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October 25, 2019

Experiment and celebrate failure

If we were to ask what it currently feels like to be working in local or national government, it’s a fair bet that the responses would include feeling highly pressured, fearing failure, stressed, over-worked, lacking resources, under-staffed and so on. Hardly the environment to foster a culture where experimentation is encouraged and failure is embraced because that is how we learn. And yet we still expect these same institutions to transform themselves. We could do worse than follow the lead of Finland’s Prime Minister who has established the Experimental Finland Team at the centre of his office.

Virve Hokkanen and Johanna Kotipelto, Experimental Finland

Experimental culture in government is rare. But in Finland, Prime Minister Sipilä’s government introduced such an exceptional approach back in 2015. Part of the government’s strategic 10-year vision was the introduction of a culture of experimentation.

Experimental Finland is the new team implementing this key government project. Three and a half years later, we are witnessing something that couldn’t have been foreseen. It took a lot of experimenting to make sense of the bigger picture that is emerging around us.

The Finnish experimental model is a combination of both top-down and bottom-up approaches: it incorporates rapid grassroots experiments and groups of pilot programs on a common theme, as well as larger policy trials based on the government’s agenda.

The aim is to find innovative ways to develop society and services, and to promote individual initiative and entrepreneurship. Our work includes producing and spreading knowledge, building networks and supporting the planning and implementation of experiments. We work in collaboration with ministries, municipalities, local authorities, educational and research organisations, the business community and the 3rd and 4th sectors

These experiments have proven to be an exceptional tool for exploration. Their value often lies in co-design. As experimentalists, we approach a new phenomenon by getting as broad participation as possible, then focus on what can be tested and harvest the outcome: what works and what doesn’t.

Implementation of this new culture was explicitly included in the government’s policy agenda, and that has proven to be a strong license to experiment. Organising Experimental Finland as a small taskforce of three to five people, and placing that team in the prime minister‘s office, was the ideal approach to help quickly spread the idea, especially among governmental organisations.

The public budget for supporting experimentation was specifically targeted at two things. The first was the creation of a digital platform for funding and co-creating small scale experiments, and gathering the lessons learned from them. The second was to directly fund experiments falling under three themes: the circular economy, artificial intelligence and digital workforce skills.

Changing cultures

To make all that happen, much more has been needed. Firstly, we realised that the thing stopping civil servants from experimenting — or boosting others who were doing so — was lack of courage and fear of failure.

Collaboration between different networks, shared learning initiatives and even accelerators have proven a mighty antidote to that problem. Trust is being built in a space with a unifying message: we are licensed to experiment. That means exploring unexplored challenges to which, by definition, no one knows the right answer. Co-design — working in a group to make sense of what we learn on the way to a shared goal — is essential.

Sometimes legislation has prevented certain experiments. We are aiming to minimise that obstacle, through a new set of guidelines for how to draft new legislation when it’s needed to enable experimentation. (The guide will be published in English later in 2018.)

But experimenting is not just a matter of having the right tools and laws, but of changing people’s mindsets. Agile action taken in small steps makes experimenting effective and efficient. The process can also be seen as more democratic than traditional policy development procedures, because experimentation often incorporates multiple viewpoints.

In the future we have to make sure that experiment-based knowledge will be used more efficiently in all levels of society. That means we need more focus on how to scale up our learnings and how to incorporate experimentation more thoroughly into government strategies, policy design and other long-term development processes. — Virve Hokkanen & Johanna Kotipelto