Redefining diversity in the search for ideas

Friday, January 31, 2014
by Tariq Piracha RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewaltwitter / tariqpiracha

With Nick and Kent’s recent focus on a new way forward for policy development, I began thinking about the sourcing of design thinking from Nick’s piece, and the system for more reliable problem solving from Kent's piece. If we are to assume that policy making is to take this proposed course, who is the source of the design thinking? Where do the ideas come from?
When I first joined the public service in 2001, I remember attending a Town Hall related to visible minorities and diversity in the public service. The question back then was not all that different from questions we see today: how to we attract and retain *diverse* talent for the public service?

The assumption is that there is value in a diversity of backgrounds and what those backgrounds can bring to the table. The focus for visible minority groups, of course, is to provide more opportunity for those who are otherwise shut out of the process due to the colour of their skin. 

And they weren't the only groups who focused on representation based on a particular demographic. Our meetings or consultations became an exercise in ensuring that we included a visible minority, a woman, a person with a disability, a member of First Nations, someone younger, someone older – the list goes on. A successful exercise in inclusiveness was a room filled with demographic diversity. 

However, if the nature of policy development is going to change (as Nick and Kent suggest), then it follows that a redefinition of diversity may be required. 

As Blueprint 2020 uses digital tools to bring public servants together across the country to envision a new future for the public service, the focus is on ideas. In short, government may need to shift from visible to invisible inclusiveness.  

A good idea is a good idea is a good idea

When I say “invisible inclusiveness”, I'm talking about a focus on the source of design thinking: tapping into a diversity of experience, opinion, and ideas.

It’s the notion that cognitive authority needs to supplant institutional or positional authority. We should be drawn to good ideas and we lose out if we retain biases of any kind that favour source (one's position or influence) over merit (of an idea).

It means a good idea is a good idea, no matter where it comes from and is treated as such. It means that there is value seeking out other voices and ideas (even dissenting ones). It is a belief in producing better outcomes through consultation, collaboration and cooperation. It is an acknowledgement that no one person has all the answers. 

The opportunity here is that one's value is determined by their contribution, not by the colour of their skin, the year they were born, or the nation to which they belong.

It’s asking for a change in culture, which is no easy task - there is still a long way to go. Collaboration and the use of collaborative tools, while increasing in use, are by no means pervasive in the public service. And the use of these tools and the culture that may be fostered through the use of these tools are no guarantee that racism, discrimination and exclusivity are going to disappear. 

However, if better policy outcomes and an effective public service are the goals for the public service, then the focus on finding the best ideas will truly need to shift from obsessing over who is getting a seat at the table to stepping out of the boardroom.

Building Distributed Capacity

Wednesday, January 29, 2014
By Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Last week Nick laid out a model that blends public sentiment, data analytics, design thinking, and behavioural economics as the future of evidence-based policy (see: basically, that was the title). The opportunity cost of inaction, here, is far greater than the immediate financial investments required. The only disagreement I can muster is that I'd actually call it the future of governance, writ large.

But, we're in an era of intense scrutiny. Governments are no longer entirely opaque entities, and spending can be held not just to account but to undue pressure. And that pressure is greatest when spending doesn't lead to immediate and obvious public benefits, which is the case for pursuing the future as described above.

However, there are examples of governments spending money on complex investments - those that are long-term, hard-to-measure, and with widely distributed benefits. It's largely because there are strong communities that envision the long term that are bellowing for these investments, creating crucial pressure and accountability.

And these investments line up with the model Nick proposed. For public sentiment, the U.K. is building capacity through organizations like Sciencewise, dedicated to helping government consult with citizens on science and technology policy. For design thinking, there are a handful of examples, established to help policy makers apply techniques in their work. In the Behavioural Economics field, the U.K. are again the leaders with the Behavioural Insights Unit, and the U.S. appointed Cass Sunstein to a key role to make progress there. For Data Analytics? I welcome examples. But there is good news in the technology space, however, as on Monday a bill was proposed in the U.S. that would codify the national Chief Technology Officer role and establish a Digital Government Office.

These are all wise investments, the success of which can only be measured in the long-term and at the macro scale. None of those investments solve an easily definable problem; rather, they create a distributed capacity, a system for more reliable problem-solving.

So where do we go from here?

At the highest level, it's a question of ensuring that we can make important investments in complex solutions. Where the counterfactual is the key question, and the opportunity cost of inaction far outweighs immediate financial costs. And with closely watching stakeholders than can be hard to convince.

