The Future of Policy Work

Thursday, November 20, 2014
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

***Updated Nov 28 to reflect changes to remarks between the original draft and the speech I delivered.***

On Tuesday next week I will have the privilege of addressing a large number of policy professionals in the Ontario Public Service as a part of Polivery V: The Future of Policy Work. What follows is a first draft of my remarks, pardon the style, it helps me deliver. As always, your comments are more than welcome... (it's late, this is a draft, and I'm tired, etc).

Good morning everyone.

I'm not sure you know how lucky you all are to have such an esteemed panel before you today.

I'm not really sure how I snuck on to the bill.

My name is Nicholas Charney.

I'm the Director for Engagement and Innovation at the Institute on Governance.

We are small not for profit organization whose mission is to advance better governance in the public interest.

We do this through our ongoing advisory work, learning activities and by conducting primary research with academic partners.

I’m a policy professional and currently on interchange from the Government of Canada where I've spent the last 8 years working at the confluence of people, public policy and technology.

There are many things that I could say the future of policy work.

I could start by saying that in the future having the right skills will be essential.

Or, that a talent-focused culture will be critical.

Or, that organizational agility is the key to effective outcomes.

But I could say all of that and have said nothing.

I'd rather start out by saying that future of policy work is still being written.

That there is no shortage of wicked problems, demand for ideas, or need to bring them bear.

That technology and Zeitgeist are changing the nature of public policy.

That these changes are creating a number of challenges and opportunities.

And that how you deal with them today will ultimately determine what your future holds.

First the challenges.

Challenge #1 - The hollowing out of capacity.

Strategic policy shops have quickly become issues management shops.

Driven by increased transparency and a 24/7 news cycle.

We often sacrifice the long-term health of our democracy to deal with that which is immediately before us.

This is the fast food approach to public policy.

It might taste good at 2 o'clock in the morning, but ultimately it's terrible for our health.

As my mother used to say to me when I came home late at night, we need to make better choices.

Policy makers need to re-claim their relationships with the media, with elected officials, and with each other.

They need to stand by less and stand for more.

The faceless bureaucrat is no longer a tenable position in this environment.

Challenge #2 - Innovation by check box.

Everyone is suffering from innovation fatigue.

When everything is innovative, nothing is.

Labeling something as such is as meaningless as labeling it as secret in today's environment.

Yes - innovation hubs, labs, dragon's dens and hackathons are all in vogue right now.

But the true test isn't what goes into them, but rather what comes out of them.

Too often our best and brightest are put to work on matters of process rather than substance.

Let's put more smart people next to hard problems and stop treating problems as puzzles to be solved.

That metaphor assumes that all the necessary pieces are already on the table.

That they just need to be rearranged or reprogrammed.

But that’s not true.

‘Policy Innovation’ defined as moving the pieces around or adding more processing power won't disrupt the status quo.

That is the status quo

Challenge #3 - Hyper-bureaucratics

Process has always been the bureaucratic panacea.

But by now we must be fast approaching what I like to call peak bureaucracy.

The point where we simply cannot add any additional layers without incurring untenable costs.

Be wary of those who refuse to do the hard work of flattening hierarchies, simplifying processes and minimizing barriers.

Be wary of those who would rather establish processes to diffuse blame than simplify them to consolidate responsibility.

We need more decisions and less diffusion.

Challenge #4 - The loss of monopoly & increased competition

We have new roles.

We've moved from that of a monopoly provider to something more akin to a sensor, sense-maker, connector, a validator.

It can be unnerving but don't panic.

Embrace the fear and explore the new opportunities.

Opportunity #1 - Bask in the complexity

We have never had a better understanding of how things are interconnected.

But focusing solely on technology or innovation actually prevents us from realizing the art of the possible.

We know that connecting people and ideas has never been easier.

Yes the policy shop of the future deploys technologies to connect people around ideas but also employs people to do the same.

It asks people to lean in and slog through the messy stuff: the history, the economics, the philosophy, the art, the ambiguities, the contradictions, the trade-offs.

The stuff technology can't fix.

This takes time and effort.

The policy shop of the future retains the time-honored tradition of subject matter expertise and encourages depth, not just breadth, of experience.

Opportunity #2- Engage in social media

Listen to what people are saying.

Find the experts.

Weigh their analysis.

Read what they read.

What's the Zeitgeist telling you?

Be curious.

Create content don't just consume it.

Lean in and slog through the hard stuff yourself.

Write things down and work through problems.

And don’t forget to take the time to unplug once in a while.

Put down your phone

Put down the remote and read a book.

Like a paper book.

Break its spine, dog ear the pages and write in the margins.

Opportunity #3 - Experiment with data

Find, verify and link or liberate useful data sets inside your organization or within your field of work.

Explore what happens at the margins where different data sets interact.

Create visualizations that cast an old problem in a new light.

If you find something interesting broaden the tent and engage others.

I did this recently by visualizing all 278 instruments in the Federal Government’s Treasury Board Policy Suite.

I did it out of interest, shared it to the Internet and wound up in front of the ADM responsible for the suite within a week.

Don't worry, it was a good meeting.

If you don't have the skills to do this or the time to learn, find people who do, and work with them.

Opportunity #4 - Use design thinking

Empathize with problem.

Be creative when thinking about solutions.

Be rational when mapping the solution to the problem.

Match people's needs with what is feasible.

This is something we are teaching right now in collaboration with the GovLab @ NYU.

Its surprising how effective a two day deep dive on a problem can be if you approach it with the right methodologies.

In case you are interested, both NYU and the d.school at Stanford have a number freely available methodologies online.

Opportunity #5 - Read up on behavioural economics

Commonly referred to as nudge.

There are a lot of books on the matter and some interesting work has been done recently in the UK.

Long story short, slight tweaks in your approach vector can drive vastly superior outcomes.

Behavioural Economics brings sentiment, analytics, and design to ground by emphasizing what people actually do when faced with a given situation rather than what we think they ought to do.

The US government just invested $100 million dollars in a simple nudge.

They doubled the value of the SNAP benefits – or food stamps – for people who use them to buy local fruits and vegetables at farmers markets.

They got the idea itself came from a farmers market that had been doing it on its own without the government subsidy.

In conclusion I want to say

How you go about your work will continue to change but ultimately being able to frame up advice that helps leaders make good decisions will always be a critical skill for policy makers.

Indeed, it always has been.

Now if you recall in my opening remarks, I told you that the future of policy work is still being written.

In closing I want to appeal to your sense of agency and remind you that when it comes to policy advice you literally have the pen.

Invest that pen.

Familiarize yourself with the trends and new techniques, but don't chase breadth at the expense of depth.

Do you best to balance both, stay curious, and remember, the pen is mightier than the sword.

Thank you