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Establishing Policy Innovation Pipelines

Friday, February 5, 2016

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


I was at an event last week at Employment and Social Development Canada on the importance of behavioural science. The speaker — Dr. Brian Cugelman — shared a couple of insights that I think are worth reflecting on. Most notably were his remarks that even really good public policies and programs tend lose their lustre over time due to habituation and if governments want to remain relevant they need to continue to not only invest in improving current programs but also invest in their innovation pipeline to create future programs. Using behavourial science to maximize the returns on these investments is critical according to Cugelman (who uses the term 'evidence-informed' rather than 'evidence-based' policy making).

Interestingly, his views are consistent and reflected in the President of the Treasury Board's mandate letter:
As President of the Treasury Board, your overarching goal will be to lead the management agenda of the government and oversee the implementation and delivery of Cabinet-approved initiatives.  I want you to lead the government’s efforts to ensure that departments and other federal organizations are able to use the best available information. Responsible governments rely on sound evidence to make decisions to ensure we obtain good value for our money. You should work with your colleagues to ensure that they are devoting a fixed percentage of program funds to experimenting with new approaches to existing problems and measuring the impact of their programs.  I expect you to instill a strengthened culture of measurement, evaluation, and innovation in program and policy design and delivery. This should include publicly releasing all key information that informs the decisions we make. 

It will be interesting to see how this mandate letter commitment is implemented, especially given that it doesn't seem to be reflected in the mandate letters of other Ministers. The spirit of the commitment seems to be building a widespread culture of continuous improvement, presenting an opportunity to move beyond the policy innovator's dilemma (i.e. the choice between doing more with less versus doing different, differently) and putting new approaches firmly within scope. This is encouraging at the leadership level but likely needs to be driven down into the fabric of the organization more firmly than traditional management cascades can accomplish.

Building organization wide (departments and agencies) or enterprise wide (Government of Canada) policy innovation pipelines will be no easy feat. One of the core features might be a more robust and meaningful medium term policy planning processes (MTP) which — in the experience of many people I know — is often interesting and productive but not necessarily tied to a clear channel for experimentation or delivery. Another core feature may be using natural life cycle points in the policy process (e.g. program renewal) for some sort of 'innovation audit' whereby policy and program folk can get together in a facilitated session for a couple of days to jam on the lived experience, state of the art / best in class, and new approaches in order to chart an incremental, experimental or radical way forward (or even pull the chute completely if the situation warrants).

I don't pretend to have all the answers yet but I think there's a lot of people around town who are starting to think very concretely about how to best establish a policy innovation pipeline within their department and/or agency. If you are one of those people, I'd love to hear from you.