Why we need a new approach to developing social policy – 9. It’s the future

This is the ninth 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 last in the series on Monday, and we welcome your comments.

According to How Stuff Works, the top five future technology myths are:

5. We’ll all be driving flying cars soon

4. We’re approaching the technological singularity

3. Moore’s Law will always hold true

2. Robots will be our friends

1. We can stop climate change.

In the case of policy, the equivalent myth is the inevitability of policy development and determination dissolving into some kind of ever-rolling 24/7 technology-enabled plebiscite, and that we will all feel perfectly represented. Of course, the future is not inevitable. Despite the obvious benefits to opening-up policy research and development (at least from our point of view), the future is something we make, and innovation is mostly about implementation. At the same time, and at the risk of falling into the myth trap, it also feels inevitable that policy research and development is going to change – for two main reasons.

Firstly, social change. Politics is changing and our political institutions aren’t changing nearly quickly enough to keep up. We’re in the middle of a long-term cultural change, flowing away from deference and attachment (to a community, to a class, to a party) and towards individualism, autonomy, and self-determination. This is often assumed to mean that we no longer want to be part of anything, that we’re all just self-acquisitive, selfish individualists. We hope it means the opposite.

We increasingly expect and demand that our voice is registered and (to some extent) listened to. We want to be involved – where institutions can demonstrate that they recognise who we are and that we have something to say. We want to exercise individual self-determination, but we want to do it together. We want to represent ourselves, rather than be represented. It’s not incidental that the President of the United States was a community organiser. Look also at the rapid growth of communities and movements such as Avaaz, Change.org, 38 Degrees, Citizens UK (London Citizens), and Make Poverty History (returning in 2013). We’re only at the beginning of finding new ways to mobilise people in order to change policy. Any existing institutions – from charities to companies as well as political parties – that don’t provide meaningful ways for us to participate will surely just fade away.

Secondly, technology. Many of the communities mentioned in the previous paragraph wouldn’t have been possible even a few years ago; now because of the internet and social media anyone can establish a socially purposeful social network (which is what we’re doing here). These platforms represent the principles of community organising made digital, but our conventional political and policy processes haven’t begun to reflect these various forms of digitally enabled community organising.

Part of the public’s disengagement from politics is certainly about structural issues – the decline in the efficacy of the nation-state in an age of globalisation and transnational corporations, the increasingly widely shared view that whoever we vote for, the government we get is of, for and by the 1 per cent, and so on. But part of it is also probably due to the fact that our democratic processes are in the dark ages technologically speaking, on the apparent assumption that applying even twentieth century tools to the business of taking part would be tantamount to ‘letting light in on magic’. So we can vote instantly for something as inconsequential as a Saturday evening TV talent show, but we still trudge to an empty school on a week day to exercise our democratic rights. Institutions that don’t use the technologies we use everyday quickly seem out-of-date and out-of-touch.

From this perspective, the UK Government’s moves towards openness are welcome but limited. Initiatives such as open data, e-petitions and opening-up publicly funded research are innovative but, given the extent of public disengagement, also insufficient. Alongside open data and open services, the third dimension of open government – and we would argue the most important of all – is open decision-making. This isn’t about developing better forms of consultation, rather it has to be about cooperative problem-solving. The future of national policymaking, the only way we can resolve the crisis in trust and legitimacy facing us, paradoxically lies in the ethos and practices of community organising.

In this project, this means developing new ways that policy development can be informed by providers of public and voluntary services, frontline practitioners and the public who use services. It’s their expertise and experience that’s largely missing from policy development at the moment, and policy is poorer as a result. The working title for the project is ‘new think tank’ (at least for the next couple of weeks), but it’s not really a think tank as commonly understood – rather it’s an open public platform for policy research and development. We’ve suggested here before how many think tanks neglect social media and how in particular they miss the opportunity to use it to host conversations. We think that a social network could be used to work with frontline practitioners and service users, in order to draw directly on their expertise, experience and insight to create better policy.

It’s not inevitable that our approach will work, but it’s inevitable that the way we develop policy has to change. In the future we might not all be perfectly represented, but we definitely need to be much better represented. This project is about what we can do right now to improve policymaking, but it’s also about anticipating and responding to this future – starting today.


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 – 6. Policy would be cheaper to research and develop

This is the sixth 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.

Innovation means that products and services get faster, better and cheaper – but only generally and only over time. On any given project, engineers say you have to ‘pick any two’ – that you can’t cut costs and improve quality while delivering in less time. In 1992, then NASA administrator Daniel Goldin disagreed. Under his ‘faster, better, cheaper‘ management philosophy, NASA launched 146 payloads worth a total of $18 billion, and all but 10 were successful. The problem was that the ones that were unsuccessful were hugely embarrassing – among them the debacle of the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter, which was lost because a contractor failed to convert from imperial to metric units when coding its software.

In previous posts in this series we’re suggested that a lot of policy research and development could be conducted better and faster than at present, by being conducted collaboratively by and with provider organisations, practitioners and the public who use services. But we also think that this approach could prove cheaper as well, and that in this case instead of working against each other, faster-better-cheaper could be mutually reinforcing.

First of all though, why does ‘cheaper’ matter when it comes to policy? At the moment, many valuable contributors to better policy research and development are effectively priced out of the market. No organisation that conducts or commissions policy and research work has money to waste, but smaller charities typically don’t have sufficient resources or capacity to undertake much policy work themselves or to sponsor a think tank or a research consultancy to do it for them. The result is a narrower set of voices in policy – and policy is poorer for it.

