Points of View 29th August 2017

In the hot seat: Keira Oliver of Ingage Scotland talks through the need to think differently to see the change we want

by Paul Bradley

Increasing transparency, participation, and collaboration throughout government requires significant change. Moving away from traditional approaches to policy design and methods of working to more democratic alternatives requires us to think and behave differently, whilst not getting too frustrated with the long road ahead.

Many of us are champions and change agents of open government, committed to the idea of transforming how government works. But do we feel equipped to take this movement forward? I caught up with Keira Oliver from Ingage Scotland, the team supporting and enabling transformational change within government, to talk about the need for improving the way in which we approach change.

Image of Keira Oliver from Ingage Scotland

Your Twitter bio says ‘Inspired by u.lab’. Tell us more!

u.lab gives people a framework and approach to make the changes they want to make in their lives, organisations and communities. An important part of this is peer-to-peer support, with participants working together locally and online to support each other in their learning. I’m constantly inspired by how generous and creative people are with their time, expertise, resources and ideas.

It feels like you’re based in quite an exciting government team — tell us a little about Ingage?

It is! We’re responding to the changing relationship between the state and citizen and the First Minister’s call for us to be more open and accessible. It requires people in government and public to work differently with citizens and with each other, and Ingage supports them in making this shift through a wide range of work, for example using co-production and different leadership approaches, to hosting conversations in a way that produces different outcomes.

What sparked your interest in joining Ingage?

When I first took part in u.lab as a personal development opportunity in Jan 2015, I was a social researcher in the government. Our “thing to test” was to raise awareness of u.lab as a free resource that could be used as a public participation platform across Scotland. The opportunity really spoke to people and, with the support of my Director, I was soon working almost all my hours on supporting the growth of the u.lab community in Scotland.

I decided, almost a year ago now, that I should join the team to make the most of the synergies between our work. This is hopefully helping to grow the potential for u.lab to be recognised as a useful leadership and community participation approach.

How are you enjoying supporting the rollout of u.lab in Scotland? What’s it all about?

I’m loving it! It’s a privilege to help the community grow and to witness the personal transformations many participants have had. u.lab Scotland involves anyone who has participated in u.lab or practices the approach, which is at least 1,300 people.

While u.lab runs each Sept, the learning and implementation of the actions from it goes on all year round. The ulabscot community is a resource that you can draw on, to make connections to people or ideas, to come together through events, or to reach out online. Many people have said that it’s a helpful support network when going through the ups and downs of trying to work differently.

Is there a natural link between the interests and work of Scotland’s Open Government Network and the u.lab movement?

Very much so. u.lab incorporates approaches like systems thinking, co-production, asset-based approaches and action inquiry — it help participants see where they are within the system and what needs to change in order to address the issues of concern for them. So issues of transparency and where power lies are recurring topics of interest within the u.lab community.

u.lab began in the US. How difficult has it been to build the community in Scotland from scratch?

While u.lab is hosted through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, USA, it is a global programme which is well on its way to having 100,000 participants. The Scottish Government started a conversation about the potential of u.lab in 2015 but the community has been growing organically, through word of mouth and by people seeing a change in their friends and colleagues.

I think u.lab came at the right time for people who were looking for a way of creating a society that we all want to live in. People seemed ready for u.lab as it is complimentary to many approaches that are now embedding in Scotland.

Did you feel anything different after taking part in the u.lab course yourself?

Not only did I feel different from taking part, but it has led to some of the most inspiring work I’ve ever been involved in. u.lab helped me be honest about how I was holding myself back from making the changes I wanted to make. It helped me find the courage to decide what I wanted and seek the help I needed to get there. And how to do this in a way that brings people together around a common goal rather than dividing people.

Like many of the other participants, it gave me hope that positive change is possible. And on a really tangible note, I have managed to develop the most amazing job supporting the growth and sustainability of u.lab Scotland.

Having worked on the programme for some time now, what about u.lab have you been most struck by?

The willingness of people to step up and help when they believe strongly in something. For example, many people, from all different sectors and backgrounds, have come forward to support the growth of u.lab Scotland and joined our holding team. The global connections that I and others have made are also fantastic. I have new friendships with people from across the world now, some of which I have only ever met over skype!

It has also helped remind me that Scotland is an amazing country and while we know there is still work to do, we are perhaps further ahead in some of our ambitions than we often give ourselves credit for.

We live in a time of significant global and local challenges. How has u.lab made you think differently towards this?

u.lab acknowledges that personal and collective leadership is vital in this time of significant disruption. It has helped me accept the fact that I can’t, unfortunately, solve all the world’s problems, but it has provided me with a framework, the inspiration and the peer support I need to find the part that I’m best placed to change and to focus my energy there. With a growing number of people able to do this, we can tackle the significant challenges together in ways that work to our individual and collective strengths.

If that sounds a bit optimistic or naïve, u.lab has also helped me let go of what people might think of me, so there.

The purpose or our network is to support transformational change. Do you have any advice for us on our journey?

Dream big but start small. We’ve got to where we are so far through a succession of wee experiments, listening to what’s needed, learning and adapting as we go.

And be kind to yourself and others along the way. Changing anything is often a hard and long journey. The people are what make it worthwhile and fun so offer help where you can and accept it graciously when it’s offered.

What now for u.lab Scotland and how can OpenGovScot members get involved?

u.lab starts again on 14 Sept — you can take a look and register for it (it’s free of charge). There is also a short introductory module available now.

There are a number of u.lab hubs forming across the country. These are self-organising, local practice groups brought together by volunteer hosts from the community. We are in the process of creating a map so people can find out if there is a local hub they can join. So to keep in touch with developments, you can subscribe to our community blog: www.ulabscot.com And if you want to see what’s been happening so far, have a look at the ulabscot impact story.

Thanks to Keira for speaking to Scotland’s Open Government Network. You too can become a member and contribute simply by clicking here — we’d love to see you join in the discussions on our forum! You can also reach me anytime at [email protected].

Cheers for reading!