their work

  • Agencies that seek to work with the Lab need to make a real commitment, including having relevant staff (such as subject matter experts) do a 3-day boot camp introducing them to design thinking, and have them work on the project. This helps build change champions and avoid falling into the mistake of having a ‘big reveal’ of the ideas or options that are developed. This allows the focus to be on how to move forward, rather than on the ideas themselves

  • Stephanie shared a number of examples of how design can help with difficult problems, including how it has been used in the health sector to help reduce sedation for children undergoing MRI scans. There are a number of projects that the Lab has worked on that have made real differences and helped agencies to not only save money but to understand issues in new ways that allowed for new ways of addressing issues

  • The ideal level of intervention will be smaller than trying to tackle an entire system, but bigger than trying looking at a very specific process. You want a level that gives you enough freedom to question, but not something too big

  • Design can mean a bigger investment at the front end of a process, but allows a faster process of problem identification and implementation overall. There is a tendency for people to push towards ‘solutioning’ as fast as possible. Design is about holding back from that, to make sure that you are looking at the right problem, not one that is a symptom of an underlying issue

  • Everyone struggles with change, everyone has trouble with their world being rocked. Design can help. Design helps reduce risk, and can help you get things happening quickly by getting people to collaborate around the right thing. True innovation doesn’t happen without diversity, without collisions, without combining things in new ways

  • Stephanie noted that there are a number of innovation labs growing across the US federal government.


It was great to be able to hear Stephanie talk, and to hear about the exciting things being done by the US federal public service to get better outcomes for citizens.

We’d like to thank our colleagues at the Australian Innovation Research Centre who brought Stephanie out to Australia and allowed us to add Canberra to the visit.