Collaboration beats competition for creating better social policy

We’re developing an online platform – and hopefully from that a community – to research and develop better social policy. Should we use an approach based on competition or collaboration? Both can be used to source new ideas, but our view is that collaboration is more appropriate than competition for social policy.

Competition is most obviously represented by innovation prize competitions or ‘challenges’. These offer a reward to whoever can meet a defined challenge first or best. The Obama Administration has shown a particular interest in what it has called ’21st Century Grand Challenges’, for example to develop renewable energy, electric cars, and for international development issues such as improving literacy and access to healthcare. As Tom Kalil, Deputy Director for Policy in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, noted in a speech yesterday (12th April):

“Incentive prizes work as one tool to address Grand Challenges because they shine a spotlight on an ambitious goal without having to predict which team or approach is most likely to succeed. Incentive prizes help us reach beyond the “usual suspects” to increase the number of minds tackling a problem, bringing out-of-discipline perspectives to bear and inspiring risk-taking by offering a level playing field.”

Despite their current fashionability, competitions have a long history – from the longitude prize to Charles Lindbergh winning $25,000 for making the first nonstop flight from New York to Paris. More recently, the X PRIZE rekindled interest in competitions, starting with the Ansari X PRIZE to build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometers above the earth’s surface, twice within two weeks. InnoCentive has turned hosting competitions into a business, and the UK Government also announced last year that it is supporting a fund to run prizes that spur new innovations.

Collaboration is different. Although prizes can encourage some collaboration – for example team-ups between different groups in order to try to win the competition – by their nature they are essentially uncollaborative. We’ve described what we’re doing here as developing a ‘crowdsourced think tank’. Commonly understood, crowdsourcing takes an open and more collaborative approach to solving problems and producing new things. Just as businesses increasingly recognise that the expertise and intelligence they need to develop better products and services exists beyond their employees, so we’re exploring here how think tanks could be far more effective and efficient by crowdsourcing what they do, including through much more collaboration in policy development.

One of the questions we’ve been asked by potential customers and partners is how we hope to engage and motivate public and voluntary service providers and service users to be part of our community. Since it seems to work well for other challenges, why not use a competition-based approach for this? There are three main reasons why we think, at least for our project, that collaboration beats competition.

Firstly, many of the social problems we face are complex and multifaceted. Innovation prizes were originally focused on technology, where there might be one best solution. But we’ve suggested here before what the problem is with the search for ‘magic bullets‘ when it comes to social policy. Because social problems typically derive from a range of sources, there’s no single way to reduce poverty, improve health, cut crime or improve public services. If we say there aren’t any ‘one-size-fits-all solutions’ (as we often do in social policy), then challenge prizes that are designed to find such ‘solutions’ then start to seem like a rather inappropriate mechanism. Moving away from a focus on ‘big fixes’ in social policy could open up many more possibilities, at both the level of ideas and action. It could also free us from the unrealistic expectation that ideas come fully formed, and instead support a more iterative approach to developing interesting ideas into effective (and proven) policy and practice.

Secondly, since there might be many answers, it follows that we need to include many more people in the answering. ‘Grand challenges’ and big thinking tend to exclude people. Again, as we’ve suggested here before, most of us aren’t ‘moonshot’-style big thinkers. Rather, we have lots of ‘little’ ideas, based on our own necessarily partial but nonetheless important bits of expertise and experience, that collectively might add up to something big.

Thirdly, while competition can motivate participation, we think that an ethos of collaboration and mutuality is likely to be more important in the long run to help build sustained engagement in our community. Some people in thinktankland seem to relish the battle of ideas, but we need to move beyond their often off-putting ‘winner takes all‘ approach to policymaking if we want a greater diversity of voices and perspectives to inform better policy. Further, as pointed out in Miia’s comment on a previous post, this would also better reflect the kinds of public and voluntary services that many of us say we want: “The competition paradigm in organisations and government should be replaced by the collaboration paradigm if we are to achieve services and public investment that fully delivers for the benefit of the end user and citizen.”

What’s interesting is that technology challenges may also be turning more towards collaboration, for example DARPA’s programme to develop a ‘next gen tank’ via crowdsourced ‘evolutionary design’. From think tanks to real tanks, the future feels more collaborative than competitive. Let us know whether you agree.

3 Comments on “Collaboration beats competition for creating better social policy”

  1. Sounds like the “Coalition of slow hunches” approach: to innovation.

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