Published on December 10, 2014

Participation Lab: A mad pre-Christmas idea?

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

Students in Laboratory, sydneyuniComing back to your RSS feeds after a long time is a bit like seeing an old friend after too long: it can take a bit of time to get going, but there are so many interesting things to catch-up on; so much fun to be had.

I managed a partial catch-up last night and came across a post from GDS exploring whether their new User Research Lab (to test user experience on their sites) has been worth the investment.

The conclusion of the post is yes. This is for all sorts of reasons, including the bottom-line, as the Lab will pay for itself in less than three years. Money aside, there are a number of other compelling reasons why the Lab has been helpful to GDS. One that stood out for me was that having the Lab in the same building as GDS means that senior staff will now often pop down to watch part of a session.

It’s been considerably easier to get senior management involved when they only have to pop downstairs instead of across town. That’s a major win. Making recommendations based on research is a whole lot easier when the decision makers have seen users interacting with a service first hand.”

This set me thinking. People inside and outside government involved in running public engagement processes aimed at influencing policy processes face a number of different challenges. One of these is ensuring that senior policy makers take part in the process in order to understand exactly how it works and why the evidence that emerges is so valuable for the decision they have to take.

What would it mean if every government department that consults with the public on a frequent basis had a Participation Lab somewhere in the building where the majority of their senior policy makers work?

There would be lots of challenges to overcome for a Participation Lab to be set-up, even in one department. However, as a thought-experiment would it be a good idea? Or are there bigger challenges to overcome?

Most catch-ups with old friends veer between serious life conversations and silliness. Ideas spark, old and new connections get made, some useful and many forgotten. Even if this is a mad pre-Christmas idea, I will visit my RSS feeds more often, it was fun.

Photo credit: sydneyuni

5 Responses to “Participation Lab: A mad pre-Christmas idea?”

  1. Thom
    December 12, 2014 at 9:31 am

    Can we make 2015 the year of not using the word ‘lab’? The use and abuse of this term has really gotten out of hand, and, in my view, the more sinister outcome of this is implication of rigour and replicability implicit in the term ‘lab’ being attached to things that are neither rigorous or replicable.

    • Simon Burall
      December 12, 2014 at 9:34 am

      Now that really is a mad idea, to stand in the way of something that has energy inside government! On a serious note, I think your point is well made about naming things and the risks that this brings with it in terms of what people hear about what they are doing. In relation to user testing though done right this can be rigorous and replicable.

  2. Thom
    December 12, 2014 at 10:07 am

    Fair point! I do wonder if there really is any energy in government around this – there is from the very enthusiastic civil servants that bother to turn up to events etc, but that’s a small minority i’d argue! Agree on the user-testing environments – my ire is directed less at those sorts of uses and more in the general catch-all use of the word ‘lab’ which is actually a synonym for ‘an office where we think about new stuff we might do’. Nothing wrong with that at all of course, it’s incredibly positive, but appropriating the word ‘lab’ is misleading.

    • Simon Burall
      December 12, 2014 at 10:43 am

      I think the point about energy is a good one. The external context is changing rapidly and I’d argue that (some of, and more of) the public are coming whether government want them or not. There is high-level support for doing things differently. The question is how to support those internal enthusiasts. That’s what our Open Government Programme is about. My slightly mad musings about trying to bring public participation closer to government was another way of trying to articulate what could be done to support reformers.

      Another word that is misappropriated (possibly by us as well) is experiment; direct connections back to the idea of having a lab too. I think in the context of government having non-replicable experiments is fine as they can often unlock something that means that the experiment is not replicable anyway. But care is needed to ensure you really understand what you are doing.

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