Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Innovation is Information

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

In August, the Clerk of the Privy Council delivered a speech titled “A National Dialogue On Policy Innovation.” Elsewhere, #policyinnovation is one of the most used hashtags by Canadian public servants. It’s somewhat of a hot topic right now. But what is "policy innovation" in the first place? 

For starters, it could refer to "new and interesting ways of developing policy." Or, "new and interesting policy." (See: On Prioritizing Policy Innovation) We tend to use both versions almost interchangeably, but this post tilts towards the former usage. I’ve heard the term used to refer to crowdsourcing and challenge prizes, deep dives into technological and social trends, improvements to government services, behavioural economics, and much more.

But within that nebulous concept, I think there's a central core to the entire idea that may be a useful way to think about how we gather and understand evidence, and how we make and implement decisions. It's all about information.

More options means more precise application

To back up slightly, let’s consider another arc of innovation that is both an analogy and a predecessor, that of telecommunications. We’ve gone from letter-writing to printing presses, telegraphs, telephones, the internet, and now to low-cost ubiquitous mobile connections. Every combination of one-to-one, one-to-a-select-few, one-to-many, public forums, with every combination of attributed or anonymous, for every combination of formats, all at a vanishingly small cost.

But here's the key: at one point, to communicate long-distance you had one option: handwriting a letter. Later, you had two: handwriting a letter, or paying to have something reproduced many times on a printing press. You didn't have to rely on a letter when it wasn't the best option. As more and more options became available, you could match your communications goal more precisely to different ways to achieve it.

Likewise, now we have a wider range of policy development approaches and policy instruments, which means there’s a greater chance that we can match the right approach to the right situation. We have a wider range of options partially because we get inventive over time, but far more so because policy development and implementation often is communication and so we’re simply piggybacking on telecommunications advances.

The information

Which isn’t much of an insight, I recognize. Yes, the internet opens up options for how government does things. But if we start to think of policy innovation as communication, instead of as enabled by communication, it starts to shed light on what we’re really trying to accomplish, and where “innovative” approaches fit in more “traditional” approaches. Using the terms in quotations lightly.

Basically, the approaches that get pegged as "policy innovation" often boil down to two key actions:

  • transferring information between people
  • arranging information for people

It’s the crux of crowdsourcing, policy or service jams, innovation labs, open data, design thinking, challenge prizes, and citizen engagement approaches like consultations, townhalls, and social media chats. Someone has information that policymakers can use: ideas, problems, slogans, lived experience, or academic expertise (see: The Policy Innovator's Dilemma). Then it’s a matter of finding the best way to access it, which is a question of format. You just have to learn the formats. Similarly, once you've crossed the threshold and learned a new telecommunications approach (case in point might be parents and grandparents on Facebook), it becomes part of a passive mental algorithm that takes a need or goal and instantly knows how best to accomplish it.

Talk of policy innovation tends to go hand-in-hand with the idea that policy issues increasingly cross jurisdictional or societal boundaries, and are a part of an increasingly complex environment (see: Complexity is a Measurement Problem or On Wicked Problems). Which is where arranging information becomes invaluable.

Let's say  you get ten informed stakeholders of a given policy question in a room, and ask each for their concerns. They each reveal a different way of looking at the issue, revealings its complexity and pointing out legitimate pitfalls for policy options. The problem is that by the time the tenth stakeholder spoke you forgot the concerns of the first five, so it's impossible to understand all ten in context. It's Miller's Law: human beings can only hold seven things, plus or minus two, in our working memory. Which is where techniques like journey mapping, system mapping, and sticky noting everything are crucial for policy. They're the policy landscape equivalent of doing long division on paper so you can remember everything in play - what we might call mental scaffolding

Many approaches include both transferring and arranging information. For instance, a public consultation might include a call for ideas with a voting mechanism that creates a ranking, signaling importance. Some deliberation platforms include argument mapping systems that use algorithms to arrange the discussions for participants, almost like Amazon bringing complementary products to the forefront. ("Are you outraged at your government about X? Many people outraged about X are also outraged about Y, perhaps you should consider lambasting them on that topic too.")

In other cases, governments can (and should) map out what they already know about a given policy issue to get it out of working memory and focus on change drivers and relationships between forces. This will become increasingly important if we truly want to get out of siloed policy-making, find hard-to-see connections between once-distinct policy areas, and genuinely understand entire systems. Our governance model was built for a world we falsely believed was simpler than it was, and within that we're running into our own cognitive limits. We literally cannot hold all the elements of a complex policy issue in our heads without some kind of mental scaffolding, be it tools, other people, or paper.


Two notes on metadata, or information about information (an example would be how DSLR cameras automatically include date stamps, aperture, shutter speed, iso, and more information in image files).

First, some approaches that get lumped in with policy innovation don't fit perfectly with the transferring and arranging information categories. Behavioural economics, for instance (and its service delivery cousin of user testing), seems more like creating new information through research. But viewed from a policy lens, I'd suggest it's actually more like metadata.

Let's say government wants to maximize the rate of tax returns, so tweaks the language on letters to taxpayers to see what framing resonates with people. Here's the UK example:

"...replacing the sentence “Nine out of 10 people in the UK pay their tax on time” with “The great majority of people in [the taxpayer’s local area] pay their tax on time” increased the proportion of people who paid their income tax before the deadline."

The core policy instrument here is a law, and the letter sent to taxpayers is supporting education about the importance of filing tax returns. In this case, the information is in the letter. The behavioural economics piece is metadata about that information: how many, and which, people acted upon the information they received. It's still really about transferring information between people, which puts tools like behavioural economics and data analytics in this common framework and may help practitioners navigate between possible approaches.

Second, there's a meta-level to the idea of transferring and arranging information that changes the value of different approaches and formats. We might call it "conspicuous innovation" or "conspicuous engagement." Basically, the transfer and arrangement of information is not the only goal achieved by these approaches - someone emailing a policymaker a vital piece of information for a policy question is worth less than that same person posting it publicly during an official consultation. The metadata for that piece of publicly posted information includes the number of views from other people, the signals about government's attitude towards governance and transparency, and the future value to others. 

So what?

The "policy innovation" toolkit centers around two actions: transferring information between people and arranging information for people. Past this common core, it's often a question of forums and formats (increasingly, but not uniquely, about how we transfer information from non-governmental actors) (with exceptions, of course). So what?

One, I think it's worthwhile to examine what binds the idea of policy innovation together, to refine our working concept of the term.

Two, I think thinking in these terms highlights what we're actually trying to accomplish through these approaches, and might make it easier to choose between them.

Three, putting them in a historical context puts the perceived risk in context. I mean two things here: first, that policy innovation is very similar to our personal experience with telecommunications advances: more options allows more niche approaches, and eventually they become routine. Second, that if some of these approaches are at a fundamental level analogous to things government has been doing for ages, they seem less daunting. For instance, there are dozens of consultations ongoing at at any given time. It's just a different way of transferring information between people and policymakers.

Thank you to Blaise Hebert and Nick Charney for super interesting conversations on this topic.

Also, two recent posts from Melissa that are good general fodder here: What Innovation Feels Like, Part 1: Fear; and Part 2: Lack of Trust

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