Could social media help to open up commissioning?

Chris Sherwood, Co-Founder of Guerilla Policy and Director of Innovation and Development at Scope argues that commissioners should use social media as a way to collaborate with citizens to open up commissioning.

This is the first in a series of blogs that will look at how commissioners can embrace social media. Opening up commissioning can play a significant role in ensuring local accountability over what is commissioned ultimately leading to better, cheaper services. Social media could help.

The NCVO defines commissioning as “…the process of finding out about public needs, then designing and putting in place services that address those needs.” Commissioning is a complex, multi-disciplinary process involving research and analysis, design, procurement, contract management and evaluation. Commissioning has often been overlooked by policymakers but there is increasing recognition that it is an important policy lever as increasing amounts of public services are outsourced, a direction of travel that the Coalition has committed to speed up.  David Cameron set out in a speech in July 2011 a commitment to open up public services by challenging the ‘presumption’ that the state should deliver services rather than the voluntary or private sector.

Commissioning has traditionally been a function of public bodies like central government departments, local authorities and NHS bodies. However increasing amounts of public services are actually commissioned by the private and voluntary sector; with the Work Programme being the best example of this with private prime contractors responsible for commissioning a range of providers in their supply chain.  Commissioning by the private and voluntary sector offers up opportunities for innovation but there are also equally concerns about how services are commissioned by these bodies.

Commissioning is still largely a ‘closed shop’, operating in a bubble of the ‘professional knows best’ culture with activity taking place behind closed doors. Bureaucratic hurdles such as requirement of bidders to provide three years of accounts or TUPE obligations and perceived legal barriers such as EU competition law stifle the appetite for innovation and collaboration. This results in only limited engagement with relevant stakeholders either at the beginning of the commissioning process or after it has been completed.

This ‘closed shop’ approach to commissioning hampers innovation as the insights and ideas of providers and citizens are neglected or ignored.  Collaboration between providers is constrained because this approach results in competition rather than partnership, with providers reluctant to share any of their ‘added value’ for fear of it reducing their advantage when it comes to the scoring of their tender.  Finally, it reinforces inertia as commissioners are reluctant to de-commission or radically change what is commissioned.

There have been some innovations on the fringes of commissioning, but these are not yet the mainstream. Participatory budgeting is a process that many local authorities have adopted to engage local citizens in deciding how to spend small pots of discretionary funds. It was developed in Porto Alegre in Brazil has since been adopted in the UK. In my own borough of Lambeth residents were asked to decide which community projects should receive investment from a £250,000 investment pot. Residents were not able to suggest projects but could decide which of those offered up should receive funding.

Whilst Turning Point’s Connected Care uses a community research model to support the commissioning process.  Community researchers are involved in the development of a comprehensive needs assessment to inform what is commissioned. These researchers are local citizens who have received training to take part in a structured research process. The model has obvious benefits in that the local community plays an integral role in helping to shape what is commissioned but this approach has been criticized for being too expensive.

Both of these models offer interesting insights about future possibilities for a more collaborative and open approach to commissioning, where citizens play an active role as ‘producers’ as well as ‘consumers’ of services. Their reach could be expanded further through the use of social media. Community researchers could for instance use social media to crowd source quantitative and qualitative data to inform the needs assessment. Yet both of these examples operate at the fringes of public services. Examples of where citizens are engaged in designing services that help the public sector respond to the big challenges of cuts, an ageing society and climate change are harder to come by.

At the moment, we are thinking about the wider application of Guerilla Policy. Guerilla Policy is an experiment in how research and policy development can be opened up through the use of social media. Could this approach be applied to commissioning? So far we have talked a lot about national policy in our work (and it would be interesting to speculate on what the Work Programme would look like if the design had been crowdsourced). However, most commissioning however takes place at the local level, so the ‘guerilla policy’ approach also needs to be applied locally. In this series we will consider what role social media could play and where commissioners could adopt this approach.

Ten reasons why we need a new approach to developing social policy – 8. Policy would be more innovative

This is the eighth in a series of posts on why social policy should be developed by and with the people who use and provide public and voluntary services. We’re publishing the rest of the series over the next week, and we welcome your comments.

