The Many Challenges of Convening the Policy Innovation and Experimentation Ecosystem

Friday, October 21, 2016

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

To be fair, I'm not sure such a thing really exists. Sure there's a lot of chatter about all the interconnect moving pieces but I'm not sure its quite as tangible or coherent a thing as perhaps many of us make it out to be.

First, there's lots people inside the innovation bubble (the "us" I referred to above): dedicated hubs and labbers, reverse mentors to bodies like the Deputy Minister's Committee on Policy Innovation (DMCPI), folks working in central agencies on the experimentation file, folks in line departments working on advancing a particular innovative instrument or approach (e.g. social finance), or anyone else with 'innovation' (however defined) as a core responsibility. Generally speaking those inside the bubble speak their own language, enjoy the privilege of proximity to decision makers, and are well connected across the system to other folks inside the bubble. In many ways its not much different than any other functional area of expertise. What we are witnessing is simply the formation of a network of 'public sector innovators' as the vocation of 'public sector innovation' goes through some sort of piecemeal and un-managed professionalization. This is apparent when one looks at the inherent definitional challenges within the ecosystem. There's not a shared vision of what policy (and program?) innovation and experimentation is. So much of the conversation around these issues is either non-existent, conceptual, or conflictual. Moreover, experimentation -- while appearing in a mandate letter -- remains loosely defined and as a result could run the gamut from trying something new to running a randomized control trial. More importantly, the term itself is problematic, one wouldn't want to conduct a policy experiment on a vulnerable population and/or indigenous community for obvious reasons. The term is sticky because -- like I said -- its in a mandate letter and was likely included to encourage the development of evidence based policy but its problematic in some very important contexts (e.g. reconciliation with Canada's indigenous peoples). Personally, I parse it as 'policy and program innovation' (which includes regulation) and think it manifests in two ways: (1) how we design policies and/or programs and/or (2) how we deliver policy and programs. Innovation then is about improving our policy inputs and/or our policy outcomes. Whereas I see experimentation as gathering an evidence base that can be measured against a counterfactual to determine which of the two options generates greater public value. (Caveat: I don't see much room for policy innovation and/or experimentation to occur at the point of the decision to enact (or not) a particular policy. That nexus is largely the purview of elected officials, and short of electoral reform -- which is obviously highly politicized -- there's little public servants can be doing to innovate around the decision making nexus (See: To govern is to choose).)

Second, while the innovation bubble is incredibly important to those working inside or beside it, it remains largely unknown to those working outside it in the regulatory and/or programmatic spaces of government. Perhaps my evidence is anecdotal but my overwhelming experience has been that whenever I speak about what is going on inside the bubble with those outside it that its the "first they've heard of any of it" and that it is either "fascinating" or "completely irrelevant". The truth is likely that a more concerted effort needs to be made by both those inside and outside the bubble to meet somewhere in the middle and grow the linkages between the two. However both sides face tremendous pressure to deliver within their own spheres and if the incentives for more purposeful communication and collaboration aren't in place then we'd be foolish to expect them to do so of their own volition. We need more connectors. People's whose job it is to build bridges between the players, ensure alignment, new create opportunities, and scale existing ones. I doubt we will see the necessary investment in these types of people/roles because there's a lack of understanding of their value. This lack of understanding is embedded in the general consensus that these types of connections will form spontaneously in the network because of the proliferation of communications channels, the availability of information, the wisdom of the crowd to elevate that which needs elevating, and everything else taken for granted under the larger rubric of the ethos of the internet age. However, if there is something I've learned in my current position it is that there is still a very strong role for connection and curation in this environment. The proliferation of communications technologies has shifted the friction, but make no mistake, it surely still exists.

Third, there's a self-selection problem -- and not in the way you'd think. It's not so much about people falsely self-selecting into the 'innovators' category but rather that innovative folks are self-selecting out of it completely. Few people doing innovative work actually self-describe their work as such. They are simply trying to do better. They weren't given an innovation mandate or draw resouces from a centralized or dedicated innovation fund, they simply chose to use their resources differently within their own particular context. This means that they might not even know the value of what they are doing to the rest of the ecosystem. Or, they may be actively hiding, staying below the radar, because with greater attention comes greater scrutiny, and with greater scrutiny comes the loss of flexibility that allowed them to be innovative in the first place (See: Asymmetric Scrutiny, Superforecasting, and Public Policy). This was in fact one of the findings of an innovation survey conducted by DMCPI.

Fourth, like any ecosystem it is both collaborative and combative -- there are things that work well together, but there is also competition for scarce resources (e.g. money, talent, the attention of senior management, etc.) and there are (implicit and/or cultural) established food chains (e.g. Central Agencies > Line Departments, Strategic Policy > Program Policy, Ottawa > Regions, etc.). Often when we use the word ecosystem we invoke it in such a way that emphasizes the collaborative elements and de-emphasizes the competitive ones, but we all know that ecosystems are highly competitive environments. For example, there are currently 18 instruments/approaches covered off in the policy innovation portal my team stood up, the fact that these approaches are innovative brings them together under the portal's banner of 'policy innovation', however we can't expect them (or more importantly their champions) to always work in complimentary ways. Open data and pay-for-performance may be two innovative approaches but they may also not have all that much to do with one another at an operational level; this leaves little room for collaboration and creates room for competition over scarce resources. This is where the emerging literature in public administration on the rise of instrument constituencies is particularly compelling (See: On the Rise of Instrument Constituencies).

I don't want to belabour the point but did want to say that all of these interconnected factors -- and their obvious exceptions, caveats, counter-examples, and side-steps and twists -- make up but a handful of the many challenges we are facing as an organization whenever we try to convene the players, increase alignment, and identify opportunities for collaboration and scale. Finally, we need to carve out more time for coordination, thoughtful deliberation, and purposeful conversation within and around the ecosystem as a whole if we are to rely on it to deliver our organization into the 21st century.