Ten Enabling Conditions for Innovation Labs

Friday, February 12, 2016

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

We've written a lot about innovation and innovation labs in the past (See: The Future of Innovation Labs: Accelerating Social Movements of Convening Solutions Ecosystems,Innovation Strategies: Centralized and Dedicated or Distributed and Open, On Prioritizing Policy Innovation: Wicked or Tame Problems?Why Governments Would Never Deploy Adobe's Kickbox and Why Maybe They Should, etc.) but now having worked inside one for the last month I can say with a degree of certainty that the biggest differentiating factor between a lab environment and a traditional government office (at least in my experience) is the underlying ethos of hope and experimentation. Both of which have been sadly absent from most of the places I've worked previously.

Now, that's not to say I haven't worked with good people (I have) or done good work (I have) but even in environments where I've been able to do good work with good people I haven't felt the same sense of hope or willingness to experiment that I have in my current role. Maybe I've drunk the kool-aid but the energy is nothing short of contagious

Surely there are a number of factors that help enable this kind of environment, and I doubt all labs are the same. That said, I'll try to name a few of the enabling conditions that I've observed thus far (in no particular order):

  1. People who are curiously optimistic, outcome focused and willing to fail in the pursuit of creating new public value streams
  2. Leadership that is willing (mindset) and able (skillset) to act as first line of defence against the "no-machine"
  3. Senior Management that is accessible, audibly champions experimentation, and puts their weight behind it through their actions
  4. Just enough hierarchy to get things through the system but not so much as to weigh any person or project down
  5. Direct ownership over projects / files (and all that comes with it)
  6. No duplication of work
  7. Trust as proxy for formal checks and balances
  8. Rigorous time management and firm commitment to deadlines
  9. Open and honest communication among team members
  10. Flexible working arrangements for everyone at all levels
I'm sure there's more, but that's as good a place as any to start.

Impossible Conversations: How to Run a Government

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The latest in our book review series is How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don't Go Crazy, by Michael Barber. The book covers Barber's experiences working with governments around the world to create "delivery units," teams responsible for mobilizing the civil service into delivering on a handful of top priorities - and the range of strategies and tactics Barber has tried to make that approach effective. Here are our joint reviews and reflections:

Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

As with any author there’s noticeable cherry-picking and rose-coloured glasses. However, I must say that I really enjoyed Barber’s book and I find the idea of refocusing government culture around delivery refreshing. That said, the reason that I think the book is a must-read isn’t necessarily about its contents but rather its context. Barber recently briefed cabinet and all of Ottawa is abuzz with talk of deliverology (see: here, here, here, and here). If you want to understand the shift in culture/mindset that may be about to make its way through the bureaucracy you need only look to the table on page 154 of the book which describes the difference between ‘Government by spasm’ and ‘Government by routine’. If you are a public servant, you’d probably do well to pick yourself up a copy. 

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it’s genuinely useful. As much as we might like to, most of us public servants don’t spend our days up in the theory clouds; we have deliverables, deadlines, and performance expectations. Once in a blue moon, we might have a few days to grapple with and devise solutions for a complicated issue that wasn’t even on the radar a few weeks before. Barber’s book is practical in that way: it deals with the nitty gritty of policy and program delivery, and provides simple, road-tested conceptual tools that can help you think through those tough situations. I’ve already found myself referring to his approach in meetings and referring to some of his charts while writing up some documents - the same can’t be said of, say, the Evgeny Morozov book, much as I appreciated it. 