With less money and, in the case of ‘rising tide’ issues such as an ageing society, less time as well, we need plenty of new ideas in social policy – but where they come from matters. Steve Jobs said that: “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” True, but a lot of innovation is sparked by seeing people’s needs close-up and figuring out better ways to meet them. This is why practitioners have created many of the best new approaches, and why we should distinguish between two types of innovation – those that seem like a good idea on paper but should stay there, and those that are good in practice because that’s where they’ve come from.

Firstly, paper innovation, or as we’ve it called it here before the ‘blueprint approach‘. A few years’ ago Demos pointed out that government holds a ‘pipeline’ view of innovation, meaning that:

  • new solutions are mostly developed in Whitehall departments and R&D labs in large technology firms (and indeed sometimes in think tanks);
  • innovation grows out of major hardware solutions implemented at scale and business process re-engineering;
  • process innovation (or ‘lean systems’) is the most effective way of improving efficiency;
  • innovation is driven only by market or quasi-market competition; and
  • the primary job of public servants and frontline practitioners is to implement what emerges from this pipeline.

The current Government would claim to have moved decisively away from this kind of thinking with its emphasis on ‘open public services‘, in which decentralisation, localism, choice and outcomes-based payments will create many more opportunities for grassroots-led innovation. But it continues to push ‘solutions’ such as lean and shared services, adheres even more than its predecessors to the importance of competition, and can’t restrain itself from introducing big ‘top-down’ reforms such as universal benefits and the Work Programme, Academies and free schools, Police Commissioners and the NHS reforms – many in the name of greater localism, it says, but with the obvious irony that they all are being pushed (imposed) from the centre.

Innovations dreamt up by civil servants and think tanks can be whizzy but can also lack groundedness, practicality, a proper analysis of possible bad outcomes, and a constituency of support necessary for successful implementation (pace the NHS reforms in particular). It would be tragic as a result if ‘innovation’ became a dirty word amongst practitioners – something that’s largely ‘done to’ them rather than ‘done by’ them. Fortunately however, there is a better way.

Secondly, then, practical innovation. Many of the most exciting ideas in public services over the past few years have come from practitioners and service users – personalisation and direct payments, family friendly policies, user voice (from the disability rights movement in particular), Nurse Family Partnerships, the Expert Patients Programme, The Swindon LIFE programme (developed by Participle with 15 local families), Keyring and Shared Lives in social care, the Richmond Fellowship’s RETAIN programme and Star Wards in mental health.

This isn’t surprising. Practitioners and users are much closer to problems, and they can see for themselves the ways in which existing services aren’t working (especially ‘failure demand‘ and where this stems from). Unlike most policy wonks, practitioners find it difficult to insulate themselves from the frustrations of services users, their families and local communities. Consequently, practitioners’ intelligence is akin to what W. Edwards Deming called ‘profound knowledge‘, rather than the partisanship and prejudice that often characterises policy debate in the Westminster bubble. Practitioners can also test out for themselves the viability of alternative approaches (though they often do it surreptitiously, which tells you something about how far we still have to go to create a system that supports frontline innovation).

This has important implications for policy. Practitioners and service users experience policy – they see firsthand how the approaches designed at the centre, from funding and commissioning to regulation and performance measurement, actually operates at the frontline. They are better positioned to anticipate how it will be interpreted and implemented, not according to the perfect blueprints of its creators but based on what happened when previous policy encountered reality. This includes the likely unintended consequences, for example, how measurement and targets can be ‘gamed’. From this, practitioners are also better placed than policy wonks to identify ways that policies act as barriers to better provision (whether the policy in question derives from central government or their own service or organisation), and so how policy could be reformed to create a more suitable and supportive environment for services including innovative approaches.

Think tanks can and have supported some of the practitioner-developed innovations mentioned above, and this has been important. But more often than not think tanks neglect others’ ideas in favour of their own (as part of the ‘battle of ideas‘ they cling to), and don’t do enough to build alliances with charities and campaigners. We might also wonder why it is that receiving a ‘seal of approval’ from think tanks matters so much, given their typical remove from the reality of life on the frontline.

