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For more information on the Political Innovation project, you can e-mail Mick Fealty [twitter] by using this spam-proof link or Paul Evans [twitter] using this spam-proof link.

For anyone who has ever asked themselves “why is politics still done like this?”

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Update: Audio file of Warren Hatter’s talk is now online

For those of you who came to the Political Innovation talk Warren Hatter gave a few months ago, he’s now posted an audio file of it here.

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What we’ve done so far in 2012

To date, in 2012, aside from the launch of Who Funds You, we’ve organised the following informal and conversational events in London.

Crowdsourcing analysis for policymakers

How open data is being used government, how it could be used as a participative tool, and what the opportunities / pitfalls could be.

Presented by Andrew Stott

Co-design and policymaking

A look at the practicalities of involving large numbers of people in planning and designing policies, followed by a discussion of the politics and the ethics of ‘collaborative authoring’

Presented by Steph Gray

Policymaking in the cloud

A discussion of new ways of doing things that arise from more dispersed technical networks. ‘Scrum’ project management, open source development and, Peer-to-Peer organisation have all been held up as being ideas that politicians and governments can learn from.

Presented by Dr Andy Williamson

Quicker, cheaper and easier than polls

In the past, opinion polls and focus groups have had a great deal of influence over policymakers. Today, the social media ‘firehose’ provides us with a torrent of opinion and sentiment to draw from. How is this done? And how well does this commercial practice apply to policymaking?

Presented by Dr Nick Buckley

What policymakers can learn from gaming

Technological entrepreneurs have become adept at finding new ways of motivating people, not only managing to change their behaviours but also encouraging them to develop skills, mentor others and solve problems. What can politicians learn from the most successful interactive-content industry the planet has known?

Presented by Jude Ower

Are we too irrational to participate in policymaking?

Can a government that adopts approaches from behavioural economics be trusted to be serious about any kind of participative politics? Are the two oil-and-water opposites? Or is it more complicated than that?

Presented by Warren Hatter

In other developments, we have been working on an ‘open data for schools’ project, and the Political Innovation approach to understanding policymaking in the digital age has formed the basis of a number of one-day professional training events.

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Can the use of behavioural insights ever really be mainstream in public policy?

Update: 28/11/2012: The audio from Warren’s talk can now be heard here.

Lord Krebs, incoming President of the British Science Association was reported last week as criticising government use of ‘nudges’.

Yet this amounts to a reservation that they are using behavioural insights as a “get out of jail card if the government wants to avoid tougher approaches like taxation and regulation”, shooting down a case that precisely no practitioners are making in the first place.

In fact, it feels as though using behavioural science to inform policymaking is on the verge of becoming mainstream – in principle at least. When you remember that this was only really a trendy discussion topic a handful of years ago, it represents a significant advance.

Looking ahead, in the long run, the underlying assumption behind the case for using behavioural insights (that we are “predictably irrational”, so policy and services need to reflect this) will be challenged. Continue reading

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New website highlights secretive world of think tank funding

Who Funds You? news release

A new website launches today calling for think tanks and public policy campaigns to publish their annual income and name their major funders.

For its pilot project, Who Funds You? – http://WhoFundsYou.org – asked 20 leading UK-based think tanks and political campaigns to disclose their major funders and rated them on the depth of their responses.

The website awarded six organisations its top “A” rating (Compass, IPPR, New Economics Foundation, Progress, Resolution Foundation, Social Market Foundation), while three received its lowest “E” rating (Adam Smith Institute, ResPublica, TaxPayers’ Alliance).

The full results are:

A – Compass, IPPR, NEF, Progress, Resolution Foundation, Social Market Foundation
B – Demos, Fabian Society, Policy Network, Reform
C – Centre Forum, Civitas, Smith Institute
D – Centre for Policy Studies, Centre for Social Justice, Institute of Economic Affairs, Policy Exchange
E – Adam Smith Institute, ResPublica, TaxPayers’ Alliance

Who Funds You? is now inviting other think tanks and political campaigns with a strong public policy or research focus to disclose funders who give £5,000 or more in a single year. It will give a funding transparency award to those that do, and encourages funders to favour such organisations. Continue reading

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Banned List Google Chrome Extension

Just a quick one, from my friend Andrew Regan, developer behind Poblish (among other things): Here is a Google Chrome ‘Banned List highlighter’ extension – helps you identify pages that have words from John Rentoul’s ‘Banned List’ and even tweet them to others.

The pictured page (below – click to enlarge) shows what happens when you look at a page that has ‘banned list’ terms on it.


Enjoy! (If that’s not on the list, it should be….)


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It’s not what you play, it’s the way that you play it

Have you seen The Hunger Games yet? If not, don’t bother. I know it puts me in a minority of something approaching one in the world, but seriously: it’s rubbish.

For those who have avoided the adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s hugely popular book, the plot revolves around an authoritarian future in which a continental government keeps the otherwise restless masses entertained and distracted with an annual fight-to-the-death tournament between 24 teenage “tributes”. Sort of like X-Factor. But with bows and arrows.

(If you want visions of the future how they should be realised, just download Bladerunner, Twelve Monkeys and The Fifth Element; if you want half-decent portrayals of bloodthirsty voyeurism in the mix, add Battle Royale, Rollerball, Running Man and The Truman Show).

Anyway, its one saving grace for me is that it at least combines my two main professional interests: creating policy and creating games. A little more fascistic and lethal than I would normally advocate but thankfully a democratic and constructive approach to the potential of games in policy-making was recently at hand, too. On 3 April, Jude Ower of PlayMob led the latest (and sadly last for a while) of Political Innovation’s Translation Layer Events. Continue reading

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Politics and Gaming?