The heart of the problem is the business models used by policy and research providers such as think tanks. We’ve suggested before that the business model behind think tanks is ripe for disruption. The reasons for this echo why incumbents in so many other sectors, from retail to media, are being disrupted by new market entrants based around the internet and social media: high fixed costs; incumbents focusing on existing ‘high-end’ customers; over-specified, often expensive products; and limited use of cheap, commonplace ICT. Most of the time, most think tanks operate as part of the old economy rather than the new.

As a result, and because of a lack of suitable alternatives, think tanks have in effect played a gatekeeper role in helping only a minority of organisations to develop and strengthen their policy messages to government and introducing these organisations to policymakers. Think tanks provide a platform, but not to everyone. It’s not that they want to exclude smaller organisations, just that most smaller organisations can’t afford to commission them.

However, the lesson from other sectors is that the internet and social media can offer routes around existing gatekeepers, by creating faster, better and cheaper ways for smaller ‘producers’ to reach new audiences. And for many charities and other organisations, the engineers’ dilemma  is actually less significant, since if ‘good enough’ policy work was faster it would also be better (for example, so that they can input to a current policy debate or media story).

The key is this is finding and building a better business model, which is what we’re attempting to do here. Our approach is based on building an online platform – a social network – so that organisations such as charities can work directly with frontline practitioners and service users on policy issues, and harness the time, commitment, expertise and support of these groups in order to produce more credible, independent policy.

What’s certain is that if we don’t manage it, someone else will – that’s the inevitability of innovation. Like other sectors before it, policymaking is about to be disrupted.


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?


Competitive advantage

One of the questions we’ve been asked most often is why established ‘competitors’ couldn’t just appropriate our idea. The short answer is that they could – we haven’t invented any proprietary technology – but we don’t think they will, at least not quite yet.

This question is part of any Need-Approach-Benefits-Competition (NABC) analysis. Why hasn’t this idea hasn’t been done before? More importantly, why couldn’t the competition respond? And most pointedly, what is the one ‘killer advantage’ that no-one else will be able to compete with? Of course this assumes that this isn’t just a bad idea that no-one in their right mind would want to appropriate, but to be fair that’s not the reaction we’ve been getting so far, so let’s proceed on the basis that we’re onto something.

First though, a recap. We’re developing a new think tank where the research and policy analysis conducted by the people who use and provide public services in an online social network. This idea derives from three (related) thoughts:

  • Think tanks could be meaningful vehicles for public involvement in public policy – in an age of mass participation, the notion of closed, hierarchically organised expertise seems increasingly outdated;
  • Think tanks could be open and transparent – from how they are funded and who sets their agenda, to how they conduct research and how they derive their findings and recommendations, and this could improve their work and enhance their impact;
  • The internet and social networks in particular could help to achieve both of these things.

Disruptive innovations that prove successful often seem obvious in retrospect, so why hasn’t this been done before? In an age of social networks, we’d be the first to admit that it’s a pretty obvious idea. but the reasons that established businesses don’t develop or respond effectively to disruptive innovations often come down to money, skills or awareness, so let’s consider these in turn.

Disruptive innovation is obviously disruptive for established businesses. It costs money to shift from one way of doing things to another. Effectively we’d be asking traditional think tanks to make a fundamental shift from offline to online. Then again, social media and social networks are pretty cheap to experiment with, and this is a transition that a think tank could make over time – growing an online community while they gradually reduce their reliance on traditional (and expensive) offline ways of working, and introducing their existing customers slowly to the new approach as appropriate.

What about skills? There’s no doubt it would be a big shift in this respect as well, from ‘thought leadership’ and managing projects, to facilitating the thoughts of others and moderating communities. It’s not only a different skill set, it’s a different mindset – and probably therefore a different group of people. But again, the transition could happen over time. A think tank could establish a separate online operation, staffed with different people, and see how this develops (creating new ‘greenfield’ business units has often been critical to the success of disruptive innovations by established companies, because it gives the new venture the required autonomy to do things differently from the main business).

There could be a problem with branding here, but again establishing a separate greenfield operation could get round this. Some of the most well-known think tanks have quite strong brands (at least in the Westminster bubble), but this could also prove a barrier if they tried to set up a new, more open, more diverse online community. For example, the Institute of Economic Affairs has a strong brand but it’s for liberal economic thought, so it would most likely repel as many people as it would attract; equally IPPR or Demos might appeal to some audiences but not others. Less political (partisan) think tanks wouldn’t have this problem, but then again they don’t have very prominent brands to begin with, so this might not be an advantage overall. A small number of UK think tanks, such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies and The King’s Fund, have both strong brands and non-partisan credibility but they are also sector-specific, which obviously narrows the breadth of their appeal if they wanted to develop a ‘full-spectrum’ online think tank that encompassed many sectors and issues (which is what we’re trying to do here). Creating a new brand, but one which is related in some way to an existing brand, might be the way to go (the Center for American Progress has in effect done this with the ThinkProgress comment site, although this reinforces the impression of partisanship rather than reducing it).

So it seems that established think tanks could do what we’re attempting to do. Why then don’t we think they will, at least for a while? The reason is that most think tanks aren’t driven to want to serve the market better (which is what disruptive innovations are designed to do), rather they’re focused on finding better ways to promote their own viewpoints, which is not the same thing. An open, public, online community might not help them do that; because it couldn’t be directed easily it might even disrupt their mission. Our ‘killer advantage’ might turn out to be think tanks themselves.