Another reason I enjoyed the book is that it serves as an effective wake-up call for the public service to get its own house in order. Barber humorously describes the silly things us bureaucrats do all the time, from the point of view of a politician or staffer - think of our attachment to the status quo, our tendency to claim that something can’t be done, our proclivity to engage in ridiculous turf wars, our stalling tactics, etc. If we agree that these kinds of behaviours are pervasive and counter-productive, we won’t be able to rely on ‘deliverology’ to save us, given that there wouldn’t be delivery units for most of the things the government does. So if the Government of Canada as a whole is going to become the kind of modern, high-performing, data-literate organization that Barber is envisioning, then bureaucrats will have to deal with some of our own purely internal performance issues in a more ambitious fashion (all within the framework of our delegated authorities, yada yada yada). Better diagnosing the nature of the silliness, and the possible solutions the bureaucracy could reasonably implement on an internal basis, is a topic for another day.

There’s also a lot I didn’t like about this book. My main irritant is that Barber is a poor social scientist. He usually conforms to a ‘logic model’ vision of government, where, for any given policy problem (e.g., low literacy rates) you just need to find the one right lever to pull (i.e., forcing teachers to teach one new literacy class a week in elementary school). Um.. hold on a minute.  For most policy issues, there’s a lot more going on under the hood - I dunno, maybe persistent social exclusion driven by economic inequality, systemic discrimination, or uncontrollable economic forces over which governments have little to no control? (Pick your poison.) So yes, I was somewhat disturbed by Barber’s tendency to make sweeping statements about complicated situations, without much in the way of caveats. So you might want to listen to Barber to decide on how to ‘run a government’, but take his opinions on what the actual policy responses should be with a massive grain of salt. (Don’t get even me started on his frequent claims that ‘the markets vs. governments debate is over’ - the guy’s a pro-market social liberal with light redistributive tendencies. Which is fine; just don’t try to make a drive-by ‘end of history’ argument which passes that off as being the only viable political/policy approach out there.)

Argh, there’s a ton of other things that annoyed me about this book, but I want to keep this review ‘lengthy’, as opposed to ‘unreasonably lengthy’, so I will leave it at that - I won’t even address Barber’s constant humble-bragging and lack of critical self-reflection, or the unsatisfactory way in which Barber discussed the risks of over-relying on metrics (I’ll leave Prez to do the explaining, from way back in 2004). Another topic I would have liked to explore is that ultimately, Barber really only addresses a small sliver of what policy implementation actually involves (a lot of the times it seems to comes down to tracking bureaucrats in order to scare them into coming up with new solutions, but he doesn’t often tell you what the actual solutions were), but I’m a slow writer, and a man has to have evening hobbies that go beyond reviewing books.   

    John Kenney

I liked the book and agree with Nick that Barber’s focus on delivery is refreshing. Here are a few things on my mind in relation to how it might be applied, particularly at the federal level:

One of the things that makes the “science of delivery” different than, say, federal public administration via the Management, Resources and Results Structure (MRRS) and the Management Accountability Framework, is that deliverology focuses government on strategy and priorities. The point is not to “deliverology” everything. In theory at least, it requires a government to make deliberate choices, understand where it’s going and how it’ll know if it’s making progress getting there, and if not, learning and adapting as needed. It’s hardcore when it comes to assessing whether or not the government has the capacity to deliver on what it sets out to do. While some of that may sound like the good intentions of the MRRS or “integrated planning”, deliverology takes it to a new, concentrated level with political engagement and leadership.

Deliverology strikes me as a convergent practice. It picks up at a point where a government has identified its priorities and what it intends to do to achieve them. In the context of complex public problems (aka “wicked problems”), new and emerging policy approaches are attempting to embed divergent and integrative thinking, user research and experimentation into the policy design process in advance of converging on solutions. If well-executed, deliverology could expose the (non)effectiveness of intended policy solutions earlier in the policy cycle and open up opportunities for creative problem-solving and experimentation. I like how it builds in (some) stakeholder engagement, rigourous (enough) performance measurement and monitoring, learning and iteration to rapidly improve and address delivery problems as they arise. It’s an action-oriented and continuous learning approach. Arguably, governments need more of that assuming they’re open to learning, acknowledging when things aren’t going well and adapting their approach to hit the mark. 

