Thursday, March 29, 2012

Government business model generation

Government has a diverse range of roles in helping make society a better place. But it only uses a couple of basic business models.  The main one looks something like:

collect independent revenue (e.g. tax) > use it to deliver something
(that aligns with the minister's priorities, and hopefully has a positive BCR)

In addition to 'policy' work (~delivering services to the minister), line departments are set up to do this - and that's about all their structures enable them to do.  Luckily, governments have the taxation authority that means this model will never break, though there's no guarantee it will be effective.

Having been referred to (via @carlscrase) today got me thinking.  In many cases it will be effective, but is it always the best way?  And when will it not be - how do we know that we should be thinking about creating a different business model?

John Baxter

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A vision of progressive policy implementation

It should not be possible to commit to broad impact, systemic policy without understanding how it will work at the micro level.

This seems an obvious suggestion when written down, but it's usually not followed - which is why basic and fundamental things like 'human centered design' are so radical to the public service.

Government approaches delivering social value quite differently to how a startup does. A social enterprise startup may have a high-level social objective, but it will fail if it tries to achieve everything at once (known as 'boiling the ocean').  No matter how central that objective may be, it needs to start by being successful delivering value at the smallest scale, to a small set of individuals.  For a startup, this is an important way to validate hypotheses about the business model - and in particular the experiences and interactions - minimise risk, and progressively seek funding for expansion. It also fosters a completely different perspective on social change to that of the bureaucrat.

There is no one approach to developing policy that will foster a better understanding of impact at all different scales.  Enterprises scale up because they need to, they operate and grow very differently to government, and the different actions of government can't be shoved into a single model for implementation. Nevertheless, there should be a better way to make policy than to design a magnificent national system, then fill in the unpredictable and inconvenient gaps known as 'people'.  It may be hyperbolic, but this is closer to reality than it should be.

Some elements of human centered design can definitely help, particularly to understand how individuals interact with numerous different government systems (think MindLab). But in other contexts, it might be more useful to rethink how programs are implemented, inspired by enterprise approaches and led by the need to understand impact at different scales. A program will first test the most central hypotheses that are the easiest and lowest risk to trial - not necessarily the smallest scale - focus on getting this right, and progressively build on the growing foundation.

Thinking like this requires a conscious approach to risk, iteration and learning-through-doing that is confronting, unsettling - far from straightforward.

Nevertheless, thinking about 'progressive' policy as an option, to deliver a broad-impact policy - particularly on a difficult issue - without testing hypotheses about how it works for actual people would be crazy.  It's a large investment and has high risk.
Government can be pretty crazy sometimes.  In fact, some days I wonder how it escaped the straight jacket.

Slack blogging

I've neglected this blog a bit and that definitely needs to change.

I chatted with a friend this evening about professional referees. I asked whether he would feel able to do so, given our interactions over the past few months, and my concern that it would be difficult to communicate the value of what I've been involved in.

Being the kind soul he is, he of course said yes. But the insight he offered - as usual - was much more valuable.

He pointed out that developing an online presence will speak for itself.  That in particular, something as simple as blogging - i.e. simply keeping it up - is a great record of where you've been, and how you have processed and learnt from your experience.

This is not rocket science. But it is science that I haven't applied yet.

I consciously created this blog as a ready point of connection to my thoughts - and it has proven useful for that.  But I have since been caught up in doing things, rather than just thinking them, and engaging people directly. This is a positive sign - I count it as progress against my 'resolutions' - but I've lost track of the value of having this point of connection.  And in particular, having a record of what has been going on.  Believe me, I haven't been slack for lack of anything to say!

It really should be obvious! The blog is such a neat fit for reinforcing and illustrating these experiences. But sometimes it takes someone else's contribution to put two and two together.  Cheers!

John Baxter