The Ups and Downs of Policy Innovation

One of the defining characteristics of change of the past decade has been without doubt the growing trend towards collaboration. Assumed by many to be driven by technological advances in information and communications technologies (ICT) this trend has reflected itself in many aspects: from an abundance of collaboration tools using voice, video, white-boarding tools, desktop sharing etc. to the more interesting appearance of collaborative production models such as open source software, open source hardware, co-creation, crowd sourcing and the many other names assigned to various aspects of this phenomenon.

Policy – The Grass Roots road

The policy development area has not escaped this trend. We witnessed the proliferation of grass root movements aiming at reclaiming control of at least certain elements of the policy articulation and development processes. This was the decade of Orange Revolutions and of the Obama campaign that redefined citizen engagement in the United States. One example much closer to home of such movements is Change Camp, an “unconference” organized in Toronto (Canada) in 2009 with the stated goal: “Re-imagine Government & Citizenship in the Age of Participation“.

The ideas and methods of Change Camp Toronto quickly spread to other geographies and became a full-fledged movement advocating radical improvement in citizens engagement, change in how policies are developed, and building tools that enable better organization and mobilization of citizens. These grass root movements constitute a new and innovative bottom-up approach to collaboratively articulating needs, developing solutions and defining policies.

Policy – The Hierarchy Road

Meanwhile government institutions at every level continued their traditional century-old top-down planning approach to policies development, and while some efforts were made to increase consultations with constituents (the traditional town-hall meetings or the occasional costly public hearings), it can be argued that no significant systemic improvements in the participatory nature of these processes were achieved.

A Dangerous Gap

There is an inherent problem in that no one has figured out yet how to link the bottom-up approach with the top-down one. These two processes are currently not sufficiently communicating and have definitely no designs for convergence or integration. In his recent Unfinished Business lecture at the Strategic Innovation Lab (sLab) of the Ontario College for Arts and Design (OCAD), David Eaves summed up this problem as “digital citizenry trying to work with analog government“. He warned that this gap is dangerous and cannot continue. The question is whether it will be closed peacefully or violently.

Changing Government from the Inside

Not everything is bleak. In July 2009 the Canadian federal government published a report titled “Canada@150: Towards a New Era of Collaboration & Innovation in Government“. In it are the findings of a year-long internal initiative “to help build cross-cutting, horizontal networks that could unite people, issues, expertise, and departments in new and innovative ways“. While this initiative provides some hope for the evolution of government, it is clearly limited to internal multi-disciplinary government collaboration.

Making Ends Meet

Still, Eaves gap analysis resonated well with me. In the context of developing a syllabus for a graduate course on Business Model & Policy Innovation, I have been discussing with Mark Kuznicki (one of the founders of Change Camp) and others how to connect these two fundamental approaches to policy development and innovation. We will have an excellent opportunity to advance our thinking on this issue in the upcoming Change Camp 2010 which is being designed in the context of the Ontario municipal elections scheduled for late October of this year.

I am looking forward to Change Camp 2010 and to participating in finding solutions and designing processes to close this gap, at least in the City of Toronto.

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