Making governments learn faster from experience: experimental government at IGL2017

By on Thursday, 10 August 2017.

If you were a member of a government, how would you detect people at risk of suicide in an innovative way? Maybe one option would be to set up an algorithm that infers mood from the colours of Facebook pictures? “A group of experts would go for something like that, says expert in experimental government Giulio Quaggiotto. But barbers in the UK are trying a much simpler approach.

Three quarters of all suicide victims in the UK are male, and a recent survey found that half of men are likely to discuss private issues with their barbers. This pushed the Lions Barber Collective to set up an NHS-certified programme, aimed at training barbers to recognise signs of mental health issues.

The algorithm vs. barber talk option is an example of how experimental government can make a difference, according to Quaggiotto, an advisor to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) prime minister’s office. In June, he joined a roundtable on experimental government at the Innovation Growth Lab annual conference in Barcelona. During the event, a practical toolkit was launched, for researchers and policy makers to start thinking about experimentation in the field.

Mainstream vs. experimental government

Mainstream government has an underlying worldview, according to Quaggiotto: “as long as we have enough research and the right experts, everything will follow from that, he says. Experimental government works the other way round: “people don’t act rationally, complex issues are difficult: let’s experiment. If we do this, then this will happen . . . or it will not happen”, he explains. Far from being a speculation, this approach is being heavily implemented in the UAE.

The advantages of this strategy are clear. “Instead of running a [policy] programme for five years, evaluating it, and maybe finding that the strategy was wrong, it’s less costly and risky to run an experiment for three months and realise that it fails”, says Myra Latendresse-Drapeau, director of strategic policy, priorities, and planning at the Treasury Board of Canada. This organism is in charge of implementing the 2015 mandate by prime minister Justin Trudeau to devote a fixed percentage of public agencies’ budget to policy innovation.

Political challenges

However, bringing experimentation into policy poses several challenges, pointed out Jonathan Breckon, director of the Alliance for Useful Evidence (promoted by Nesta) and moderator of the session. People don’t like to feel like lab rats and for a government, saying that they need to test something out could be seen as a sign of weakness.

Citizens’ participation and awareness are key-tools to face these challenges, according to Taina Kulumala, head of the policy analysis unit at Finland's Prime Minister’s Office. Interestingly, SITRA, Finland’s dedicated innovation policy body, has organised numerous competitions, hackatons and a publicly open platform where anybody can participate (and even donate funds) around the concept of experimental government. They also celebrate a National Failure Day to convey the idea that it’s ok to test ideas out. Remarkably, the majority of the parties in the country have experimental government on their political programmes. The country is currently running a trial of a basic income model.

Canada has already passed its own fire test, with a failed experiment carried out by its tax agency to nudge people to comply with taxes. “It made the headings of the Globe and Mail. However, it had a small cost and we could explain what made it not work. Even learning what doesn’t work it’s great: it prevents you to reinvest in it, said Latendresse-Drapeau.

Operational challenges

Experimental government also faces a set of operational challenges - in particular, resistance to accepting risk and failure within an organisation’s culture. In our system, spending is activity-based, not outcome-based. How do you shift that?”, says Latendresse-Drapeau to describe the inertia within the public sector. The Canadian strategy is to seed the different levels of the political and administrative sectors with champions of policy experimentation.

The decade-long experience of the French Youth Experimentation Fund (YEF) is a reference to learn how to face this challenge. “We have contributed to the development of a culture of experimentation in France”, says Malika Kacimi, Head of Implementation at the French National Institute on Youth and Non-Formal Education. Since its creation in 2009 as a public-private partnership, the YEF has issued almost 30 calls for proposals and carried out hundreds of experimentation projects on issues like education, discrimination, healthcare, housing, etc. Kacimi highlights the success story of the youth guarantee, a grant supporting youth professional integration that was first experimented and then scaled up.

Emptying the bucket of the obvious

The UAE approach is basically learning by doing, says Quaggiotto. “It’s difficult to empty the bucket of the obvious. If you want to set up a participatory budget you can anticipate what most people will suggest on how to do it. The strategy is running multiple parallel experiments: from the standard social media campaign to turning the budget campaign into a theatre show, for example, he explains.

While the country has been willing to innovate in the last few years, it is now when it is doing experimentation in a more intentional and conscious way. “Our way of framing it is: how do you learn faster than any other government in the world?, Quaggiotto sums up.

This blog was written by an attendee of IGL2017.