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On Possible Taxonomies of New Policy Instruments and Approaches

Friday, June 3, 2016
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

I've spent some time time looking into policy instrument taxonomies (wonky I know) trying to figure out how to best classify different instruments and approaches. My preliminary research (which I cribbed from colleague Jason Pearman) seems to suggest that instruments can be either substantive or procedural in nature and fall into four broad categories (i.e. nodality, authority, treasure, and organizational capacity).

First, Some Definitions
  • Substantive policy instruments alter some aspect of the production, distribution and delivery of goods and services in society
  • Procedural policy instruments alter the political or policy behavior in the process of the articulation of implementation goals and means
  • Nodality refers to the property of being at the centre of social and/or information networks
  • Authority refers to the legitimate legal or official power to command or prohibit
  • Treasure refers to the possession of money or fungible chattels which may be exchanged
  • Organizational capacity refers to the possession of a stock of people, skills, land, buildings and/or technologies


Second, Some Cross Referencing



Nodality Authority Treasure Organization
Substantive Being at the centre of a social and/or information network that alters some aspect of the production, distribution and delivery of goods and services in society The legitimate legal or official power to command or prohibit that alters some aspect of the production, distribution and delivery of goods and services in society The possession of money or fungible chattels which may be exchanged that alters some aspect of the production, distribution and delivery of goods and services in society The possession of a stock of people, skills, land, buildings and/or technologies that alters some aspect of the production, distribution and delivery of goods and services in society
Procedural Being at the centre of a social and/or information network that alters the political or policy behaviour in the process of the articulation of implementation goals and means The legitimate legal or official power to command or prohibit that alters the political or policy behaviour in the process of the articulation of implementation goals and means The possession of money or fungible chattels which may be exchanged that alters the political or policy behaviour in the process of the articulation of implementation goals and means The possession of a stock of people, skills, land, buildings and/or technologies that alters the political or policy behaviour in the process of the articulation of implementation goals and means


Third, Some Observations

Regulatory and law making agencies tend to default to the authority vertical, granting agencies tend toward the treasure vertical, and departments with neither authority nor treasure tend to gravitate towards the organization/nodality verticals. This shouldn't come as a surprise and is otherwise known as the Law of the instrument (or the when you only have a hammer problem). Moreover most of what government departments and agencies -- either by way of mandate or culture -- tend to focus on the substantive horizontal, cutting into societal problems by somehow altering some aspect of production, distribution and delivery of goods and services in society. Again no surprise here, policies to close market gaps, improve market performance, and prevent market failure are commonplace.

However, what's missing perhaps is a more focused attention on the procedural side of the horizontal divide which speaks more directly to the mechanics of governance writ large, this is where question like who has power, who makes decisions, how other players make their voice heard and how account is rendered are answered. That said I think that there is substantial and growing appetite for more discussion about those higher order questions (See: Ask Higher Order Questions).

For example, Open Policy Making and Crowdsourcing are two approaches that seem to sit more naturally on the procedural side of the divide; both of which have garnered and will continue to garner more interest since the change in government. However increased interest in these approaches must at some point be met with increased capacity to wield them. In other words, ambition and appetite must at some point be reconciled with resources and capabilities. This is likely what the Clerk was driving at when he called the Public Service "a bit of a fixer upper" in a (now not so) recent interview.

One of the things that I think we are learning as we walk further down the policy innovation road is that the practice of policy instrument choice needs to be more robust -- that the solutions we seek aren't anchored in the thinking that let them loose but rather somewhere just beyond the reach of it -- and as a result we need to systematically dismantle the cultural tendency to reach for the tool that's most familiar rather than the one that might be best suited for the job (i.e. break the law of the instrument).

Yes this type of cultural shift requires us to start to better define problems and articulate preferred outcomes but it also requires us to pause and discuss precisely where we want to cut into those problems as we have defined them. In other words we need to decide -- based on the evidence -- whether or not substantive or procedural instruments are most likely to lead (more likely 'to contribute') to the preferred societal outcome (i.e. the public good) because that decision ultimately informs what instruments to choose.

I recently asked researcher and former colleague -- Todd Julie -- to rapidly categorize a set of new policy instruments and approaches within the cross tabulation above; here's his break down:



Nodality Authority Treasure Organization
Substantive - Innovation Hubs/labs
- Smart Regulation
- Open data
- Foresight
- Smart regulation
- Open data
- Pay for performance
- Crowdsourcing
- Social Innovation
- Pay for performance
- Big data
- Gamification
- Smart Regulation
- Prize Challenges
- Open data
- Big data
- Design Thinking
- Behavioural Insights
- Gamification
- Social Innovation
Procedural - Social Innovation
- Hackathon
- Crowdsourcing
- Smart Regulation
- Open data
- Smart Regulation
- Open Policy making
- Citizen science
- Open data
- Crowdsourcing
- Prize challenges
- Gamification
- Smart Regulation
- Open Data
- Gamification
- Social Innovation


While this is but one view of many it falls roughly in line with my own thinking (that said, I'm open to feedback). As you can see these new instruments and approaches do not necessarily fall neatly into buckets but rather can be deployed differently within them and/or mixed and matched across depending on the problem set and outcome being sought. What the breakdown does however is make clear the idea that instrument choice within the context of policy innovation is complicated and requires a substantial amount of thought up front.

In other words, throwing new approaches at old problems and hoping for the best may produce different outcomes but if you want to get to the right outcomes you need to select the right tool and cut in at the right place. Again this is not an inherently new idea but it is one we need to bring more discipline to.