Y Lab and COVID-19

2 June 2020

Our Academic Director, James Lewis, writes about what we are working on and how we are responding to  the coronavirus pandemic. 

When lockdown started, we were in the final stages of preparation to welcome attendees to our Public Service Pioneers event in the Wales Millenium Centre on 23rd March. Initial disbelief that we would need to postpone the work we’d done was quickly overtaken by our concerns to protect and take care of colleagues, friends and the community. 

Without knowing how long this situation might last, we did stock-takes of our programmes - Innovate to Save, Health Arts Research People (HARP) - and ongoing research projects to ensure that we were focusing on the crucial tasks, supporting our programme partners and maintaining a sense of purpose across the team. 

Since then, we have all been working to come up with new routines, ensuring that we can still socialise together, learn together and effectively work together. Some staff are working reduced hours due to new childcare arrangements - one of the best things about our new Zoom meetings is seeing each other’s children (and pets!).

We are seeing the most rapid uptake of experimentation in Welsh public services that anyone can remember.

What are we working on at the moment? 

Some of our work is progressing broadly the same as before lockdown; the analysis of our Innovate to Save evaluation data and working out the best way to share the lessons we have learned with the public services community are ongoing and continue to help us learn.

Some of our work has adapted in small but significant ways to respond to COVID-19.

We have been supporting some of our Innovate to Save project partners in their adjustments to the new reality, including Flintshire Council who recently started rolling out the Mockingbird programme in their Foster Care team with Innovate to Save loan. We are helping them to re-design and digitise the foster care application process so that recruitment can continue during lockdown.

Our HARP (Health, Arts, Research, People) main programme working with the Arts Council of Wales and Wales’ Health Boards has been paused, but we have launched the HARP Sprint, a short challenge that seeks to design and test some new ideas and improve access to arts and health. 

We are working with Natural Resources Wales to reflect, discuss, and re-imagine innovation within NRW to identify opportunities and next steps. This has led us to think a lot about innovating the “mundane”, such as policies and procedures, and how to best facilitate connection and co-creation digitally. 

One of our team is supporting Barts NHS Trust to explore and innovate as they use virtual facilitation to create space for authentic, real-time connection, support, problem surfacing, and relationship building so the Trust can better respond, recover and rebuild. They are taking a train-the-trainer approach to build the Trust's capability for remote working in the long-run.  

How can we best fund the major public sector changes this crisis will require without exacerbating social inequality? A current research project looks at how the gender of applicants affects the funding of public service change and what data we might need to overcome the differences.

What are the biggest challenges for Y Lab?

It can be hard to know the best ways to support public services at a time when many don’t have capacity to engage. We want to balance supporting our colleagues, friends, and partners in Welsh public services with practical help now and supporting them to prepare for the future. This tension between helping now and preparing for the future is a hard one to get right and is guided by the consideration of where we can make the difference, rather than a difference.

Some aspects of the work we do, such as designing programmes, are still easier to do by just working together with big sheets of paper and post-it notes. Despite remote-working tech solutions like Miro and MetroRetro, we haven’t found a substitute for this. If you have ideas, please get in touch!


What do we hope for the immediate future?

We are seeing the most rapid uptake of experimentation in Welsh public services that anyone can remember; data is emerging as a key consideration with the old cultural barriers to data sharing being swept away; and now more than ever we need creative ways for the public sector to use its spending power to rebuild the economy in ways that contribute to solving, rather than exacerbating, societal challenges. 

We want to keep supporting each other within Y Lab, as well as our partners, to get through this with our mental health and well-being protected as much as possible and we are keen to see new programmes of work up and running - playing a small role in ensuring that our emerging new reality in Wales is not the old normal.


Photo by Lu Amaral on Unsplash