Ten reasons why we need a new approach to developing social policy – 5. Policymakers and decision-makers could get intelligence more quicklyPosted: May 9, 2012
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).
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.