What’s out-of-date then – what should be our priority for innovation – is the way we innovate in policy, including challenging the largely closed ‘innovation industry’ that inadvertently reinforces the idea that innovation is a specialised ‘elite activity’ beyond the reach of the rest of us. Instead, to get more fresh new ideas we need to go beyond the same old suspects. Focusing more on practitioner-led innovations will mean a greater practicality in new ideas. It will also – if we chose to listen – mean policy that’s better suited to frontline innovation. After all, if government can ask practitioners for suggestions of where to save money, there’s no reason it can’t ask them for their ideas to improve policy – which is also what this project is about.

Ten reasons why we need a new approach to developing social policy – 5. Policymakers and decision-makers could get intelligence more quickly

This is the fifth in a series of posts on why social policy should be developed by and with the people who use and provide public and voluntary services. We’re publishing the rest of the series over the next week and a half, and we welcome your comments.

Ronald Reagan used to tell a joke about how long it would take for anything to be delivered in the old Soviet Union (it’s worth catching it here). Wouldn’t policymaking be incredibly slow and time-consuming – unworkable even – if ‘everyone’ was supposed to have a say, if decision-making had to be run like some kind of national collective? One response to this is that, given the social and economic cost of bad policy, good policy should take as long as it needs to take, and what we suffer from is too much new policy rather than too little. Both of these things might be true, but policy research and development could be faster and more timely as well as more credible if we made it more open and if we used readily available technology to facilitate it.

The reason we – practitioners, providers, service users and the public – don’t feel we have much of a say in policy at the moment is not primarily because of the speed at which policy is developed but because of the way it’s developed. It’s not because policy consultation timescales are too tight – though they often are – but because we don’t have confidence that anything we submit as part of these processes will be listened to. We suspect that the policy has already been determined behind closed doors, and that policymakers are going through the motions (as well as meeting a legal requirement) to consult with us – hence the tight timescales.

This suggests that what we need are better, real ‘pre-consultation’ processes by which we can propose, develop and inform policy. Formal consultations would then come towards the end of a process of more open, collaborative and cooperative policy research and development. We’ve suggested already in this series of posts how this kind of openness could help to strengthen democracy, trust and participation. At the moment, there are no such processes, at least not public ones. What we have instead is lobbying that is expensive, time-consuming and exclusive – the latter meaning taking place behind closed doors, but also because it’s often too expensive and demanding for smaller charities and campaigns to commission the policy work that might help them to influence policymakers (something we consider in the next post in this series).

So far this sounds even more time-consuming. But the point is that, through policy development being more open at an earlier stage and to more participants, we could more easily root out the bad ideas that should be killed off quickly. What we would avoid with this approach is the current situation of often quite poor policy being developed too slowly (because government doesn’t listen to what providers and others are telling it) and then implemented too quickly (because government continues not to listen). Instead we’d stand a better chance that the right amount of credible policy would be developed at the right pace.

Of course, some types of research and analysis need to take a certain amount of time – but many don’t. Rigorous and robust long-term research will still take the time it needs to take. But many aspects of research and policy projects could take much less time if we could find a quicker way to get to the right people and organisations and to collate the knowledge they already have. In other words, the challenge is often more one of coordination. There’s no reason why, if we could develop a large enough community in one place or network, we couldn’t much more rapidly source the initial ‘good enough’ evidence (existing studies, evaluations, case studies etc) that might support further policy development in certain directions. We could also gather new ideas and proposals for policy in much less time from a far wider range of contributors. This is where technology can play an obvious role, in providing a platform for this coordination and networking to take place.

All that’s really being suggested here are the advantages of crowd sourcing applied to policy research and development. The answer then to the question we started with is that if ‘everyone’ had a say, policymaking could be quicker as well as more credible and more democratic.

That’s what this project is about – developing a platform to conduct policy and research work quickly and easily by involving more people in it. As we’ve outlined in an earlier post, we want our project to be a place where organisations such as charities can instantly test out ideas for a new research project and invite people to participate, call for suggestions for a policy statement or consultation response, or source case studies for a developing news story. This isn’t the old Soviet Union: we don’t expect to wait months for something we’ve bought to be delivered. It’s time for research and development to enter the twenty-first century – for it to be made quicker, better, and cheaper (the subject of the next post in this series).