I’m intrigued by the application of deliverology at the federal level. The UK and Ontario are oft-cited examples of deliverology in action, and in both cases, they are arguably closer to where the rubber hits the road as far as delivering policy interventions directly to citizens go. I’m writing generally here and it will depend on the policy priorities and strategies in question. The government and implicated jurisdictions are open to challenge conventional assumptions of how stakeholder arrangements may work to deliver the public goods, at least in theory (possibly in practice?).

Deliverology is not a magic bullet. Barber doesn’t present it as one so let’s not get cult-ish about it. There’s a lot of good stuff to learn and apply, but note that the same federal government that appears eager to apply its principles and practices has also been clear on the need to create the time and space for (super)forecasting, designing citizen-centred digital services, and experimenting with new policy instruments and approaches, including behavioural and data-driven insights, and engaging Canadians via crowdsourcing and open data initiatives. It remains to be seen how consistent and compatible those approaches are with deliverology, which, as Barber writes, “...is still in its infancy”. He concludes the book with three rules on the future of delivery:

  • Big data and transparency are coming (prepare to make the most of them);
  • Successful markets and effective government go together (avoid the false dichotomy); and,
  • Public and social entrepreneurship will become increasingly important to delivering outcomes (encourage it).

Deliverology is not a linear approach although it can sometimes come across as one. While Barber’s focus is intentionally on delivery here, there’s a continuous learning loop built into it that, if executed effectively, could yield insights that inform ongoing and future policy design and delivery approaches.

I’ve added “in theory”, “if executed effectively” and “assuming that…” in a number of places above. I agree with Francis that Barber oversimplifies things a lot to demonstrate the lessons (or “rules”) for government. I like many of them in principle (there I go again), but if and how deliverology is applied to influence complex systems and human behaviours both within the public service and beyond may depend on its openness to adapt where necessary to the policy contexts and needs of numerous implicated users and stakeholders at different times and scales.

Kent AitkenRSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Er… well done, gentlemen. I’m getting to this joint review late, and Nick, Francis, and John have covered a lot of ground in spectacular fashion. I only have a handful of points to add.

One is to re-emphasize Nick’s angle, which is that part of the reason this book was so interesting was the possibility that it’s about to influence public administration in Canada - possibly in tangible, day-to-day ways for some public servants. That said, during the discussion I also cautioned that one bureaucrat's environmental scanning or forecasting may be another bureaucrat's tea-leaf-reading. I’m trying to resist reading too far into things until deliverology rears its head for real.  

The second is to sum up what the core of the book, and the idea of deliverology, was for me: it’s government knowing what it wants to do, and knowing for sure that those things are getting done. Which sounds pretty reasonable. Barber highlights in the book that holding administrators to account for results isn’t about a blame game, it’s actually about helping and clearing obstacles for initiatives that are challenging to implement. (Which, I suspect, is an ideal that some past “implementers” may not have felt at the time.)

Which leads into a related third point: I’m curious as to how bureaucratic writing and deliverology will mesh. Government officials can tend towards non-specific language like “commit to,” “enhance,” “support,” “enable,” and “facilitate” in their planning and reporting - which I don’t think would cut it to a delivery unit: “Okay, but what did you really do?”

Lastly, which contrasts a little with the above reviews: as a public servant, I spend my time in the weeds of public administration. I think about the details, the working level, and the implementation. Barber’s ideas are those of someone who has to take the 10,000 foot-high view, working with heads of state or their close circles. So where Francis and John (rightly) express concern with how these ideas work in complex, day-to-day realities, the book gave me some perspective on what delivery might look like to a country’s senior officials - who are forced to look for the best ways to condense their information intake while making things happen.