More concretely? There's a group of brilliant and dedicated public servants pursuing capacity-building for design thinking close to home. This is both a discrete capacity and a way to improve virtually every decision-making process, so I think this will go a long way towards better results. Design thinking is properly merciless in testing and discarding sub-optimal solutions.

But data analytics, behavioural economics, and understanding public sentiment require their own skillsets. And I think (and have for some time) that the opportunity cost of not exploring capacity-building in these areas is too great to be ignored.

Blending Public Sentiment, Data Analytics, Design Thinking and Behavioural Economics

Friday, January 24, 2014
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

The Thinker by Darwin Bell
Last year I wrote a lengthy piece that argued that understanding the future of evidence based policy meant understanding the confluence of big data and social media (See: Big Data, Social Media and the Long Tail of Public Policy). Today I want to further qualify my statements, and refine my conceptual model to reflect some of my more recent thinking.

Project Copernicus

To be fair the conceptual model – which I've decided to nickname Project Copernicus (See: Towards Copernicus if you don't get the reference) – is very much a moving target; and while it ebbs and flows as I come into contact with new (to me) thinking, it's very much about leaning into the hard stuff (See: Lean into it) and "building a better telescope" (See: Complexity is a Measurement Problem).

To recap quickly and push forward

At the outset of the aforementioned piece I offered up a TL;DR summation that was essentially:

Social Media + Big Data Analytics = Future of Public Policy

And feel that refining that statement is as good as a place to start as any; here's my latest thinking:

(Public Sentiment + Data Analytics) / (Design Thinking + Behavioural Economics) = Future of Evidence Based Policy

In a sense its a rather simple, back-to-basics model that argues that the sum of what the public wants (sentiment) and what the evidence suggests is possible (data) is best achieved through policy interventions that are highly contextualized and can be empirically tested, tweaked, and maximized (design thinking + behavioural economics) while simultaneously creating new data to support or refute it and facing real-time and constantly shifting public scrutiny.

I have a number of reasons for nuancing the model
  • Public Sentiment is broader than social media and it is incumbent on policy makers to be as inclusive as possible when incorporating sentiment. Focusing on social media ignores issues of the digital divide and unduly privileges those with greater digital literacy. This may be one of the reasons that the Deputy Minister's Committee on Social Media and Policy Development was recast as the Deputy Minister's Committee on Policy Innovation; social media may be innovative but it doesn't necessarily follow that innovative ideas flow from social media.
  • Data Analytics is broader than Big Data and includes both linked data and open data. These don't necessarily always fall into the category of big data on their own but will play an important role as more and more data sources start to rub up against each other. 
  • Design Thinking combines empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and rationality to analyze and fit solutions to the particular context
  • 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)
  • Evidence Based is an important qualifier and cannot be narrowly construed as relating to only one of the variables on the left side of the equation; evidence comes in many forms and it is up to policy makers and elected officials to determine how to weigh the different sources of evidence (variables in the equation above) against each other in a given set of circumstances.

On Savvy Policy Makers

Savvy policy makers (and for that matter, elected officials) are likely the ones able (and willing) to chart their policy directions against this type of model; the one's who can say with confidence:
"Here is what we've heard from the public, here is what the evidence supports, and here is the most policy intervention we have determined to be the most efficacious. However, it is one we will continue to refine over time, as it creates new data, and is forced to stand up to real world public scrutiny"
When was the last time you heard someone qualify a policy position with that kind of preamble?

Complexity is a Measurement Problem

Tuesday, January 21, 2014
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

In today's ecosystem of articles and books about innovation, management, governance, policy, and technology, there is a sentence that is becoming a standard:

"Leaders must manage an increasingly complex environment."

And the author can point to anything - Moore's Law, economic interconnectedness, citizen participation in policy-making, environmental externalities - and make their point. And they're right. The consulting company KPMG surveyed business leaders, who put complexity at the top of their agenda. But it's only half the story, and it's dangerous to treat the issue of complexity as being only about it increasing.

Complexity is a Measurement Problem

Saying "The world is increasingly complex" is almost like saying "Planets just keep popping into existence" and ignoring advancements in telescopes. The world was never exactly simple, and much of the complexity we see now was always there; it was our ignorance that led us to oversimplify things (see: What We Don't Know). But over time, we've developed far better lenses with which to see the world. From letters, to printing presses, to photojournalism, to Twitter. It's simply possible to be far more aware of what is happening outside your immediate circles, and how actions reverberate.