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.

What think tanks can learn from experiments in open journalism

No sector or industry is immune from the ‘open revolution’ – from software development, scientific research and publishing, to how businesses innovate more generally. Here are three experiments in ‘open journalism’ which also suggest how think tanks could work more openly.

1. Open sourcing

The Guardian newspaper has embarked on a programme of open journalism. As Alan Rusbridger, the paper’s editor, has noted: “Journalists are not the only experts in the world.” ‘Open journalism’ is the Guardian’s name for the way in which it is attempting to involve its readership not just in commenting on stories, but contributing to and even determining its news agenda, as a way of creating a two-way relationship between journalists and readers.

As the Creative Review notes, this reflects the changing nature of media. Given the competition that has emerged from other forms of media, especially social media, newspapers are having to be less about relating ‘the story’ (as they see it) and more about acting as a platform for a topic to be explored by multiple participants, including readers, in real-time.

At the moment, this mainly means that reporters keep readers informed as they develop stories (usually via Twitter). Every morning the paper also posts its ‘news list’, the usually closely held plan of stories it is working on for the following day, partly in the hope that greater openness about the paper’s agenda will prompt information from readers. The Guardian has cited the death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 riots in London and the resignation of the defence minister Liam Fox as two examples where readers helped to substantiate stories.

2. Open editing

In February Wired magazine published an article about GitHub, a ‘version control’ website that allows programmers of open source software projects to upload code and share it with other developers but also keep track of who made what changes and to merge these changes together. What was interesting was that the writer used GitHub to invite and capture suggested edits and amendments to the article itself (the GitHub repository for the article can be found here).

GitHub was designed for software development rather than collaborative editing, but Wired’s experiment shows how mainstream media can engage informed readers to produce better written, better researched reports – a form of Wikipedia for journalism.

3. Open agenda-setting

OpenFile is a ‘community-powered’ news organisation which operates in seven Canadian cities. Its journalists cover stories which start out as suggestions from readers. OpenFile works with hundreds of freelance reporters across Canada; once its journalists are assigned to a story they collaborate with readers to deliver their reports, typically on local news and issues.

This is rather different from ‘citizen reporting’ (or ‘participatory journalism’ – see for example the Media Trust’s newsnet platform), since the main journalistic activity here is still being conducted by professional reporters. Nevertheless, this public direction of a news organisation represents a highly disruptive model – more like ‘media-as-a-service’ rather than the traditional industrial model of media production.

We’ve suggested here before that the business model behind think tanks is ripe for disruption. The reasons for this echo why traditional media is being disrupted by social media: high fixed costs; incumbents focusing on existing ‘high-end’ customers; over-specified, often expensive products; and limited use of cheap, commonplace ICT. Journalism is increasingly recognising the need to reinvent itself, including by experimenting with mass collaboration (as in the MPs expenses scandal) and even crowdfunding (though not yet at the level of individual stories). So what could think tanks learn from these kinds of experiments in open journalism?

At the conceptual level, think tanks could also try to create more of a two-way relationship with their customers and audiences. This would mean less telling people what ‘the story’ is, but instead acting more as facilitators who offer a platform for collaboration between interested parties in real-time, including the policy and decision-making audiences they want to influence. As we’ve suggested before, this is probably why think tanks such as Chatham House, which seek to act as ‘meeting places‘ for a range of experts rather than presenting themselves as the ‘only experts’, have been so successful and why audiences like them so much.

More practically, think tanks could consider:

  • sourcing ideas, information and contributions more frequently using social media;
  • experimenting with open and collaborative drafting, reviewing and editing of reports;
  • microtasking their research (as in the MPs expenses scandal);
  • inviting audiences to set their agendas;
  • attempting to crowdfund their projects and programmes openly and transparently.

Economic and cultural changes have forced traditional media to respond with these experiments in openness. Faced with similar challenges, what will think tanks do?