Establishing Policy Innovation Pipelines

Friday, February 5, 2016

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

I was at an event last week at Employment and Social Development Canada on the importance of behavioural science. The speaker — Dr. Brian Cugelman — shared a couple of insights that I think are worth reflecting on. Most notably were his remarks that even really good public policies and programs tend lose their lustre over time due to habituation and if governments want to remain relevant they need to continue to not only invest in improving current programs but also invest in their innovation pipeline to create future programs. Using behavourial science to maximize the returns on these investments is critical according to Cugelman (who uses the term 'evidence-informed' rather than 'evidence-based' policy making).

Interestingly, his views are consistent and reflected in the President of the Treasury Board's mandate letter:
As President of the Treasury Board, your overarching goal will be to lead the management agenda of the government and oversee the implementation and delivery of Cabinet-approved initiatives.  I want you to lead the government’s efforts to ensure that departments and other federal organizations are able to use the best available information. Responsible governments rely on sound evidence to make decisions to ensure we obtain good value for our money. You should work with your colleagues to ensure that they are devoting a fixed percentage of program funds to experimenting with new approaches to existing problems and measuring the impact of their programs.  I expect you to instill a strengthened culture of measurement, evaluation, and innovation in program and policy design and delivery. This should include publicly releasing all key information that informs the decisions we make. 

It will be interesting to see how this mandate letter commitment is implemented, especially given that it doesn't seem to be reflected in the mandate letters of other Ministers. The spirit of the commitment seems to be building a widespread culture of continuous improvement, presenting an opportunity to move beyond the policy innovator's dilemma (i.e. the choice between doing more with less versus doing different, differently) and putting new approaches firmly within scope. This is encouraging at the leadership level but likely needs to be driven down into the fabric of the organization more firmly than traditional management cascades can accomplish.

Building organization wide (departments and agencies) or enterprise wide (Government of Canada) policy innovation pipelines will be no easy feat. One of the core features might be a more robust and meaningful medium term policy planning processes (MTP) which — in the experience of many people I know — is often interesting and productive but not necessarily tied to a clear channel for experimentation or delivery. Another core feature may be using natural life cycle points in the policy process (e.g. program renewal) for some sort of 'innovation audit' whereby policy and program folk can get together in a facilitated session for a couple of days to jam on the lived experience, state of the art / best in class, and new approaches in order to chart an incremental, experimental or radical way forward (or even pull the chute completely if the situation warrants).

I don't pretend to have all the answers yet but I think there's a lot of people around town who are starting to think very concretely about how to best establish a policy innovation pipeline within their department and/or agency. If you are one of those people, I'd love to hear from you.

Innovation Strategies: Centralized and Dedicated or Distributed and Open?

Friday, January 22, 2016

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

A while back I was in London speaking at Nesta's Global Labworks Conference. The panel was examined the differences between centralized and dedicated approaches versus distributed and open approaches. What follows is a piece I originally wrote for my fellow panelists in the lead up to the event, it roughly represents my contribution to the panel discussion. It's worth noting that I was asked to attend the panel as a critic of labs and spur debate.

On Comparing Approaches

While Westminster parliamentary democracies are widely credited with a high capacity to keep pace with the times, the realities of digital society are increasingly putting those claims to the test. Digital technologies and governance challenges are colliding, the landscape is shifting, and giving rise to new questions. Concurrently, policy-makers, civil servants and citizens are increasingly looking for innovative ways to smooth out the governance landscape. But how governing institutions can best innovate in an era where no one owns information, power is dispersed and authority and accountability are being constantly re-conceived is still a mystery. While there has been a recent surge in the popularity of innovation labs – centralized innovation spaces and dedicated teams tackling specific problems – it is still too early to judge their success or failure relative to the status quo or any other alternative innovation strategies.