When framed as a complexity problem, the rational response is managing complexity and attempting to anticipate its trajectory. But when also framed as a measurement problem, the response includes assessing whether or not you actually understand all of the current complexity in the first place, whether you're missing pieces still, and whether you need to re-examine the tools you use to understand your environment.

What if the world is still far more complex than we realize? Should our effort go into managing the complexity that we know about, or building better telescopes?

Today is my last day in the Public Service

Friday, January 17, 2014
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

Sensational title I know, and while it's true that today is literally my last day, I consider my departure more of a pivot than anything.

I've been in the civil service for 7 years and felt it was time to readjust, to choose a course of action that allows me to benefit from a different experience and test new hypotheses. An opportunity to elevate my work and focus more closely on some of the issues that are facing the public service, issues that I think are rising in importance.

Where I'm going and what I'll be doing

On Monday I assume responsibilities as a Senior Research Officer at the Institute on Governance, an Ottawa based not-for-profit who's mission is to advance better governance in the public interest. My work will likely be spread across its four lines of business (modernizing government, public sector governance, indigenous governance and not-for-profit governance), involve its in-house learning lab and span all three jurisdictions. In short, the move provides me greater flexibility and a more diversified work experience built around wider array of challenges.

As I embark on this journey - a temporary, two year assignment under the Policy on Interchange Canada - I would encourage you to reach out if there is a mutual opportunity you want to pursue.

That said, you might want to do so quickly; I have a feeling things are about to pick up.


Standardizing Innovation

Tuesday, January 14, 2014
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Voices have been asking how government could take advantage of interesting models such as gamification, crowdsourcing, nudges, etc., looking for opportunities to innovate. I've tended to think that, if there is value in such approaches, the better question would be "Why are we not already using them?"

And there's a reasonable answer: misalignment between the hypothetical incentives of an organization and those of individual decision makers within it (the principle-agent problem), which holds for experimentation with creative solutions to problems.

Such experimentation might work for a project. But it would definitely benefit the broader organization, in terms of pathfinding approaches that might be scalable for many projects. But, those benefits would be long-term, widely distributed, and hard-to-measure. In contrast, the risks would be immediate, local, and direct. Creative solutions and organizations are mismatched.

Nick shared on Twitter this article about creativity's uphill battle, which connects solidly on the topic.
"Even people who say they are looking for creativity react negatively to creative ideas, as demonstrated in a 2011 study from the University of Pennsylvania. Uncertainty is an inherent part of new ideas, and it’s also something that most people would do almost anything to avoid. People’s partiality toward certainty biases them against creative ideas and can interfere with their ability to even recognize creative ideas."
Games are their rules, and in most cases these rules discourage deviation from the established path.
"In terms of decision style, most people fall short of the creative ideal … unless they are held accountable for their decision-making strategies, they tend to find the easy way out—either by not engaging in very careful thinking or by modeling the choices on the preferences of those who will be evaluating them."
So how could we hold ourselves to account for our decision-making strategies? That is, how could we best change the rules of the game?

The Rules of the Game

I think that there is opportunity to change the rules where performance measurement, strategic planning, and project approvals meet. In the field of Environmental Economics there's a decision-making model called Adaptive Management, which in effect mandates innovation. This is a standard business planning cycle:

Adaptive Management, by contrast, adds three key features:

1. It mandates experimenting with multiple models to solve a problem
2. It adds a "hypothesis" gate to solution design, mandating a statement like "This is what we think will happen" (inevitably accompanied by why,which is crucial to enable the 3rd)
3. It makes "the acquisition of information with which to make future decisions" a part of the outcome on which managers are measured

So instead of deciding on the singular course of action and following through regardless, an Adaptive Management process would apply the scientific method to complex solution design and test multiple solutions. Then, dissect what worked, what didn't, and why.

This isn't new, even to government. The U.K. government has been working on randomized controlled trials for public policy. And I think it could work closer to home.

There's even a governance model for it. Government real estate projects now go through a P3 Screen. That is, an assessment for suitability for a public-private partnership. Organizations could institute an analogous Experimentation Screen for program and policy development.

So what would this do?

This would dissolve risk aversion: delivering two models that don't work is part of the goal, so managers would have policy cover and incentive for bold experimentation with policy and program design.

This would create a body of well-documented experiments on which to base future solutions.

This would create situations in which novel solutions are proven to work, and there'd be little need to justify their pursuit over more conventional approaches.

This would lead to crowdsourcing, gamification, and crowdfunding. Or not. The important thing is that it'd lead to what works, and we'd know it. And how, and why.

