Friday, August 30, 2013

We are all street level bureaucrats now

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

Or at least we will be, eventually.

That's the argument Kent made on Wednesday in What We Lost in the Fire, We Gain in the Flood, and it's the argument I want to build on today. But first a quick recap of Kent's line of reasoning.

Street-level bureaucrats have traditionally been those in service delivery or enforcement roles; those whose jobs it is to directly interface with the public on a daily basis. However, as Kent rightly points out, street level bureaucracy is spilling over into the policy world as the civil service loses its monopoly on policy advice. In practice this means a transition to a more open model of policy-making whereby there is greater interaction between policy wonks and civil society. Kent ultimately ends his piece by cautioning us that while it seems to be the right path to go down, it's not necessarily the easiest one.

He's right

I think the road to open policy-making is a difficult path for hierarchical organizations to walk down because open policy-making is a disruptive innovation being introduced in the field of public policy. According to Clay Christensen, disruptive innovations tend to be:
"... technologically straightforward, consisting of off-the-shelf components put together in a product architecture that was often simpler than prior approaches. They offered less of what customers in established markets wanted and so could rarely be initially employed there. They offered a different package of attributes valued only in emerging markets remote from, and unimportant to, the mainstream."

Think about it

What is easier for a citizen to understand and have access to: The Bazaar or the Cathedral (See: The Bazaar World of Fearless Advice 2.0)?  In short, citizens are far more likely to understand and interact in the Bazaar than try to gain access to the Cathedral.

The barriers to entry facing citizens to traditional policy-making processes (the Cathedral) are extremely high. Citizens need to understand the complex relationships between bureaucracies and their web(s) of rules, contend with opaque processes, while disconnecting their input from others who may otherwise share, amplify, or improve it. Those barriers drop significantly in open environments (the Bazaar). But open environments also offer far less advantages to established players and incumbents who understand the current system.

Those who control access to the Cathedral are unlikely to abandon it for the Bazaar as it offers them a different package of attributes that their organizations simply aren't set up to respond to. This is precisely the dilemma that incumbents find themselves in when facing disruptive innovations and precisely why I think open policy-making is (as I mentioned above) the de facto disruptive innovation in the public policy field today.

Disruptive Innovations have a few common characteristics

For starters disruptive innovations are usually seen as a step back; they are often a new application of an old technology, a technology that provides "less for less" initially until it can effectively displace incumbent products or processes.

Does open policy-making stack up?

Or more precisely, does open policy-making provide "less for less" with the potential to improve and scale?


First, open policy-making is less resource intensive in that it doesn't mobilize the full weight of the bureaucratic machine; there is obviously still work to be done but its of a very different nature. I get the sense that convening a discussion, encouraging it as it unfolds, and summarizing the findings into a policy brief is far less onerous than trying to write something that satisfies entrenched interests and subsequently shepherd it through an onerous approvals regime. Obviously these approaches require different skill sets but that is the topic of another discussion altogether (for more on that see: Big data, social media, and the long tail of public policy).

Second, open policy-making offers less. Less structure, less familiar voices, and less emphasis on the incumbents; and as result its likely to be less polished, less bureaucratic and by extension, its recommendations less easy to be implemented (perhaps even less likely, at least in the early adoption phase).

I'm not entirely sure what all this means yet; I'm still trying to reconcile it with a few other threads running through my brain right but I get the sense that if introducing more frequent, faster and lightweight policy briefs that more accurately reflect the views of civil society doesn't disrupt the public policy field, I'm not sure what will.

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