Policy solutions online: how governments can learn from each other

policy solutions online

Apolitical, a platform providing peer learning and policy solutions online used by public officials in 140 countries, provides ten insights into the state of governments drawn from its digital platform.

In business you would never launch a new product without knowing what your competitors are doing; what has worked, what has fallen short and what has failed. In government, when choosing a new policy, omitting these steps is commonplace. Policymakers rarely examine systematically what is going on beyond their doorstep by pitching policy solutions online or in the real world, leading to expensive reinvention of the wheel and avoidable failures.

It is true that policy solutions can depend mostly on context, but this was the case more often in the past than the present. We are living in a world where our hardest challenges are increasingly global – refugees, climate change, cyber security, ethical AI, infectious diseases – and where solutions to these challenges are increasingly underpinned by technological innovations, which are often transferrable. If we are to find the best solutions, we need to look beyond our borders.

However, creating a culture of looking externally for solutions does not alone solve the problem. If you are a public servant who wants to quickly find out what is happening in other countries, your options have been poor. If you have a big budget, you might hire an expensive consultancy or go on a trip to another country to speak to local officials. However, few public servants have budgets to spare. Therefore, you are generally left trawling through databases of policy solutions online and think tank websites or calling someone you met at a conference, who last year knew something about the issue you are facing.

This is no way to make decisions that can cost millions of dollars and affect millions of lives. So we created Apolitical – to solve this issue. Our mission is to accelerate the transformation of government by making it as easy to find the best policy solutions online as it is to find the best hotel room for your holiday.

By government, for government

Apolitical’s digital platform is a free resource for the global public service. It puts the best policy solutions online at the fingertips of public servants, wherever they are in the world. In a few clicks, you can find snappy and engaging opinion pieces, case studies and questions and answers from our in-house writers and from global peers and from experts. You can also find links to external publications – academic papers, government blogs and more. Machine learning makes the content relevant to you.

Apolitical has a ‘by government, for government’ approach: everything we design is shaped by feedback from our public service members. Our members told us, for example, that ideas are not enough. They wanted to speak to the people who have worked on policy solutions online. On the platform, you can search for, and then message your peers in other cities or countries. The human side of Apolitical is critical to the product design and core to our philosophy. Too often, government is seen as a big faceless bureaucracy, rather than an organisation filled with men and women working hard to make their societies better. By giving these often-unsung heroes a platform to connect and share their ideas, we hope not only to encourage more exchange but also to humanise the bureaucracy. Also central to our philosophy is showcasing what is working. If we only look at what is wrong with government – which the majority of the media focuses on – we undermine trust in government, we discourage sharing of solutions between governments and we demoralise public servants.

At a time when the people working in government are constantly asked to do more with less, when distrust in government is rising, and when the problems facing governments are only getting harder, this approach has struck a chord globally: Apolitical is now used by public officials in more than 140 countries. Our members range from mayors and ministers, to chief data officers, chief technology officers, innovation leaders and committed public officials everywhere – searching for new policy solutions online and sharing the lessons they are learning.

In the two years since we launched the platform, we have learned a lot about the changing state of government from this vibrant, diverse and rapidly growing membership. These are ten of our key insights.

1) Policy frontiers are everywhere

It is not always the countries with the biggest budgets that try the boldest ideas. Most people will know of Estonia’s leadership in digital government, but others are catching up – and not just countries like the US, UK and Canada. New Zealand, for example, recently became the first country to experiment with making its legislation machine readable. This involved breaking down laws into their building blocks – who gets what, when and under what conditions. Deployed at scale, machine readable laws could lead to a range of benefits. One is that public servants could model the effects of policy solutions online in order to better understand their costs and unintended consequences before rolling them out.

Another is that it would reduce the costs of working with government for smaller companies: when a regulation changes, a computer (instead of an expensive lawyer) could inform them of the effects. Innovative work on the regulation of AI to avoid ethical disasters is similarly happening around the world. Canada had an open debate over its AI guidelines, with the discussion of AI policy solutions online partly taking place on Medium.com. New York City – working with academic experts – has put together a smart and practical set of standards for ethical AI. Citizen engagement is another hotbed of imaginative policy. Singapore has been using chatbots to engage with citizens. In Reykjavik, more than 50% of the population has contributed to shaping new policy solutions online.