The rise of innovation labs is hardly attributable to any single set of drivers but the consensus – at least in government circles – is that traditional bureaucratic hierarchies are anathema to innovation. This is why leadership is willing to circumvent hierarchies to better accomplish their goals, why civil servants embrace flattening communication technologies to reach across their reporting structures, and why citizens co-create solutions to public problems outside them. But the irony here is that at its core, centralizing the innovation function in a dedicated innovation lab, could be considered an inherently bureaucratic approach to problem solving. After all, labs may centralize rather than diffuse the innovation function, create new institutional costs, situate those costs firmly within a subsection of the hierarchy, and reinforce the status quo of situational power structures where access and information are the ultimate sources of influence. As a result, labs are vulnerable to the same bureaucratic pressures that slow innovative forces in the rest of the organization. It may be argued that they are inherently exclusive and prestigious because not everyone can work in the lab — that would after all undermine its very essence. To some degree this can be useful and positive as a way of raising the profile of the lab’s work and using the skills and knowledge of the best and brightest to contribute to its success. But it also introduces potential challenges, like the risk of attracting those who are more concerned with career progress than mission success. In addition, labs tend to be task specific and thus more focused on building and diffusing a particular innovation or series of innovations rather than building enterprise wide capacity for innovation. Importantly, they may also take the responsibility for innovation out of the hierarchy and consolidate it into a single place alongside it. Centralization may not only send a strong signal about where innovation happens in the organization and where it doesn't but may also make the lab's output vulnerable if there is insufficient receptivity to the innovation within the hierarchy at the point of re-integration (e.g. death by a thousand cuts). Finally, establishing formal innovation labs can make governing institutions vulnerable to the sunk cost fallacy. Bureaucracies are often criticized for throwing good money after bad and may be unwilling or unlikely to walk away from established labs even if they are failing. Ironically, the sunk cost fallacy – the bureaucracy's unwillingness to walk away from structures that produce sub-optimal outcomes – is likely one of the contributing factors to the rise of innovation labs themselves. As a result of all this, lab practitioners may have to contend with lower than expected risk tolerance, less experimentation, lower rates of abandonment, and a push (or pull) towards early and easy wins. This suggests that centralized labs alone cannot yield the successes we demand of them. A receptive organizational culture will certainly be a critical success factor. This brings us to the second innovation strategy I want to consider.

By comparison, distributed and open approaches such as Adobe’s Kickbox diffuse the innovation function, avoid additional institutional costs, invoke minimal hierarchy and create incentives for wider collaboration (See: Why Governments Would Never Deploy Adobe's Kickbox and Why Maybe They Should). As a result, these approaches aren’t as vulnerable to the bureaucratic pressures that typically slow innovation. Because it is universally accessible (or at least accessible to broad swaths at a given time) the distributed and open approach is more likely to attract more diverse talent and people genuinely looking to try something new. Open innovation approaches also send a clear signal about the need for, and the ability to, innovate anywhere in the organization and ameliorate the culture by building a more widespread organizational understanding of, and capacity for, innovation. Because open approaches allow innovation to bubble up from within, a given innovation that arises within this culture is more likely to be accepted by those around it who are critical to its success. Finally, distributed and open approaches to innovation allow governing institutions to walk away from sunk costs more easily. The staged methodology of something like Kickbox is not only built to promote good ideas through the innovation cycle but also provide frequent off-ramps for ideas and early concepts that ought to be abandoned while avoiding either great expense or consequence. As a result, innovators in open systems are less likely to have to contend with issues of risk intolerance and can engage in more genuine experimentation; they can walk away as required and test hypotheses that would otherwise go untested.

That said, the true test of innovation strategies, be they centralized and dedicated or open and distributed, isn't what goes into their deployment but rather what results from that deployment. Too often bureaucracies put their best and brightest to work on matters of process rather than substance and – given the magnitude of the challenges – any innovation strategy that puts more smart people next to hard problems is worth pursuing. Furthermore while the two approaches may seem dichotomous, they need not be mutually exclusive. Innovation isn't black or white but rather an exploration of all the shades in-between. In fact, organizations may wish to pursue both strategies concurrently, incent a little friendly competition, and – to the degree possible – A/B test the results against the baseline of the status quo. What they are likely to find is that centralized and dedicated approaches produce sustaining innovations (meaning they will help governing institutions make the things they already do faster, better and cheaper), whereas open and distributed approaches – like Adobe's Kickbox – produce disruptive innovations (meaning they will help governing institutions do different things in fundamentally different ways). Ensuring the continued health of our Westminster systems likely requires some mix of concurrent centralized and distributed innovation strategies that allows for the serendipitous blend of sustaining and disruptive innovations born of both dedicated and open systems. Therefore knowing which strategy to pursue when and for what purpose is invaluable intelligence for governing institutions – invaluable intelligence that is on the verge of being within reach.

