On People, Public Policy, and Technology

Friday, March 17, 2017

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

My Venn diagram of interests has always put me at the confluence of people, public policy, and technology. Here's some of my latest thinking on all three.

On People

How we experience citizenship is changing. The modern state system -- and its corresponding economies -- are increasingly fluid and unreliable. That said, the trend seems to be towards greater diversification:

The trend towards diversification is ostensibly the macro level application of the 'long tail' argument advanced by Chris Anderson in the mid 2000s. This diversification can be positive, negative, or both, depending on your world view (See Andrew Keen's Cult of the Amateur and/or Clay Shirky's talk on Institutions vs Collaboration). Regardless, the impact of this diversification on our system of government are being felt in numerous ways:

The one notable exception seems to be urbanization, which is concentrating and therefore amplifying all of the above by ensuring that the issues manifest concurrently, in close proximity, and in high volume. The trend towards diversification is problematic for democratic systems (and their major actors) who have traditionally tried to broker compromises in the public interest wherever there are trade-offs.

However views on what is and isn't in the public interest is equally diversified and thus divisive. In other words there is a tension here that isn't necessarily new but is definitely cutting closer to the bone. This is likely part and parcel of the current interest and instinct towards electoral reform, an understanding that the system isn't well suited to represent niche (long tail) interests. An electoral system that doesn't reflect the broader diversification happening elsewhere in society is becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile with the broader zeitgeist and experience of citizens in all other facets of their lives.

The bottom line, the trend towards diversification is rubbing up against our centralized systems of government and ideas of governance because diversity provokes thought.

On Public Policy

By now we're all familiar with the narratives around the loss of the public service's traditional monopoly over information and the rise of new policy actors / intermediaries. Yes, how we inform, form, and deliver public policy is changing, (as are the policy domains' relative importance to one another), but in reality its probably not as complicated as everyone has been making it out to be.

Sure, information is more broadly accessible and the skill to turn that information into insight or influence is more widespread, however the net result is simple: more actors, armed with more data and information, advancing more arguments. This is in part due to the availability of information and skill but it is also amplified considerably by the increased impetus on things like public engagement and open government. In order to be both engaging and open one must be willing to sift through the cacophony of inputs and competing views and evidence. Truth be told we like to talk circles around this point in government but essentially what we are dealing with her is an increase in competing narratives or what is often referred to as multiple truths. Practically speaking this can lead a number of different things: better awareness of complexity and consequences, multiple viable options, paralysis by analysis, additional public scrutiny, faux outrage, etc. As an aside, we often conflate innovation and technology which puts policy makers on a path that given greater influence to the high tech-elite and privileges the application of technological solutions to problems even when those problems are not necessarily technical in nature but rather are rooted in our complex social and economic systems.

With respect to policy formulation, the co-creation of policy options and delivery options has been widely discussed as a goal -- sometimes with Utopian undertones, e.g. government as platform -- but when you strip it down to its core, co-creation is also about as close to government capture as government can possibly stand. At a minimum, citizens actively shaping a particular policy intervention, and contributing to its development, design, and fulfillment, then ultimately privileging from it as a user, ought to raise concerns. Interestingly many of the instruments and approaches that are currently en vogue in the policy innovation and experimentation ecosystem are built around closing the gap between government and it citizens but -- if my recent experience in program implementation is reflective of the larger ecosystem -- little of the innovation from the design phase (inform/form) actually survives delivery.

Delivery, is a beast unto itself. I've remarked before that it's a blind spot in Canada (See: Is Innovation in Service Delivery a Blind Spot in Canada), that innovation faces asymmetric scrutiny (See: Asymmetric Scrutiny, Superforecasting, and Public Policy), and that we can't rely on old delivery mechanisms to deliver innovative solutions (See: Innovation: Design Process of Street Fight?). Quite simply, standard operating procedures and new are anathema. Moreover, the innovation narrative at the centre is far too disconnected from the implementation reality at the periphery. There's not enough connectivity, there's not enough translation, and there's not a good enough understanding of the practical implications of innovation rhetoric at the coal face of implementation. Finally, we often reduce 'innovation' to 'digital', which leaves a whole lot of potential innovations in delivery out of sight out of mind (See: On Organizing Principles: Service or Delivery).

The bottom line, there's plenty of room for improving policy making (and service delivery) but a lack of consensus on what constitutes improvement.

On Technology

I've always had an interest in technology. I used to call local bulletin board systems with a 300 bps modem. improvements to technology over my life time so far have been incredible. Today technology is absolutely pervasive. Everything is connected. Omni-present sensors have created an internet of things. Data is big. Privacy is dead. And we live in filter bubbles that create echo-chambers than justify our world view and amplify our outrage (and self-righteousness).

Technology was supposed to solve many of our problems but in so doing its created a whole swath of new ones. I often joke that its essentially the wild west out there, but there is a kernel of truth to it as well. There's a lot of people out there who purport to have all the right answers when it comes to technology and technologies of the future. In general, I try not to trust anyone who comes with an answer when they ought to ask a question instead.

The bottom line, I'd rather be a thoughtful critic of technology rather than a blind booster of it.