Hacking the Policy Process

[Originally published on the Australian Government Public Sector Innovation Network under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY AU licence]

When you think of the policy process, what do you think of?

For those who have studied public policy, perhaps there are fond thoughts of the policy model as a neat process of problem identification, research, consultation, development, decision making and implementation.

For those who have been involved in developing policy, there may be thoughts about a more nuanced and sometimes messy process with short timeframes, contested evidence that is interpreted differently, diverse stakeholder groups and interests, waiting for windows of opportunity and circumstances to align, and an overlaying of political and bureaucratic processes.

For those who have been consulted during a policy process, there may have been an experience of a questions around set topics but not necessarily the ability to easily feed in input outside of that, and a perception that government processes can be a bit of a ‘black box’ where it may not be clear whether or how your contribution to the process was used or whether it was of influence.

These may be stereotypes, and they can’t fully describe the richness or diversity of the policy process, but they are issues I’ve heard (and/or experienced) enough to know they are representative for many.

All of that is to say, in short, that the existing policy process is not perfect.

One area we might first look to is the new set of tools, platforms and ways of thinking that come under the umbrella of ‘digital’. Digital technologies offer, and create the demand for, speed, iteration and interconnection. These are attractive qualities that might help improve the policy process, and so digital tools offer us a number of options for tinkering with, or potentially reinventing, the policy process.

We have already seen some of that play out through agendas such as ‘egovernment’, ‘Gov 2.0’, open government, and through the enhanced engagement available through digital channels such as social media and sophisticated online consultation platforms.

Yet if we are to make the most of what ‘digital’ can offer, we might look further. In seeking insight, it would seem natural to look at the methodologies, the conceptual frameworks, and the tools that are used by those most involved with the digital shift, e.g. the IT industry, or the startup community.

In this context, one form of engagement we might look to is the ‘hackathon’. In Australia, a great example of how a hackathon event has been used in the public sphere is the volunteer-run GovHack series of events. Using data sets made publicly available by the government, a mix of people come together over a weekend to explore how to mash up or combine different data sets in inventive ways.

Such events are now starting to be applied in the policy space. For instance, in Canada there is an upcoming ‘hack’ style event around accessibility. In the UK, the government is running a ‘Job Hack’ – “Participants will be challenged to come up with new ideas so that young people can get access to the training and employment opportunities they need to succeed.”

In Australia, Assistant Minister for Innovation, the Hon. Wyatt Roy MP, in conjunction with the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, and the startup accelerator BlueChilli, decided to try such an approach with the area of innovation policy in inaugural ‘policy hack’ event.

On Saturday, over 100 people interested in innovation from a range of sectors and backgrounds came together with some public servants and a team of organisers at the BlueChilli offices in Sydney.

As was noted by Sebastian Eckersley-Maslin, the founder of BlueChilli, in opening the event, the policy hack was ‘minimum viable product one’ – it was put together very quickly to test whether such an approach might work. And as the Assistant Minister noted in his comments, it was very much an experiment and that the government must be prepared to try new ideas.

Next the process for the day was outlined. There were ten discussion themes for the day. The themes had been selected from the large number of ideas and issues that had been identified through the policy hack forum on the platform OurSay. Discussion of each of the themes was to be led by a champion, with the aim of having a 3 minute pitch at the end of the day in front of a judging panel.

We were introduced to the champions and the themes (you can see the details here) and then the crowd formed into groups.

The next few hours were a hectic process of passionate discussion, divergent ideas, and convergent thinking into a short sharp pitch. It was great to participate and to see and hear the shared passion around innovation and Australia. It was also great to see the interaction of fellow public servants feeding in insights, experience or facts about particular policy areas to help the groups understand the issues and what they might want to consider to strengthen their ideas/proposals.

At the end of the day we were all assembled back together to hear the pitches and to hear the judging.

Though it’s an area of passion for me, I won’t go into the detail about the innovation policy discussions. What I think is important from a public sector innovation perspective is to make some observations about the event and to reflect this experiment at hacking the policy process.

So some of my observations and reflections about the day include:

  • Logistically such an event requires a fair amount of support – in this instance there was some hard work by those from BlueChilli around not only the venue, the catering, the logistics of invites and participants, but also the designers and facilitators who worked to ensure that groups were supported in their limited time in coming up with a proposal. There was also the supporting work of OurSay in providing and managing the platform for people to put forward their ideas and comments about what was important
  • In traditional hackathons, most of the relevant information is easily discoverable. The participants have a fair idea of what’s available, what the constraints are, and what they can feasibly do. Policy can be highly complex, interconnected and interdependent and rests on a large body of tacit knowledge. That isn’t to say that the policy process isn’t suitable for a hackathon – rather that it was important to have the public servant participants there with their subject matter expertise. It might also mean that we in the public service might need to think more about whether we can find better ways of making available (both discoverable and accessible) the history, the pertinent facts, evidence and thinking around particular policy issues
  • Understanding the different values of such events is crucial. As the Assistant Minister wrote:

“And yet I cannot emphasise enough that the most successful aspect of a typical “hackathon” is not the actual outcome.

It’s not the new business or product raised.

It’s the educational experience that permeates every single participant. It’s the networks and connections made.

In other words, Policy Hack’s measure of success will not be merely the ideas promoted, important as they are.

The real yardstick will be the degree to which relationships are forged between our entrepreneurs, innovators, educators, scientists, researchers — and public servants.”

  • The value can be seen in the networking, in bringing together experienced and passionate people, in invigorating policy discussion and engaging people with the policy issues, and giving public servants insights that they might not receive from other channels
  • In other words, such events are not just about the ideas. They demonstrate that one of the roles that government can play is of broker or convenor – of bringing together other players in the system and helping facilitate or support conversations about what others might do, with little or no assistance from government
  • Policy hacks demonstrate one way that the policy process can be opened up for involvement by others in different ways. Of course there will be limitations, but those limitations will be different to those that affect the traditional policy processes, and so should allow for new insight and new understanding that wouldn’t have otherwise been captured.

Overall I got a lot out of the day and so did a number of the participants that I spoke with. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

Is policy hacking the way of the future? I don’t know, but I certainly think it is worth considering. The policy process needs to continually evolve to suit the times. This was an interesting experiment and we’ll no doubt see more, either in this form or others, in Australia and elsewhere.

So, watch this space!

You can read further about what happened on the day at the hack event from: