On Organizing Principles: Policy or Delivery?

Friday, December 11, 2015

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away Mike Bracken – former Executive Director of the Government Digital Service in the UK Cabinet Office – delivered a speech entitled On policy and delivery at the Institute for Government in London. The video immediately made the rounds on social media and was the subject of much discussion among my peers. While I had an immediate and almost visceral reaction to the video when it hit the web (as Kent can attest to) I ultimately decided to pass on the opportunity to share it because I didn't think ruffling people's feathers at the time was worth it. I was cleaning out my Evernote recently, re-read my notes and re-watched the video; here's the redux.

If you haven't watched the video or read the transcript, I'd strongly encourage you to do so, as everything that follows below flows directly from it. If you need a TL;DR version, its: government ought to be organized around delivery not policy, because Internet. Its worth noting that Bracken positions his speech as a response to an early speech entitled The Positive Neutrality of Civil Servants given by Martin Donnelly, Permanent Secretary for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, as a part of the same lecture series. Unsurprisingly, Donnelly's speech wasn't shared as widely on social media. This is likely because of its more traditional view and the fact that Bracken's speech is more conducive of both the medium and the mindset of its user base.

That said, the dialogue between the two is important because it demonstrates that the world doesn't end when two civil servants speak publicly about their professional non-partisan views of the future of the civil service and that they can disagree without losing the confidence of their political masters or their (presumed) respect for each other. Or, in Bracken's words, "It's tribute to the civil service that it talks openly and occasionally critically, and from the inside, about digital transformation in government".

A deeper dive on re-orienting the organizing principle from policy to delivery

In general, I agree with Bracken's assertions that the civil service does a lot of good work that largely goes unheralded, that governments aren't immune to the pressures of digital technologies and that for far too long (and to our detriment) we have made 'digital' the purview of IT professionals. I also agree that there are tremendous opportunities to improve service delivery by making better use of technology and that the civil service needs to retain the ability to have a direct relationship with the public that it serves. He's even bang on when he advocates for closing the gap between policy and delivery. Despite agreeing with his line of reasoning, I find myself arriving at a different conclusion. I don't think that the civil service ought change its organizing principle from policy to delivery, but rather more directly come to terms with the larger governance challenges that are bubbling up wherever new technologies are rubbing up against governing institutions.

In fairness, some of my problems with Bracken's approach are partially rooted in his invocation of the Internet as a force majeure changing everything it touches for the better. Admittedly some of my disagreement stems from my reading of Evgeny Morozov's Click Here to Save Everything (See: Impossible Conversations: Click Here to Save Everything). I don't want to walk too far down that path but will admit that I've learned to reflect more critically on my own Internet-boosterism and the public discourse around the democratization of technology. While I'll spare you a lengthy explanation of Morozov's 'Internet-centrism' and 'technosolutionism' (again, see the book review), I will say that if you are sympathetic to either of those critiques (as Morozov levies them in the book) you will likely find Bracken guilty of both. While there are many instances where one could mount either charge against him in this regard (e.g. "I'm from the Internet", "The Internet has changed everything", "The Internet is changing the organizing principle of everything it touches, mostly for the better", "the Internet has 100% track record of success", etc.) the most obvious to me are "the Internet will reject that premise" and "because Internet".

Now let me clear, the point here is not to levy an attack on Bracken (especially not a personal one) but to engage with the ideas he puts on the table, ideas that I'm sure someone like Morozov would have strong views about. Yes, the Internet is changing things. Yes, it is creating new opportunities, but it's also decimating old business models. Ask someone who's lost their job security to the disruption (e.g. a taxi driver in Paris) whether or not disruptive innovation is inherently and unequivocally a net positive. You might find they have a different view. Disruption creates trade-offs that ought to be discussed and debated in the public sphere rather than simply accepted as inherently good for it. It's a view that silicon-valley contrarians like Morozov and Andrew Keen (Read: Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture or See: New Thoughts From an Early Adopter) are likely to agree with.

Raising the profile of delivery innovation

Differences in world view aside, I think Bracken does an amazing job in raising the profile of innovation in delivery in his talk, especially at a time where (at least in Canada) so many seem to be focused on policy innovation (See: Is Innovation in Service Delivery a Blind Spot in Canada?).That said, I'm of the opinion that the primary driver here is "because people" not "because Internet". The difference is important because the former lends itself to higher order questions about the evolving nature of governance whereas the latter is likely to take us down the road of tools, techniques and technologies. What makes digital technologies truly important aren't the opportunities they present to improve delivery, but rather the fundamental questions they raise about governance writ large: Who has power? Who makes decisions? How do other players make their voices heard and how is account rendered? At least, these are the questions I'd rather be focusing on.

