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What is CoLab?

Posted by: and , Posted on: - Categories: Design, Recruitment

A group of 5 colleagues working collaboratively on a design process.

Earlier this year, we finished work on our pilot project. The redesigned service emerging from this will be launched next month.

We’re now well under way with our second major project and have completed several mini projects.

We’re also about to recruit for some key roles so it feels like a good time to talk about what CoLab is and how it came to be.

What is CoLab?

CoLab is a small team of designers, researchers and technologists. We collaborate closely with people affected by Home Office policies and services, as well as front-line staff, subject matter experts and practitioners from a variety of other disciplines.

We apply a structured, repeatable problem-solving approach to diverse policy and operational challenges from across the Home Office. We draw on a combination of service design and lean start-up thinking.

This means our approach involves:

  • gathering a multidisciplinary group that considers users, policy, operations and technology simultaneously
  • using research to truly understand and map out a whole problem space, from multiple perspectives
  • clearly defining the problem to be solved and the measurable outcomes that will show we’re succeeding in solving it
  • using design hypotheses and lightweight experiments to quickly explore and test multiple potential ways of achieving those outcomes
  • discarding poorly performing concepts and iterating in more detail on those that show promise
  • pulling together a coherent solution based on a body of evidence for what will deliver these desired outcomes

This approach is flexible. It can be used effectively to tackle a wide variety of problem types and produce an equally diverse range of solutions. It can be used to shape policy, operational processes and the user experience.

Why CoLab exists

We were inspired and encouraged by the success of the Cabinet Office’s pioneering Policy Lab and similar user-centred labs at the Ministry of Justice and HMRC.

When Adam joined the Home Office with first-hand experience running collaborative design labs we decided to see if we could establish something similar at the Home Office.

CoLab was primarily set-up as a response to some specific challenges common to many large, complex organisations. These challenges include:

  • complicated problems that cross organisational boundaries
  • the risk of unintended consequences when solving problems in isolation
  • a tendency to rapidly identify and then invest heavily in a single solution, which risks not fully understanding the underlying problem or having enough evidence that the chosen solution will address the problem effectively
  • measuring success by how well a solution has been implemented rather than how well the problem has been addressed (meaning a focus on outputs over outcomes)
  • proven design-led methods confined to digital delivery teams, where the benefits they provide risk being limited to how a pre-determined solution is implemented rather than how a problem is solved
  • making change happen can be hard and slow

In Table 1, below, we’ve included some of the ways in which CoLab responds to those challenges.

Challenge CoLab response
Complicated problems that cross organisational boundaries Multidisciplinary collaboration, across organisational boundaries.

Build a holistic, multi-perspective, system view of a problem space.

Use mapping to make sense of and share insight into complexity.

Use data to understand what is happening combined with qualitative insight to understand why.

Risk of unintended consequences Testing potential solutions through experimentation.

Designing for the whole, for example considering the following simultaneously, with conclusions in each serving to shape the other:

·        the shape a policy might take

·        how it might be operationalised

·        how it will meet user needs and the impact it will have on various cohorts.

Over-investing in single solutions Dedicate half of each project to exploring and understanding the problem space.

Precisely define the problem and the target outcomes that a successful solution will deliver before conceiving of any potential solutions.

Generate multiple hypotheses for solutions and use experiments to choose the best performing ones.

Focus on outputs over outcomes Use measurable target outcomes to shape ideas, align effort across organisational boundaries and measure success.
Design-led methods confined to digital delivery teams Move design-led methods upstream.
Making change is hard and slow Start small, using nimble teams to work on focused problems.

Allow teams to experiment with new methods ‘on the side’.

Use concrete case studies rather than rhetoric to encourage wider change.

Table 1: How CoLab responds to challenges in large complex organisations.

A new way of working

A small innovation lab can’t solve all of these challenges in an organisation as large and complex as the Home Office.

But it can help by concretely demonstrating the value of a design-led approach. We’ve seen this happen directly with stakeholders who collaborate with us on projects, indirectly as we build up a track record of compelling case studies with tangible results and while delivering some really valuable work.

CoLab is part of Digital Data and Technology directorate (DDaT) which creates technology and digital services for the rest of the Home Office.

We’re grateful that Joanna Davinson, Chief Digital, Data and Technology Officer, and Rob Thompson, Chief Technology Officer, saw the potential of CoLab and have fully backed the approach.

DDaT now provides this collaborative service to policy and operations teams across the department. In this way, CoLab acts as a catalyst for changing ways of working as we develop the citizen-focused policies and services of the future.

In our next posts we’ll share more about our structured problem-solving approach and the value of working in this way.


We are currently recruiting for a Senior Developer – Creative Technologist in CoLab, DDaT Home Office. Applications close 23 August 2020.

We are also recruiting for a Head of Policy & Innovation Lab in CoLab, DDaT Home Office. Applications close 30 August 2020.

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