Government work is not often the place for organic, incremental learning from practice, but would governments benefit from an experimental approach to policy making?
Back in 2015, the Canadian Prime Minister publicly released, for the first time, his instructions to all his ministers. Among these instructions, entitled mandate letters, one was particularly relevant to experimentation. It was addressed to the President of the Treasury Board of Canada, and it stated:
"You should work with your colleagues to ensure that they are devoting a fixed percentage of program funds to experimenting with new approaches to existing problems and measuring the impact of their programs."
The mandate was further clarified by a subsequent directive on experimentation produced by the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBS) and Privy Council Office (PCO), which makes an explicit link between experimentation and more effective policy making.
A few weeks back we were lucky enough to have a chance to compare notes with Myra Latendresse-Drapeau and Dan Monafu who are part of the team within TBS who is in charge of turning the mandate to experiment into a reality across government.
The visit was extremely timely for us as we are working to develop a framework for government experimentation in the UAE.
We were inspired by the Finnish Government’s Office of Experimentation - one of the exhibitors at last year’s Edge of Government, as well as the Danish Design Center event on policy experimentation by design.
As usual, nothing beats learning from practitioners and Dan and Myra were extremely generous in sharing their insights and lessons 'from the trenches'.
Here are some of the elements that particularly stood out for us from our conversation:
1. Translating the experimentation intent into practice: Traditionally, government work is not often the place for organic, incremental learning from practice. Rather, government innovators are typically in the situation of someone who is given the command of a plane that has already taken off and needs to find a landing strip (with little guidance to go by).
Under those circumstances, the process of translating the intent of a new policy (in this case, on experimentation) requires a process of ongoing (re)discovery (what was the original rationale?), reframing (how does the political frame translate into the civil servants’ frame?) and validation across different parts of the bureaucracy.
Implementation is not a straight line and requires careful stewardship. Here’s a couple of examples that stood out for us:
2. A straightforward, operational definition of what is an experiment: precisely because of the above complexities, coming up with a straight-forward, non-intimidating definition of what constitutes an experiment is paramount to socialise the concept. The definition that the government team came up with has the refreshing simplicity of Astro Teller’s 3 principles of a good experiment. An activity qualifies as an experiment if:
Stated more broadly, experimentation to them refers to activities which seek to explore, test and compare the effects and impacts (i.e. what works) of policies, interventions and approaches in order to inform evidence-based decision making
To get at what works, it is important to continually incorporate the unique insights and evidence generated by exploring (determining what works through diverse sources of information, experiences and perspectives) and by experimenting (determining what works by comparing interventions through experimental design).
What stood out from this definition is the strong emphasis on organisational learning (experimentation as a search for new value) as well as the understanding that an experimental approach calls for more systemic changes - to the planning process, but also, for instance, to budgeting (with outcome based budgeting being more conducive to create the space for exploring new approaches).
3. What support for experimenters? Dan and Myra described a three-tier approach to supporting experimenters, including a community of practice at the working level, an online portal with practical guidance and tools and, intriguingly, a “table on experimentation” comprising senior management executives at the Assistant Deputy Minister level from about 10 different departments.
The “table” will be meeting regularly to review progress and is an important instrument to socialise the concept of experimentation across government, as well as a venue to facilitate the above mentioned ongoing process of translation from political intent to the realities of the bureaucracy.
The Finnish government set up a “godparents of experimentation” group with the same purpose. Interesting models for us to take inspiration from as we reflect on the best approach for making bottom up and top down experimentation meet in the UAE context.
As more governments embrace the concept of experimentation, learning from the early adopters and developing a better appreciation of the systemic implications of an experimental approach to policy making will become increasingly important.
We are extremely grateful to Dan and Myra for an opportunity to learn from their experience and we look forward to continuing the dialogue at IGL 2017.
Giulio Quaggiotto and Myra Latendresse-Drapeau will be speaking at IGL2017 on Tuesday 13 June in a panel discussion on Experimental Government. Get your tickets now or follow the hashtag #IGL2017.