People-led innovation project to help tackle policy challenges

By on 22/01/2019 | Updated on 24/09/2020
What's the message? New public engagement methodology aims to tap into the public's wisdom (Image courtesy: Rawpixel/Unsplash).

A new initiative by two US think tanks aims to help public bodies explore innovative ways of consulting and engaging with communities, finding new answers to public policy challenges. 

The People-Led Innovation project was launched on Tuesday by GovLab and the Bertelsmann Foundation. Noting that citizens’ knowledge, insights and ideas often hold the key to the problems faced by governments, GovLab co-founder Stefaan Verhulst said the new tools will help officials consider “the most effective ways to engage the right people for the right task at the right time.”

Verhulst explained that the initiative, ‘People-Led Innovation: Toward a Methodology for Solving Urban Problems in the 21st Century’, is “built on the idea that, as governments increasingly experiment with new means for drawing on the public’s knowledge and skills to address common challenges, one-size-fits-all citizen engagement efforts are often too broad and unwieldy to surface useful insights.”

A fresh methodology

The new site aims to provide leaders with a toolkit and “a set of steps that enable them to tap into their potentially most important – but underutilized – asset: people.” While the project’s main audience is US city governments, the skills and methodology are transferable and the researchers have drawn on case studies from around the world.

The methodology breaks the process down into four distinct stages: defining the problem; curating possible solutions using people and data; experimenting and testing what works in practice; and reviewing and ‘expanding’ – incorporating feedback and transferring lessons learned to a wider audience. At each stage, leaders are encouraged to identify stakeholders to consult or co-create with. 

At the heart of the initiative is the idea that everyone – from local residents, small businesses and community bodies through to government agencies, corporate giants and international organisations – can contribute valuable ideas and help solve complex problems.

Talk to everyone

“People’s expertise comes in a range of flavours – from interests and experiences to skills and credentialed knowledge – yet all are equally valuable to engage when solving problems,” say the creators in a report on the website. 

Four types of engagement methods are suggested as ways to best “tap into the diverse expertise distributed among people outside of government. These are: commenting, for example a discussion platform to gather views, experiences and opinions; co-creating, e.g. a sector-specific hackathon to leverage datasets; reviewing, including online or offline engagements allowing people to vote on specific proposals or ideas; and reporting, e.g. a crowdsourcing platform for citizens to record incidents of problematic issues such as potholes or graffiti.

Tools for the job

As well as detailed guidance on methodology, the site also provides free worksheets to help officials put the theory into practice. A large number of case studies illustrate the theory, with concrete examples of how people and organisations can be utilised to help governments problem-solve.

Ease of use is key, and the creators suggest the methodology could in future “be transformed into an app or decision tree that policymakers could follow as they go about developing policy in a people-led manner.”

You can find the project at

About Natalie Leal

Natalie is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by The Sun Online, The Guardian, Novara Media, Positive News, and Welfare Weekly, among others. She also writes reports and case studies on global business trends for behavioural insights agency, Canvas8. Prior to working as a journalist Natalie worked for the public sector in social services for several years. She switched careers in 2013 after winning a fully funded NCTJ in a national writing competition. She holds a Masters degree in social anthropology from Sussex University where she specialised in processes of social change and international conflict and reconciliation processes.

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