2) Richer countries can learn from poorer countries

If you look only to other rich countries for ideas, you are not looking far enough. Policy innovations are springing up in places that OECD countries have tended to think of as aid recipients rather than sources of innovation. Just as we saw leapfrogs in mobile phones and distributed solar energy in poor countries where infrastructure did not exist, we are now seeing leapfrogs where policy infrastructure did not previously exist. Brazil, for example, launched an open data platform allowing its citizens to engage with policy solutions online with a simple and engaging visual interface. It was so effective it inspired not only a new platform in Africa, but a redesign of a US platform. Brazil also pioneered participatory budgeting which is now used in more than 2,000 locations around the world. Mexico City recently became the first city to crowdsource its constitution.

India’s Aadhar biometric ID system has given a digital identity to more than a billion people, something richer countries with smaller populations are still struggling to achieve. And the UN has been running programmes in Kenya and other poor countries, to get excluded groups such as women and children to redesign their slums and cities, using the popular game Minecraft. Meanwhile rich countries around the world are battling to implement citizen engagement without exclusion.

3) Innovators are isolated

Transformative innovations can seem obvious and indispensable once they are live, but, especially in government, they typically require patience and courage from the individuals and teams behind them. Many public servants will wait years for the right political climate to launch long incubated ideas. When we did a survey on the traits you need to be a successful public servant, resilience stood out as something uniquely important in the public sector.

With most areas of government still better at punishing failure than rewarding success, many innovators also put their careers in jeopardy to advance controversial but urgently needed innovations. Unsurprisingly, these individuals feel alone. They are hungry for connections to others with a shared desire to effect change and share policy solutions online; and who face similar pressures.

When we launched a monthly webinar for the people working in government innovation labs to share policy solutions online, we were amazed by the interest. In a few months, more than 100 labs were participating in the monthly calls – from Canada, the UK and Denmark to Indonesia, Chile and Egypt. Governments who want to attract and retain people like this are realising they have to support them and the cultures they are trying to foster. At the moment, such support – where it exists – tends to be focused on innovation labs or on teams with specific innovation mandates. The next frontier, an example of which was pioneered in Denmark, is proactively supporting the innovators who are spread across government – people who often do not have innovation in their title or department’s title, but who are trying hard to drag their departments into the 21st century.

4) Silos squash the best ideas

Governments need cross-border thinking, not only across geographies. Many of the best policy solutions online on Apolitical’s platform break down the silos that exist between different sectors within a government – the refugee integration policy that stimulates a new part of the economy, the clean energy policy that creates jobs, the violence prevention policy that gets more children into school. These require people in different parts of the government to talk to each other and, ideally, to be able to share the credit for successes – something earmarked government budgets often make difficult. These departmental borders can sometimes be as hard to cross as any country borders. But with government budgets shrinking, these policies are also looking more attractive.

For government leaders looking to catalyse more cross-silo collaboration, they should consider bringing in more people from outside of government. To fresh eyes, these silos seem absurd. We often see outsiders to the system breaking down barriers to unlock co-operation between multiple departments or levels of government. The good news is that while other departments may be hard to get on board, the public is not. We co-publish select stories about policy solutions online with mainstream media platforms and we have found that policies which kill two birds with one stone tend to capture the imagination of the general public. For example, together with the World Economic Forum, we published a story on a Swedish tax policy that encouraged recycling and created low skilled jobs. The video alongside the story was watched more than 20 million times by people all over the world asking: why don’t we have this here?

5) Skills and implementation are more important than ideas and innovation

The question of what to do is important to public servants. However, it is not as important as the question of how to do it. The most popular topics and pieces on Apolitical are almost always focused on the question of how to get things done. The technical skills today’s public servants are keen to acquire include data literacy, artificial intelligence, design thinking and behavioural insights. Today’s public servants want to learn how to collaborate, communicate, build support with multiple stakeholders, pilot ideas effectively, overcome skepticism, evaluate success, scale pilots and work more effectively with private sector partners. Due to the systemic challenges which public servants are faced with, to be really effective they also have to acquire a broad range of skills and have little time in which to do so. Responding to this need, we have started creating bite sized interactive online courses. Given that public servants spend much of their time with dull and dense material, we focus on making learning engaging and fun. For example, our course on policymaking in the real world gamifies the process of creating a new policy.

6) Communication is not just for politicians

Amongst the skills prioritised by public servants, storytelling and communication are always near the top of the list. In today’s working environment, being able to communicate persuasively has become essential, not just for politicians. Bureaucrats also urgently require communication skills as a core tool: to galvanise others around a shared problem, to persuade their boss to try a new solution, to win support from partners, to persuade the public and, when implementation issues arise, to sustain support from varied stakeholders. And it is not just junior members who want simple and accessible ways to learn and stay ahead of trends, our first policy solutions online education course focused on how to persuasively communicate your policy. To our surprise, although the course was designed as a ‘101’ introduction, it was praised by a range of mid to senior level public servants who were no less enthusiastic than more junior participants.

