Experimenting with Policy Development

Friday, November 27, 2015
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

A few weeks ago I pitched a experimenting with open policy making at Policy Ignite here in Ottawa with my friend and colleague Todd Julie. The rationale for the presentation was pretty straight forward:
The policy monopoly of elites no longer exists. Opening up of policy process creates competition between options and questionable interpretation of the facts and contexts upon which they are based. In the future, data analytics, social media and citizen consultation should allow the triangulation of different perspectives in a way that respects factual analysis and arrives at common solutions. However in the interim, as policy tools, players and perspectives continue to change, governments must choose between competing policy priorities. Foreseeing the wider implications of these choices is critical to addressing today's "wicked" problems. However, very little is known about the different policy avenues available and the type and quality of policy advice that can be reasonably expected if it is pursued.  

In the presentation we argued that, if you accept the rationale than you are also likely to accept experimentation with policy development to facilitate learning; leading us to propose the following 6 step policy making experiment:

Step 1: Pick a wicked problem

Step 2: Frame the policy question

Step 3: Set a time limit

Step 4: A/B test different approaches:

  • Traditional, internal, institutionally led
  • Open, external, crowd driven
  • Contestable, outsourced, single private firm 
Step 5: Evaluate the results vis-à-vis common characteristics of any good policy:
  • It serves the public interest.
  • It follows appropriate laws and is enforceable.
  • It aligns with the organization’s mandate and direction and accountabilities are clearly defined.
  • It is evidence-based; assumptions, options, risks, and intended outcomes are clearly articulated.
  • Stakeholders were included in the development process and ideas have been tested prior to implementation.
  • It is historically informed and addresses both long-term interests and short-term concerns.
  • It is cost effective and there is capacity to evaluate outcomes.
Step 6: Socialize the findings to spread lessons learned and inculcate a wider culture of policy experimentation

Essentially, if you had to boil the presentation down to a TL;DR it would be:
We don't know what we don't know when it comes to the different policy-making approaches that are available to us; and if we want to know, then we ought to experiment.


There's a couple of related caveats worth mentioning re: the need for greater experimentation:

  • We also don't have a good sense of levels of effort related to different policy development approaches and evaluating/implementing their outcomes. This will require some practical study.
  • We might need to rethink our approach to online engagement as a policy input (See: Thinking, Fast and Slow about Online Public Engagement) because the current tool set may fall short.
  • Regardless of what the different outcomes are in a given experiment, the last mile always belongs to elected officials and their senior civil servants, the best the rest of us can hope for is a more robust evidence base to support existing and emerging tools (See: To Govern is to Choose).
Its worth mentioning that while there has been little activity on this front in Canada, the UK has some experience with it. If this is an area that interests you, I'd recommend looking at the details on the UK Contestable Policy Making Fundthe correspondong press release from its first use, and the Institute for Government's assessment of the fund.


Thank you to the Policy Ignite team for putting on a bang up event, screening us in, and moving us up to the first slot (at the last minute, presumably to warm up the crowd, which I think we accomplished).

Thank you to Minister Catherine McKenna for stopping by the event the day after her swearing in to offer words of encouragement.

If anyone is looking to pick up a good thinker and a talented researcher, you should get in contact with my co-presenter Todd Julie. While I've had a blast thinking through many of the issues facing governing institutions in the digital era with him, he's looking to relocate to Toronto for personal reasons and I'd love that to happen for him.