Moreover, "because Internet" ignores opportunities to improve delivery that have little if anything to do with digital technologies (e.g. behavioral economics). I fear that if we focus too narrowly on how to better lever digital assets to improve delivery we may crowd out ideas on how to better lever analogue ones (people, physical space, etc.). Surely there are tremendous opportunities to improve service delivery and drive better outcomes that have nothing to do with digital technologies: we can tweak the proximity, frequency, or type of intervention. Finally – and this may be unwarranted – civil service with delivery as its organizing principle risks making it primarily a vehicle for service delivery in the public eye and reinforce the archetype of citizen as consumer rather than a co-creator in a broader system of governance.

Does the Internet break policy-making?

In the speech, Bracken argues that:
"In a digital age, traditional policy-making is largely broken. It is slow, inflexible, unnecessarily complicated, afraid of technology and afraid of change. The cycle of green paper, white paper, draft bill, and secondary legislation is no longer the best way to decide to create or develop new services because user needs are given scant consideration, however necessary the process may be for Parliament."
Policy-making is hard because its rife with tradeoffs. Tradeoffs imply difficult choices and may inform inflexible processes, but does that make it broken? That I'm less sure of. What if the lack of speed, flexibility and complexity are the result of choices we've made in the past? Moments in time where we learned that speed creates propensity for error, flexibility room for exploitation and simplicity opportunities for untoward influence? In other words (Morozov's words) are these features of policy-making or are they bugs? This is an especially interesting and important consideration when we apply the project management triangle to the field of policy-making – the classic tradeoff matrix whereby you are constrained to choosing two of three options: Fast, Good and Cheap – and told that based on the fiscal climate one of your two choices had better be Cheap. Good policy-makers have always needed to understand the issue in context and if the world is as complex as everyone describes, its only natural that understanding that context may take more time. Think about the famous Einstein quotation about spending the bulk of the effort on defining the problem and the smallest possible fraction of it on actually solving for it. Obviously we can do a better job of involving service benefactors in service design but that doesn't necessarily solve the hard problem of choosing who those benefactors are or what that service is in the first place.

The Internet only breaks traditional policy-making if and when policy-makers fail to use it to their advantage as an input, a tool for outreach, and a means for implementation. In other words we ignore the Internet at our peril. That said, perhaps part of the challenges we face with respect to policy-making today isn't that we cling to traditional policy-making but rather we've too readily embraced the fleeting nature of Internet culture, that we don't value subject matter expertise as much as we once did, that policy work has been largely replaced with issues management and that as a result breadth not depth has defined career path of the next generation of policy wonks. In many ways the immediate and often emotional nature of discourse on the Internet is not a natural compliment to slow and deliberate policy discussion (See: Thinking, Fast and Slow About Online Public Engagement).

Furthermore, policy is about more than service generation. It's a proxy for discussions about decision-making, governance writ large, societal trade-offs, and the ongoing negotiation of the social contract through the iterative process we call participatory democracy. Why is a given (wicked) problem worth solving? How can it best be addressed? What does that intervention entail? My underlying concern with Bracken's approach is that I don't see these fundamental questions as issues that public institutions organized around delivery would be able to answer. If we take the current crisis in Syria as a tangible example and hypothetically overlay Bracken's organizing principle over the department responsible (Citizenship and Immigration Canada) we would likely see the department channel all of its resources to easing the flow of immigrants. Now, undoubtedly this would make an important and meaningful difference in the lives of hundreds if not thousands of people (and in all reality, much of this work is already marching full steam ahead). That said, is a delivery organization likely to help the government come to a decision on the number of refugees coming to Canada? In my view the number of refugees the government chooses to accept is fundamentally a matter of policy choices with some concurrent (e.g. processing capacity of the department) and many downstream (e.g. skills development programs, foreign credential recognition, etc.) delivery implications.

The point that I am driving at is that we can easily bring people more firmly into policy discussions early and often and involve them more directly in both the policy and delivery but ultimately to govern is still face the difficulty of having to choose (See: To Govern is to Choose). In summary (TL;DR), Bracken says he wants to fix the shop floor and the shop window, but I think the real question is ought we have the shop in the first place, and if so what ought it do and for how long?