I titled this post the oxymoronic "standardizing innovation." Innovation, in and of itself, is a neutral term - it's useful insofar as the innovation works. So a standardized process that consistently leads to results is as good as innovation in my books.

Towards Copernicus

Friday, January 10, 2014
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

Right before the holidays Kent and I sat down to discuss how our partnership was going thus far. As we sat in the local pub on a Friday evening we were flanked by a group of staffers doing as staffers do and snow falling as snow does just outside the window. Kent and I reflected on successes and challenges and spoke a bit about the year ahead, jotting down notes feverishly about themes we wanted to explore, products we wanted to deliver, and where we thought we'd be in another year's time. We remarked at the fact that we had not yet had a serious disagreement on either direction or viewpoint despite the fact that both of us expected at least a few points of contention to surface since forming our partnership.

We left the table with a number of ideas questions

How can public servants slow down and focus more on the long game? How can we separate rhetoric from evidence in a professional and non-partisan way? How can we continue to look laterally for solutions that can and should be applied within the public sector? How can we improve public perception of the civil service? And what can we do to keep our skills up when technological advances continue to create uncharted territories for governments around the world?

Not every idea question will be addressed

At least not by the two us in some sort of vacuum. These are questions facing all of us and the best that Kent and I can aspire to is to be deliberate about our goals, err on over-sharing and look for the win-win. In practical terms, and again I'm paraphrasing Kent here (See: Positive-Sum Leadership), that means:
  • acknowledging that we can't run with everything, others may be better positioned to do it
  • finding value in sharing our ideas because its low-risk and high reward (See: On Writing)
  • striving to make something greater than the simple sum of our parts

Which I suppose brings me to the issue at hand

A decidedly anti-TED TED Talk by Benjamin Bratton  (embedded below) is making the rounds right now. The talk, while perhaps controversial in its treatment of TED, pulls on a number of important threads that apply well beyond the world of their popular talks. It pulls on threads that Kent and I spoke at length about that aforementioned evening, threads that I've shared with you above.

At its core the argument Bratton puts forward is - in my view, as much a criticism of contemporary popular culture as it is of TED's uncanny ability to distil the essence of that culture into 20 minute video awe inspiring video. That said, I'm not interested in chasing the pros/cons of TED down an obscure rabbit hole. I'd much rather - and admittedly - completely divorce Bratton's comments from TED-proper and apply them to the theme of public sector renewal because I think they hold true.

Would you argue otherwise if I said we often
  • simplify complex problems so that they may be more easily consumed
  • avoid tough societal issues when we fear they would offend the public
  • put our best and brightest to work on issues of form rather than substance
  • engage in placebo politics, placebo innovation and (by extension) placebo bureaucratics (See: The Real Problem of Facelessness)
  • are timid in our ambitions and lack the wherewithal to pursue new architectures
  • misconstrue process improvement disruptive/transformative innovation
  • overstate the upside of technologies and fail to address the innovations that we don't want to see

Perhaps, but I doubt it

That said, where Bratton is particularly brilliant in his assessment in his conclusion. And again, while reading it forget TED, think public sector renewal:
"Problems are not "puzzles" to be solved. That metaphor assumes that all the necessary pieces are already on the table, they just need to be rearranged and reprogrammed. It's not true.

"Innovation" defined as moving the pieces around and adding more processing power is not some Big Idea that will disrupt a broken status quo: that precisely is the broken status quo.


If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff (history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions). Bracketing it off to the side to focus just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation.

Instead of dumbing-down the future, we need to raise the level of general understanding to the level of complexity of the systems in which we are embedded and which are embedded in us. This is not about "personal stories of inspiration", it's about the difficult and uncertain work of demystification and reconceptualisation: the hard stuff that really changes how we think. More Copernicus, less Tony Robbins.

More Copernicus, less Tony Robbins

Bratton's right, the discussion about renewal needs to go deeper. We need to focus more on the hard stuff - the history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities and contradictions - if we are to continue to make progress towards the ever shifting goal posts of public sector renewal (See: Why I'm a Renewal Wonk).  That deeper-look ethos is precisely what inspired us to start up the impossible conversations book reviews, what inspired the most popular post of 2013 (See: Big Data, Social Media and the Long Tail of Public Policy) and what will ultimately underpin everything we choose to create, share or build upon from here on in.

Together then, towards Copernicus.

Bratton is an Associate Professor of Visual Arts at the University of California, San Diego and can be found on Twitter.