Collaborative Policy Analysis

The Art and Craft of Policy Analysis 2.0

For the past 15 years, the Internet has changed our lives – and changed us. Now the Internet itself is undergoing its own transformation with the accelerating adoption of technologies collectively called Web2.0. This second generation web is characterized by the emergence of the Internet as a participatory platform, with the distinction between consumers and producers blurred. The shift from user-selected content to user-created content has significantly changed our on-line interactions – and has the potential to change our social interactions with it. In the presence of all this change, the public sector is seeking to adapt.

We use the term Web2.0 to describe recent changes in the use of World Wide Web technology and web design that facilitate enhanced creativity, communication, collaboration and function. Web2.0 technologies – such as blogs and microblogs, wikis, mashups, social networking, content sharing and tagging – continue to grow in popularity and function. Principally used for social activities (e.g., Facebook and Twitter continue to be cited as prime examples of Web2.0 applications), Web2.0 has also been deployed in a number of corporate environments for marketing and operations management (McAfee, 2006). Under the name of Enterprise2.0, tools such as wikis and blogs have seen widespread uptake. Organizations have years of experience with a range of communication media – email, telephony, intranets and document management systems. What Enterprise2.0 seeks to accomplish is to reduce the traditional management function of coordination necessary in running large organizations and instead builds collaboration into the infrastructure.

Where governments have adopted Web2.0 (i.e., “Gov2.0”), it has generally been in support of communication strategies – principally internal, but increasingly external (e.g., Wyld, 2007). More robustly, Gov2.0 technologies can be deployed to: improve service delivery, improve operations and management and reinvigorate democracy. There has been little emphasis, however, in the application of Web2.0 technologies to that specialized internal communications function – policy analysis and briefings.

The briefing function in government is well established, but the contemporary policy analysis and briefing process, as revealed in practice, shows several points at which the process of assigning and drafting briefing notes has run into challenges:

  • In the communication of the request from the political executive to the operational policy analyst, the hierarchical nature of these relationships and the number of steps through multiple channels can lead to distortion of the message and delay in delivery.
  • As the policy analyst strives to respond to these requests, they often work in isolation from the client requesting the information and from other possible collaborators.
  • As the draft briefing note returns back up the hierarchy, institutional incentives lead to delay in the process and minor changes of minimal importance.
  • And the distance between policy analyst and decision maker (mediated by several hierarchical layers) impose challenges for communication.

These problems in the traditional model of the policy process – communication distortion, delays in message delivery, isolation of the policy analyst from their client and other collaborators, institutional incentives and bureaucratic culture leading to further delays and low value-added, and challenges for in delivering briefing messages – are the result of adherence to hierarchical, sequential modes of work.

As with the movements towards collaborative knowledge work that are evident in many private sector organizations, the public sector can benefit from moving towards similar collaborative models in order to address the challenges in policy analysis identified earlier, but also in response to increasingly horizontal challenges, desires for more coherent ‘joined-up’ government responses, and in response to the changing expectations of the next generation of public servants.

As an alternative to traditional modes for preparing briefing notes, collaboration is the central idea around which the shift in process can take place, driven and facilitated by the adoption of a policywiki environment.

Think about the current policy environment: a policy analyst receives an assignment (which is first logged in a database by an administrative assistant) and starts a briefing note by opening a document template and filling in the various spaces: “prepared for”, “issue”, “background”, “discussion”, “options”, “recommendation”, etc. They work away on that document and, when satisfied with its state of completion (and constrained by a deadline), they forward it to their superior who reviews it and makes changes before sending it on to their supervisor, or returning it with a request for changes. This iterative process continues until the client who requested the briefing note receives it. This is the ultimate hierarchical system, and leads to the problems outlined above.

Orienting the process around the creation of a policywiki space can have a transformative effect on this process by creating a mechanism for collaboration.

In some respects, there is nothing radical about a wiki. Take a standard definition of a wiki: a computer medium that can be edited by anyone with access to it, that provides an easy method for linking from one page to another. In the traditional briefing process, the policy analyst who opens a Word template on a group server is essentially doing the same thing. But by organizing a policy analysis team in a wiki environment, and having those team members to explicitly commit to the process, we can have a transformative effect on the briefing process and move from this hierarchical situation to one marked by collaboration.

In by-passing the hierarchy and removing the incentive of those in the chain to delay the progress of the briefing simply in order to be seen to add value, a flat policy team should be able to complete briefings more quickly. By engaging a wide array of skills directly in the policy analysis team, a constrained crowdsourcing approach can explicitly take advantage of the “long tail” concept. Lastly, the creation of a standing wiki environment can improve the speed and accuracy in establishing briefing teams as well as increase the material available from which they can draw. Perhaps one of the more important transformations from applying Web2.0 to the policy analysis function will be the development of “perpetually-beta” briefing notes: instead of reactive “eventually perfect” briefings written in response to an emerging issue, the development of an inventory of “always ready” briefings adaptable to a specific request would return policy briefings to an earlier idealism.

Immersion in a PolicyWiki environment exposes practitioners of the briefing note process to a different mode of operation – the starting, constructing and completing of policy briefings in a collaborative wiki environment.This is not just about learning a new interface or software environment. Moving from traditional hierarchical briefing processes to a collaborative process will challenge much of what we have learned in our academic and professional lives. Whether an organization uses Microsoft Office SharePoint Server with Collaboration tools, MediaWiki, SocialText or some other collaboration suite, the focus will be on how teams work collaboratively to produce better briefings, faster.

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