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.


More than words – why think tanks should be more visual

At our branding workshop a couple of weeks’ ago one of the participants suggested that if we wanted to be accessible to a much broader audience than think tanks traditionally are then we should be much more visual. This struck me as a really interesting idea, and it’s worth considering more as we develop this project.

After all, the web is increasingly visual rather than textual. Think about the sites that are building massive communities – Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr. But most think tanks, most of the time, are fairly conventional in how they communicate their ideas and arguments. Words – presented in the traditional ways (reports, pamphlets) – still dominate as the ‘respectable’ means of communication, perhaps with the occasional map or graph thrown in when required.

This neglects that pictures, though they can be more time-consuming to create and produce, often present information and data much more powerfully. Of course there are some really good exceptions to the generalisation that think tanks neglect thinking visually – for example the work Danny Dorling has done with IPPR, how the new economics foundation has increasingly been using video (see the vampire squid), and the short film Number Games commissioned by Runnymede and produced by Feedback Films. Special mention also has to go to the RSA, with its RSA Animate series created by Cognitive Media.

Pictures would also be more accessible to a much wider audience than think tanks traditionally talk to, and could invite more people to participate in what think tanks do (for example, by posting pictures to illustrate their experience of public services) – something which is crucial to this project of course. It’s something we’ll think more about and we’d welcome your thoughts, for example links to great examples you’ve come cross of visual ways of presenting information and arguments. In the meantime, here’s a few well-known advocates and experts of visual thinking and presentation that spark our imagination about what might be possible:

For our own part, Stephen Lee Hodgkins has been kind enough to create a visual record of the discussions at our branding workshop, posted below. Stephen calls what he does – a colourful method for capturing ideas and information visually in real time, for example at a meeting or event – ‘graphicking‘. Check out his site by clicking on the link.

Remember that still we’d love to hear your suggestions for our name as well – we hope that Stephen’s graphic inspires you (you can click on the picture to expand it for a better view).


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 vehicleforge.mil 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.


Policy for introverts

Fairly or unfairly, a certain type of personality comes to mind when you think about think tanks. But what about the people who aren’t always the first to hold up their hands – shouldn’t they also have a voice in policy?

Susan Cain’s recent TED speech in praise of introverts reminded me that we need to create a different type of dialogue around policy and social issues generally. Susan warns against the ‘new group think’ – the assumption that creativity and innovation is necessarily dependent on (or needs to be designed around) gregariousness, which in practical terms means those with the loudest voices. She criticises what she calls “the madness for constant group work” that’s now emphasised in many sectors, from education to business. As Susan suggests: “There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.”

Susan’s argument is that we need to give introverts the freedom to be themselves, so that they can come up with unique solutions – and that more of us should have the “courage to speak softly.” Indeed, she notes, some of the most inspiring and transformative leaders in history have been introverts by nature.

Essentially I think of myself as an introvert (though like many people I don ‘t think the terms ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’ can really capture who we are), so I’m rather bound to agree with Susan. However, I also think there’s a danger of not trying to develop new forms of collaboration because we’re concerned (or assume) that some people don’t like to collaborate or aren’t at their best in collaborations. Introversion isn’t the same thing as a desire for isolation. Rather it’s the forms of collaboration we offer – whether they are open, accessible and equitable, and how they are paced – that matters more.

As Susan notes, we face social problems that because of their scale and complexity are likely to require lots of collaboration to develop solutions and to implement these solutions. So we need introverts on the inside. And in any case, the problem with think tanks and policy discussions generally isn’t that they are too ‘collaborative’ – quite the opposite. The problem is that they’re too shouty, too ‘here’s the answer’ and ‘I win the prize’ – hence the reason that policy suffers (in my humble opinion at least) from trendism.

We want the work of think tanks to be more participatory because this could make policy and research work more practical (i.e. informed by practice), more grounded, more credible – in short, more intelligent – and we’ll only achieve this if we find ways to include the introverts. Our new think tank project is for those who aren’t the first to put their hand up – and for those who don’t assume only they have ‘the answer’ but do have lots to contribute.

From this perspective, what’s really interesting about online and social media isn’t how they can enable much lower-cost, much more immediate interactions, it’s that structured in the right way they can allow other voices to come to the fore. Here I am, publishing to the world, and I’m not asking anyone’s permission to do it. So can you. It doesn’t mean there aren’t any barriers, but it does mean that the introverts are able to find more of their own ways of entering into the world. It’s what policy needs more of, and think tanks in particular need to find ways to embrace. Only then will we begin to harness the power of introverts.