7) Millennials are reshaping government

Millennials are accelerating the transformation of government in both top down and bottom up ways. Digital natives who have grown up in a networked world expect technologies in government to be as slick as those they use at home or on their phones, they expect to share and exchange policy solutions online. They want the places they work to be open by default, not closed by default, they expect rewards to be based on performance not on age or hierarchy, and they expect to have many jobs in many sectors across their careers. Those millennials who have risen to positions of power are fighting to create environments that suit themselves and their peers. Those not yet in power, possess skills and ways of thinking that governments desperately need.

The urgency of attracting and retaining this demographic – who see government as slow and old fashioned – is making recruiters rethink how they design and pitch public sector jobs. In the UK, a highly competitive ‘Fast Stream’ programme has been very successful at attracting some of the country’s brightest young people. The programme enables participants to experience a number of different departments in just a few years and offers accelerated career advancement. Canada recently launched ‘Free Agents’ in which a select group of talented individuals move around government departments, applying their skills in areas and in ways they think are most meaningful and effective. The Obama administration launched the Presidential Innovation Fellows which attracted bright young people – many with sought-after technical skills and experience – to undertake two year ‘tours of duty’ in government. Many of those chose to stay on in government afterwards.

8) Procurement is powerful

Globally, public sector procurement is worth around $8 trillion (~€6.2 trillion) a year. However, until recently governments mostly spent their budgets project by project, without evaluating how they could use them to achieve broader policy outcomes. This is starting to change under the banner of several related trends, including responsible procurement, sustainable procurement and innovation procurement – all using procurement as a strategic tool – to achieve additional, societally beneficial objectives in the course of acquiring goods and services. Together these trends present some of the most promising opportunities we are seeing for improving our societies. Meeting the UN sustainable development goals by 2030, is estimated to cost between $3.3 trillion and $4.5 trillion annually in state spending, investment and aid. It is hard to see how these will get funded unless giant procurement budgets are put to work. In many cases, this requires radically changing procurement systems and the culture that surrounds procurement. Procurement today needs to cater to more diverse providers in the private sector, to products that are upgraded every few months rather than once a decade, and to metrics other than the upfront price.

9) Govtech: small is beautiful

There is a saying in government that nobody loses their job for partnering with IBM. While this may often be true, when it comes to technology solutions for government – or govtech – it is becoming clear that large corporations do not necessarily have the best or most cost-effective solutions. From health to clean energy, startups and SMEs are developing some of the most inexpensive and customer-centric policy solutions online. But the structures in government make working with small companies particularly hard, therefore, governments around the world are piloting new initiatives that are beginning to open the system to smaller companies.

The UK has committed one in every three procurement pounds to SMEs. Boston has ‘office hours’ for startups, enabling small companies to ask questions that will help them understand the city’s needs and navigate its systems. San Francisco’s “Start-up in Residence” programme (modelled on Amsterdam’s) has small companies working closely with public servants and the beneficiaries of government services. It is now launching in 31 other locations including two Canadian cities. The programme’s founders believe that procurement is too transactional for the complexity of today’s problems. By bringing start-ups close to these problems before tenders are written, better solutions are produced. So far, the programme has supported the creation of 47 projects for government. Binti – a graduate scheme which streamlines foster care – now services 50 communities. It has increased the capacity of social systems by 300 per cent and produced a 40 per cent increase in the efficiency of government administrators. Economic development is also important. Recently, the programme has seen interest from American rust belt towns who are starting to see their procurement budgets as one of the few levers they have to stimulate economic dynamism.

10) G2G: Governments are consulting on policy solutions online

Public servants can often learn a lot from each other with a quick meeting or call. However, sometimes the scale of knowledge transfer requires more than one conversation and governments are starting to turn to each other, rather than consultants, when embarking on transformation projects. The UK’s pioneering Government Digital Services (GDS) often hosts two delegations a week from overseas and will have more than 130 visits in 2018. These include VIPs such as Deputy Prime Ministers and Digital Ministers. Already, GDS has memorandums of understanding in place with multiple governments including France, Canada and the UAE – it is in the process of developing these with more than 20 other countries. The knowledge shared is varied. For example, GDS is currently working with six countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Colombia, South Africa and Botswana – to transfer learnings and tools around procurement innovation and standards. Sometimes G2G is free, sometimes it is paid for. In the latter case, it is one of the neatest returns on taxpayer money we have seen anywhere – these funds buy not only better services, but the monetisation of the lessons learned.

Robyn Scott

Co-founder and CEO

Apolitical

+44 (0)203 608 2241

robyn.scott@apolitical.co

https://apolitical.co/

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