MIT GOV/LAB’s Governance Innovation team is embedding two Designer-Researchers in government offices in Nigeria and Sierra Leone to explore pathways to governance innovation, while co-designing solutions to public service challenges. 

As the designer-researcher with the Presidential Enabling Business Environment Council (PEBEC), in Nigeria, Federico will co-identify existing roadblocks to innovation, and co-develop a pilot plan for a solution to specific governance challenges. Federico will help to refine the Lean Governance Innovation Design (LGID) approach that is grounded in design, actor-network theory, behavioral science, negotiation, and other disciplines. LGID aims to de-risk, declutter, and demystify the process of innovation in the public sector to transform it into a low-cost, fast, and easy to run process that enables better governance. 

Image: Federico Vaz facilitating an interactive session called “Who Designs for Policy?” during the Design Research Society 2022 Conference in Bilbao, Spain. Credits: Natalia Villaman.

Federico spoke with MIT GOV/LAB Policy & Communications Associate Akshat Singh about his educational and professional background, his interest in governance innovation and design, and his expectations refining the LGID approach in Nigeria.

Akshat: Could you tell me about your academic background and how you got interested in the design and innovation space?

Federico: While studying Computer Science, I got very disillusioned with the lack of human centered design in the curriculum. Everything seemed to be extremely tech oriented, and there was very little space for human oriented solutions. To pursue my passion for design from a human focused lens, I decided to study industrial design and was fortunate to get the Chevening scholarship, which I used to study Design and Innovation Management. At the same time,several government-backed policy labs were popping up across English speaking countries and I became interested in how the public sector was using design and designers. For my master’s dissertation I chose to study the Design Council in the UK and continued to look at  how government-funded policy labs were using design methods to innovate in areas of interest while pursuing my PhD. These experiences, along with time working on product design for a private sector market research firm, led me to the design and innovation space. 

Akshat: Previously, you explored several ‘government led’ innovation units. Different governments tend to define governance innovation differently. How would you define governance innovation? 

Federico: Several systems and processes we currently have do not respond to citizen requirements but to the needs of the bureaucracy. For instance, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) in the UK accepts online fees for payments but relies on physical cheques when giving refunds. This is one of several examples, where policy seems to be designed to suit the bureaucracy and not the people. One big challenge for governance innovation is knowing what people on the ground need, and ensuring that the government understands the requirements to frame processes that serve the needs of the people. I believe governance innovation is the government’s ability to respond to these challenges. 

Akshat: What are some challenges that you have faced while working in the governance innovation space, and, particularly, in the public sector?

Federico: Working in the public and private sector is very different. The closer you are to spheres of power, the more concerned you become with politics. In the public sector, you are under constant scrutiny. This is because you need to be a lot more aware of what you’re doing and its implications as you don’t want others to weaponize your mistakes. In the private sector, mistakes can lead to losses in revenue or market position but the public sector is a different ball game altogether. Making mistakes in the government opens the door for media scrutiny, and politicians are often scared of the impact on re-elections. The challenge then becomes how to not become risk averse. Embracing risk is crucial for innovation.

Akshat: What about governance innovation excites you the most? 

Federico: What excites me the most about governance innovation is realizing that governance is a product of society. If we think about it, we will realize that most of our interactions with the physical world– from traffic signals, to mobile phones– are shaped by policy directions molded by the government. We often take the government for granted and forget that it can be re-designed as well. Several principles of product design can be applied to governance with the potential of positively impacting millions of lives with one broad brush stroke.Up until recently, we never thought about policy makers and administrators as designers, whereas they actually design our lives. Design in the public sector is not so much about tools and methods but about instilling ‘design mindsets’

Header Image: Emmanuel Ikwuegbu on Unsplash.