Lab Exchange PART II: The “terrible” bureaucracy and saying “no”

In this Lab Exchange Series, Chelsea (Public Policy Lab, NYC), Stephane (La 27e Région, Paris) and Carolyn (TACSI, Adelaide) talk with Rachel (Social Lab, Hong Kong) and Marco (SIX, London) about building new narratives and capabilities needed to work as a lab practitioner. This conversation was part of Social Lab Symposium in Hong Kong.

The terrible bureaucracy

Chelsea Mauldin (NYC): In the United States, the government tends to be the enemy, not something you want.

Carolyn Curtis (Adelaide): Same in Australia.

Rachel Yan (Hong Kong): Same here.

Stephane Vincent (Paris): Same in France.

CM: There’s often a sort of sense of, oh, if only we didn’t have this terrible bureaucracy… One thing that we often have to remind designers who come in and say, “Oh well we’ll just change it all”, but wait, the bureaucracy exists for a purpose. There is a reason why government is slow. There is a reason why government documents itself and those things have to do with sort of fundamental democratic ideas around equitable distribution of public resources.

CC:  How many times do we hear the system is broken or the system are breaking? Actually largely systems are doing exactly what we asked them to do. It’s just that that’s no longer what people want or need.

To come from a very damning, more of an activist sort of bureaucratic hatred space doesn’t allow you to really approach things in systems mindset. To build empathy for the system, you need to understand what drives the system and the systems behavior. Because you know what, if you spent a day or two or three days in the life of a front line workers, it becomes very clear as to why they’re doing what they’re doing and how things are unfolding, so if you just build through the eyes of one part of the system, but one person, you’re not really going to build that empathy.

Saying “no”

RY: After all these years, have you actually found a particular arena where this kind of lab  approach could be most useful or have most impact?

CM: I think in all the arenas it’s useful. We, from the very beginning, decided consciously to try to keep shifting subject matter areas. Our first project was on social housing, affordable housing. So we quite consciously tried to shift around and work on different topic areas because we were actually trying to make a point, that this is an approach and a methodology and it can be applied to all sorts of things.

SV: If you don’t do that, you’re a consultancy – a traditional consultancy – that will sell as many times as possible the same thing. If you’re a lab, a social lab, you’ve got your own agenda, so you’ve got to set an idea of what kind of topic you want to tackle, what kind of ground you want to work with, what kind of population. So you’ve got to build your own strategy, your own agenda, and try to keep this agenda. Sometime you’ve got to negotiate and change it a little bit, but it’s easier. And people like to hear about your agenda.

I mean, the capacity of a lab – in my view – is to be able to say “no” to your partners if you think that the conditions aren’t there, if you think that this is not the kind of topic you want to tackle. The lab is more about the questions we ask, seeing another frame of power. It’s not just about methodology. It’s about creating different spaces of power, different kind of relationship with your partners, which is not simply that of a supplier and a client.

We don’t want a relationship of domination. We all are adults and we don’t want to be treated like a child. We try to have a balanced conversation with governments, and we build strategy, we build tactics to find these ideal conversation.

CM: I don’t think that we have ever said “no” to a project. Rather, what has occurred is someone comes to us and we ask questions and those questions spawn answers, and we ask some more questions. And either the questions quite quickly lead to some clarity around shared mission, shared goals, all is good. Or the questions keep revealing points of difficulty and eventually they are no longer interested in us. We don’t have to reject them. They reject us after we have asked too many inconvenient questions that are not questions that they can satisfactorily respond to.

CC: We say “no” quite a lot, especially in relation to government. And I would go as far as to say there are multiple occasions where government have put a brief forward to us where I would say that that brief would have caused harm. And that’s when I would categorically say “no”. And we will always – even if it’s in an official process or letter – meet them to say why. We will do everything we can to shift the brief, if the brief can’t shift then we will say no.

SV: I think there is an underlying issue that is our activity has to challenge fake innovation, fake transformation, tools fetishism. I mean there are plenty of risks in our activities. Innovation may be just a new obligation the administration has to do. There is a risk that it’s fake and that the situation is even more difficult afterwards. For instance, one of the things we’ve got to tackle is this kind of processes not leading to any change afterwards. So how do we challenge that? I mean there are so many governments that want to do this just because they are asked to do it, and they have no intention of changing themselves. So, how do we create the kind of ethics in our activities? How do we build criteria and try to anticipate a little bit on this kind of risk? How do we say, “Here are the criteria. Here are the prerequisites.”

CC: One of the governments in Australia, we had a bit of a tussle with them and this very small part of the government formed the view that TACSI was dogmatic and actually the reason they formed that view was because we wouldn’t do the fake quick and dirty innovation. We weren’t saying our way or the high way, what we were saying was, “To achieve what it is that you’re saying you want to achieve, what you are proposing… We don’t believe it can achieve that outcome.”