Impossible Conversations: a Review of What is Government Good At?

Wednesday, January 6, 2016
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

This is the latest in a series of book reviews, which we usually write en masse as a book club. Given that we discussed this book leading up to Christmas, I'll just jot down some notes myself. I’ll try to return to the group format for the next book as I think we’ll have a lot to discuss (it’s How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don’t Go Crazy).

Here’s the short story for this one, starting with a caveat: I really like Donald Savoie’s book Breaking the Bargain, and consider it a must-read explainer of a long-term shift in the political-public service relationship. I liked Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher?, his book about why the focus has fallen off front-line public services, though I would have liked more solutions for the problems he diagnosed. But I’d recommend Breaking the Bargain over his latest, What is Government Good At?.

It’s because of something we might call “the Last Chapter Problem,” which is what I'm actually going to talk about for this review. (For Savoie’s take on the Canadian public service, you can still read our reflections on Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher?.) 

The Last Chapter Problem

Over the last couple years, we’ve gone through an interesting list of books on governance in Canada. A common theme running throughout is a comprehensive, 300-page analysis of what’s wrong, followed by a “So what do we do about it?” chapter that falls flat.

Joseph Heath (Enlightenment 2.0) broke down why we can’t have nuanced, rational discourse about complex public policy issues, but couldn’t really muster a convincing solution. Likewise for Susan Delacourt (Shopping for Votes), who tackled a similar thread as Heath - a drift away from weighty, intellectual discourse - but focused on elections and campaigns. Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan (Tragedy in the Commons) went straight to the source - former members of parliament - for their assessment of the status quo, and could only end their book with the explicit recognition that some of the problems described were seemingly intractable. They included the following quote in their last chapter:

"People often ask: how can we reform politics? And the answer is: we can’t. There are very few institutional changes that would do any good, and whatever would has no chance of being enacted." 
- Andrew Coyne

Jeffrey Simpson (Chronic Condition) came to a similar conclusion as Coyne, but about health care reform in Canada.

The same idea struck me for What is Government Good At?. Savoie notes in the opening that the book developed from a conversation with another academic, and I feel as though he set out with best intentions to answer the title question. but after laying out his extensive experience with the public service had accidentally answered the converse: “What is government not good at?”.

Good at What?

“In brief, government is good at looking to the long term, dealing with wicked problems, and making visionary investments*… This makes the point once again the government should do things that no one else is doing, wishes to do, or is able to do. In short, governments are better at establishing circumstances for success than at managing success.” 

That note appears in the chapter Good at What?, which is still mostly about what government is not good at. His (actual) last chapter returns specifically to why governments can come up short, focusing on the gap between direction from the top and implementation on the ground. Or as Savoie puts it, the public service above the "fault line” and the public service below it (see: Nick or Kent on the clay layer). And this is not a slight on the book, just an example of the Last Chapter Problem. The sole real prescription is calling for a national debate on how to improve ailing institutions.

Which is fair. These problems are hefty and we should be suspicious about easy answers. But at some point we really need a good Last Chapter, a “So what do we do about it?” We seem to be, as a country, running somewhat of a deficit on answers.

All of which makes me excited to discuss the next book, which is all about implementation in government.

*Mariana Mazzucato book’s (The Entrepreneurial State), for what it’s worth, laid out the long-term, visionary investments piece in convincing detail.