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Tune in, Turn on, Drop out - Planning and Idea Generation in Government

Wednesday, February 5, 2014
by Tariq Piracha RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewaltwitter / tariqpiracha

In response to my last post, a friend commented about the risk involved in trying to generate the best merit-based ideas: “best ideas according to whom and why? What is best?”

Clear and measurable objectives are crucial to success when tasked with idea generation in government. I think her question is well worth consideration. But if we’re looking for an objective or static measurement for what constitutes the “best idea”, I think we’ll be disappointed with the results.

It is the essential nature of democracy: the ideas that are generated, tweaked and implemented are a matter of choice. We look at the data, the issues, the context, and we make the best recommendations we can. It may not be the most effective or efficient course of action, but once we incorporate the multitude of interests, risks, and limitations, someone must ultimately make an informed choice.

That said, the best choice, that is made within a particular context at a particular point in time, may no longer be the best choice as the environment changes. The question that interests me is not so much “what is best”, or even “what are we going to choose”, but instead “how are we going to adapt?”

To do that, I think we need to address at least three elements: With a nod to our 60’s counterculture, I’d suggest it’s important to know how to tune in, turn on, and drop out.

Tune in: We need to pay close attention to our environment. If our environment is changing, we should know about it now; not in a year when it is time to wrap up a project and evaluate performance.

Turn on: We need to know how to turn on a dime. If we’ve got our finger on the pulse, we are better positioned to pivot and adjust course if necessary.

Drop out: Sometimes, well, we just may need to abandon an approach and start from scratch, or move on.

If we have established clear, measurable goals, and we are evaluating our progress every step along the way (and not just at milestones), we may discover that our ideas need to change. The environment, the data, may show us that it needs to.

I've written in past about the need for agile government and the dangers of focusing on projects instead of iterative process. It’s that iterative approach that can help us be more agile.

Cass Sunstein in Simpler talks about the need to assess and adjust policy after it has been implemented. We can no longer afford to “set it and forget it” when it comes to policy and law as no policy or law will be perfect out of the gate.

This position was also recently expressed by Dana O’Donovan and Noah Rimland Flower from the Monitor Institute with regards to how we assess and implement strategic plans.

The 5-year plan, or even annual strategic plans, are no longer providing the flexibility and effectiveness in a world that is changing so rapidly, where citizens are needing responsive and responsible government support.

“Best” may be a misleading word - it is certainly not some objective measurement when it comes to how the government works. It is contextual relative to the various pressures that any developing policy may face.

However, if we can set clear, measurable objectives, scan the environment frequently, measure our progress early and often, and adjust appropriately to changes in the environment, then I think we'll be well on our way to seeing useful progress. And useful ideas.