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Disrupting government as usual: 'datapaloozas,' policy gaming

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There is plenty of disruptive innovation taking place among businesses, and now, government organizations are opening up to the same new thinking as well. McKinsey and Company recently put together a collection of new ideas from leading thinkers for running government organizations smarter and in a more technology savvy way.

Todd Park, US chief technology officer: Unleash the power of data. "There’s a lot of data in the vaults of Health & Human Services and its sister agencies. The approach we took at HHS was to convene a group of 40 leading minds in the technology and health care arenas, and we put a pile of data in the room and said, 'If you had this data, what would you do with it?' Over the course of about eight hours, they brainstormed different applications and services. At the end of the meeting, we challenged them to come to the first Health Datapalooza—90 days later—and see if they could actually build what they had just brainstormed. These innovators showed up 90 days later with more than 20 brand-new or upgraded products and services. The Datapalooza had two important effects. One, it inspired entrepreneurs and innovators to get involved. Two, it gave us ammunition to liberate more data."

Tony Blair, former prime minister of the United Kingdom: Challenge the 'givens.' "The pace of change in the modern world is incredible, with the emergence of new powers, such as China, India, and Brazil; new technologies in communications, energy, and medicine; and new global challenges like climate change and the financial crisis. Only systemic change, as opposed to incremental or piecemeal reform, will allow government to keep pace in a rapidly changing world. And the only way you will achieve systemic change is if you are prepared to 'challenge the givens.' It’s very easy when you come into government to take the system as a given and then ask, 'How can we make it work more effectively?' Actually, what you very often have to do is to say, 'Let’s challenge that assumption; maybe the system doesn’t have to be like that.'

Diana Farrell, director in McKinsey's Washington DC, office: Get eeveryone's ideas. "In this effort, governments can draw heavily on the mission-driven mind-set of employees—a real comparative advantage for the public sector over the private sector. Too often leaders insufficiently tap into this valuable asset. And leaders can do far more to mine information on what is working elsewhere. International peers, often trying to solve exactly the same problems, provide invaluable road maps and lessons. Unlike the private sector, where companies spend millions of dollars trying to understand secret competitor strategies and replicate them, the public sector is an open environment, and thereby easier to mine for successful practices and lessons learned."

Peter Ho, senior adviser for the Centre for Strategic Futures in Singapore: Embrace resiliency in the face of complex problems. "Governments, like all large, hierarchical organizations, tend to optimize at the departmental level rather than at the organization level. In a complex operating environment, governments should be adaptive, emergent, and able to navigate situations characterized by multi-causality and ambiguity. It is not possible to prepare exhaustively for every contingency. Instead, a 'search and discover' approach should be adopted. In this regard, nonlinear methods like scenario planning, policy gaming (the civilian analogue of war-gaming), and horizon scanning (the process of detecting emerging trends, threats, and opportunities) should be part of the government toolbox."

Salman Kahn, founder, Kahn Academy: Embrace open, technology-delivered education. "The old model is based on pushing students together in age-group batches with one-pace-fits-all curricula and hoping they pick up something along the way. It isn’t clear that this was the best model 100 years ago; it certainly isn’t anymore. Technology has the power to free us from those limitations, to make education far more portable, flexible, and personal; to foster initiative and individual responsibility; to restore the treasure-hunt excitement to the process of learning. Technology offers another potential benefit as well: the Internet can make education far, far more accessible, so knowledge and opportunity can be more broadly and equitably shared."

(Photo: Joe McKendrick.)

— By on November 9, 2012, 8:03 AM PST

Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure