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 – 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.

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).

Exit, voice or loyalty – what matters most in building online communities?

We’re creating a platform for people who use and provide public and voluntary services to inform better social policy. For this to be a place they want to come to, and invest time and energy in, it will have to feel like – it will have to be – their community. How can we ensure that our community becomes theirs? The answer lies in an essay published more than 40 years ago.

The Guardian has been running an interesting series of articles this week on the ‘battle for the internet‘. Wednesday’s articles considered the growth of ‘walled gardens‘ such as Facebook and iTunes. The usefulness and increasing ubiquity of these privately-owned ‘public squares’ raises important privacy, censorship and accessibility issues. These might not matter much to most of us, most of the time, but they still matter – both personally (for example, when they use our data in a way we didn’t anticipate) and politically (given the economic, social and cultural power such companies now wield). This has led some commentators to suggest that these platforms are effectively public utilities and should be regulated as such, but this (highly unlikely) proposition has only been put forward because of our lack of influence, as ordinary users, over how these platforms operate and what their policies are.

The only way we can really hope to influence how they act is to leave (with all of the obvious downsides of doing so). This is the ‘exit’ option described in Albert Hirschman’s oft-cited 1970 essay Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. Facebook’s owners – which could be you if you’re intending to buy some of their shares – must at some level exist in a perpetual state of fear that their users can simply up sticks, and in this way the threat of exit is a powerful driver for improvement. It leads to new features, better services etc – indeed it’s the basis of free and competitive markets. But this doesn’t make these communities ours – quite the opposite, it distances us from them.

Exit isn’t the only ‘option’ we want in relation to the communities of which we’re part. This is why Hirschman notes that, in addition to leaving, people can try to use their ‘voice’, that is they can attempt to repair or improve matters through communicating their problem and/or proposing a solution. What’s clear, thought about in this way, is that platforms like Facebook are highly unlikely to listen to our views unless they are accompanied by the threat of exit. We can judge this because Facebook et al. have  failed (or haven’t cared) to develop mechanisms and processes by which we can effectively express our voice and influence how they operate.

Hirschman suggests there’s a third factor at play, which is loyalty. This can slow exit (for example, people feel very strongly attached to a particular brand), but perhaps only for a time. Loyalty can drive people to use their voice – to suggest changing things and improving them, so that they aren’t forced to exit. You’re more likely to use your voice if you have some degree of loyalty to a community, institution or company – otherwise why would you bother?

Hirschman’s model, though in one sense pretty simple, is the kind of idea that once you read about it sticks with you and you find yourself applying to all sorts of situations (which of the three aspects of it you think matters the most can also suggest a particular political persuasion). My own view is that exit matters – a lot. If you don’t like something, show how you feel. If you want to use a social network that doesn’t own all your data, then support the development of Diaspora. If you don’t like Microsoft’s (often tardy) programs, choose open source software (like we’ll be doing for our demo platform). If you’re tired of being prompted and pushed around by iTunes, use another music player. And if you want to support the development of a new way of creating better social policy in a community that you shape – if you want to break down the ‘walled garden’ that is most policymaking – then watch this space.

But surely a better way to build and retain a community – and so strengthen loyalty – is to enable and encourage people to exercise their voice. It’s this that ultimately determines the health and sustainability of (online) communities, because it determines the extent to which people feel that they own a community. It may be less tangible, but it’s much more meaningful, than holding a few hundred shares out of a few million. In this spirit, I’d be interested in what you think about what makes communities work – what attracts you to them, and why you stay.

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.

Here’s our idea – let us know what you think

We’ve been working on this project for a few months now and here’s where we’ve got to. Below is something like a marketing description, but it also indicates the functionality we’re looking at for our proof-of-concept website. It’s still work-in-progress, but let us know what you think. (It won’t be called ‘New think tank’ of course, that’s just a stand-in name – suggestions for that are welcome as well).

[New think tank] connects people and organisations to improve social policy.

[New think tank] is a social network for the people and organisations who use and provide public and voluntary services. With the [New think tank] community, you can conduct policy and research work that’s credible, affordable, and timely.


The [New think tank] community is made up of people who use and provide public services. They’ll help you understand what’s happening at the frontline, and to develop practical and popular proposals. This will help to give your organisation credible answers and a stronger profile.


Because it’s online, [New think tank] is a very cost-effective way to conduct policy and research work. Through [New think tank] you can share intelligence, recruit and work with partners, and even find funding for projects.


[New think tank] enables you to conduct policy and research work quickly and easily. You can instantly test out ideas for a new research project and invite people to participate in it, invite suggestions for a policy statement or consultation response, or source relevant case studies for a report or news story.

With [New think tank], you can develop and deliver a project from start to finish – you can even commission a new project in minutes. Here’s how:

Create a profile – for you or your organisation, then connect and communicate with others. Share news and publicise events. You can import your profile from other social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, and even login using your profiles from these networks.

Test out ideas – post questions, start discussions and propose projects. The most popular ideas and projects get featured most prominently. You can also follow and comment using other social networks.

Conduct projects – start a project and invite others to participate. Create an open or invite-only forum and assemble a virtual project team. Post questions and surveys, or draft and edit reports collaboratively.

Find partners – recruit other organisations to partner with, or find funding for a project. Host forums to manage projects, store and share useful documents, and easily track project activity wherever you and your partners are.

Share findings – publish and promote your projects. Use the site as a hub to share your findings and recommendations. Automatically send updates to and from other social networks, and use the community to disseminate your work more widely.

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.