Friday, May 20, 2011

Like Monetizing the Margins: On Creating Public Value around the Public Service

Last week I sat down with Alex, an Epidemiologist (and fellow public servant), and we worked through a redesign of the information systems he and his team use to track infectious diseases that may be threatening Canada. Although to be honest, that was never the intention. We originally met to discuss how (if) tablet computers could help field researchers gather data more efficiently. To get a sense of what Alex is working on, here is youtube video he sent me:

The road we traveled down may have started there, but it quickly got a whole lot bigger. I wanted to, with Alex's permission, share some of the key insights from our discussion.

[Note: after publishing, Alex sent me a note indicating that the work shown in that video was done by Dr. Kamran Khan via the Bio.Diaspora project.]

Can tablets help gather data in the field?

The short and obvious answer is yes; the long and complicated answer is that any mobile device can, but in order to for that to be useful, the rest of the chain needs to support the input from the device. In order to understand what we were talking about I started sketching on my iPad as we spoke. In the end the sketch became incredibly complex so I cleaned them up and broke them out into two sketches (click to enlarge):

After determining whether or not it was viable, our conversation shifted toward more traditionally bureaucratic concerns, namely cost.

How much would this thing cost the government?

We agreed that given the current climate public servants would be put under incredible pressure to be better managers of scarce resources, but we also both agreed that this was not a negative force but rather a force that creates an environment incredibly conducive to creativity and innovation if you know how to create a compelling narrative (read: articulate an argument, back it up with the facts, infuse it with passion, and deliver it with non-partisan conviction).

Where we run into difficulty is when we start to formulate that narrative strictly around cost savings. If there is one thing that I've learned from watching the Open Yale Courses on Game Theory it is that thinking strategically means doing a lot more than a simple uni-stage cost-benefit analysis. Here's a clip from lecture #19 (Subgame perfect equilibrium: matchmaking and strategic investments):

My key takeaway: being more strategic means looking more closely at how behaviour changes.

So how is behaviour changing?

I want to pull in what I've observed from the evolution of successful companies like Twitter, Google and Facebook. More specifically, I want to look at how they generate revenue. For example, Twitter has promoted tweets, Google has ads next to search, and Facebook leverages a users personal data to target advertising with ridiculous precision. These companies have embraced an ethos of delivering strong core services while generating revenue around the periphery; in essence they've monetized the margins.

So what does this have to do with public service?

While bureaucracies may not be revenue-generating in the strictest sense, we do generate public value. It stands to reason that we could adopt a similar approach to value-generation as successful businesses are currently using to approach revenue generation. For government, and here is the crux of my argument, we need to look at the margins of our core public services and find new and creative ways to create public value. To an extent, some of us may already do this but I have a feeling it isn't part of how we generally understand or approach public service.

So what does it look like?

In the models shown above, I'm tempted to say that we could create significant public value by simply opening the data set to the public. But realistically, the lack of public engagement to date around open data generally leads me to believe that publishing data without support activities around it is insufficient.

A more conducive approach to creating public value around core public services is to look at the specific niche opportunities for value-creation. In this case, what assets does the service make use of, who would be interested in those assets, and how do we partner with them in order to maximize the co-creation of public value. In other words, how do we do more with less (an undoubtedly popular adage for our times)?

So what are the assets in Alex's area of expertise? Well data is clearly one asset, but there is also the breadth of expertise along the supply chain of the institution’s work.

Who would be most interested in those assets? Academic institutions with a strong focus on public health are an obvious one, but so are public administration and management programs.

How do we partner with them in order to maximize the co-creation of public value? Offer a series of three pre-packaged partnership agreements (so as to avoid one-off negotiations) similar to online services (e.g. tiered systems of "free", "premium" and "pro"). Here is quick back-of-the-napkin example of the type of thinking I'm talking about:

  • 5 internships in data analysis (y hours)

Premium (contribution of x dollars)
  • 5 internships in data analysis (2y hours)
  • 5 in public administration/policy (2y hours)
  • Access to public health data for given number of students/classes

Pro (contribution of 2x dollars)
  • 5 internships in data analysis (3y hours)
  • 5 in public administration/policy (3y hours)
  • Full access to public health data for academic institution
  • Guided tour of facilities / ride-alongs with field researchers
  • Guest lectures by field experts/researchers
  • Exclusive partnership with local health authorities to study any government action in real time

Everything listed above, regardless of tier, creates some sort of public value while decreasing the overall cost of providing the core service (through either financial or in kind contributions). It is by no means exhaustive; if anything it is but a small tip of the iceberg. From where I sit, emerging public sector leaders facing demographic challenges and budgetary constraints are going to need to get more creative, and to my mind, there is no better way to do that than to look at opportunities to create public value at the margins of our work and seize them.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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