This is a guest post from Jude Ower, founder and CEO of PlayMob. Jude will be speaking at the What Policy Makers Can Learn from Gaming? event on 3rd April

PlayMob SuperheroSeven billion hours per week are spent playing games. The average age of the social gamer is 43 and more women play social games than men. 1/3 of the global population play games.

Do we still need convincing that games are typically played by the teenage boy, on his own in a dark cupboard? We’re told that even David Cameron is an Angry Birds fanatic!

The past three years have seen a massive growth in games due to the platforms we play on (mobile, Facebook/social networks and consoles such as the Wii and Kinect). Games are more widely available, cheaper, easier to get your hands on, and a lot more family friendly and social. Continue reading

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Has web-technology only brought one real innovation to politics?

Analysing social media. Like trying to drink from a firehose.

The five ‘Translation Layer’ events that we’ve organised have attempted to break down the different kinds of innovative technologies that have changed politics in recent years. Four of the events cover the applications of technology.

With apologies to the excellent speakers who have (or will) be addressing these issues, it seems to me that the first three on that list (below) are tools that have enabled us to do something that we were already doing – but doing it bigger / faster / better / more. The only wholly new item is the fourth one – social media analytics. This is also the subject of our next event on Tuesday evening.

The fifth – Andy Williamson’s ‘Policymaking in the Cloud‘ (last Tuesday) – looked at how the methodologies of the web have changed the way policy-makers operate, and their potential to do their job effectively.

Four ways policymaking is changing

I think that it’s important that politicians and policymakers understand that web-enabled innovations have only provided four new types of policymaking tools.

They need to understand the underlying political questions that these concepts pose, and they need to know what their working attitudes and ethical approaches are to them; They are

  • Open data and visualisation
  • Collaborative authoring
  • Gaming
  • Social media analytics

Using data to make problems easier to understand is hardly new. The opening slide at every presentation I’ve ever seen about open data has always been John Snow’s 1854 Cholera Map. Sure, new demands have been created. The wrangle around who owns the data and the demands for transparency are game-changers. But, in itself, it’s not a new concept.

I’d say something similar about collaborative authoring. ‘Compositing’ is hardly a new idea. Every political anorak must be excited that there is now free software to do this, and that it can be more efficient and inclusive. There’s no doubt that access to these tools has created new demands and opportunities. But it’s an incremental, rather than revolutionary change.

Gaming is a more nebulous question, of course, but we’ve always watched games to draw out useful conclusions – and role playing games are a well-tested management tool. As Albert Camus said on the t-shirt,

“All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football”

But the final issue – social media analytics – is the one that introduces something entirely new.

Of course, we’ve had opinion polling for a long time. Over the past few decades, focus groups have helped provide richer information from the public. But we have never had a firehose of human sentiment that we can analyse until now. Never before have we had the incentive to invest in tools that allow us to analyse the comments that millions of people volunteer every hour of the day.

It is already changing policymaking in profound ways. In some cases, investment companies regard the firehose as a more reliable authority than an expert in forecasting value-changes. Health authorities are able to predict epidemics. There are so many other applications of this information. I’m not going to spoil Nick’s talk for you now, but follow this link to get your ticket.


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Policymaking in the Cloud: Doing Things Differently

Cloud computing is a popular buzz word. It means that the data and applications we use can be hosted anywhere then distributed to us on any device, wherever we are, whenever we want them. It extends one of the most powerful practical applications of the internet, namely letting us do things on our own terms (in theory at least).

Policy doesn’t work this way. Policy is by-and-large a closed shop. If we examine the traditional policy cycle – still the prevalent model in the UK – we find that the only point of connection between government and the public is a narrow window of ‘consultation’. This usually happens towards the end of the process, once the ‘experts’ have made most of the decisions.

It’s not a greatly empowering experience for the public. Nor is it a surprise that trust in government has been consistently falling for more than forty years. The majority of Britons don’t have any interest in taking part in policy making and don’t believe that there is anything that they can do to influence policy.

The internet, social media and the cloud won’t of themselves change any of this. Governments have remarkably thick hides and have been remarkably resilient to pressure to democratise the policy process. Risk aversion and inherent conditioning means generations of policy makers don’t have the skills to effectively engage or the willingness to try.

Society though has changed. Society does engage, if not with government, with each other. Perhaps creating a nascent spring from the winter of neo-liberalism, social media allows individuals to coalesce with like-minded others around issues. Networks are viral, rapidly evolving and temporal. Weak ties mean that people build loose networks of association and through this trust is built across society. This trust is no longer vertical – targeted upwards at ‘authority’ – but horizontal, built upon the values and sense making of the crowd.

So what does this mean for policy making? I believe it has a number of serious and potentially positive implications but also some risks and costs associated with it. Ultimately, I believe that engaging in the cloud can lead to a democratic renewal, although this won’t be instant and much work is required to build levels of trust as well as political and information literacy skills.

The policy cycle can change. Engagement can now occur in different ways at different times, with different stakeholders. That’s hugely powerful. Open data and the third party agents who re-purpose it push information out and, instead of ‘broadcast and capture’, we shift to conversational models of engagement. Above all, social media means that policy makers have never been more able to listen. Sentiment analysis and qualitative thematic mapping of social networks and blogs makes it relatively easy to understand the public mood.

The engagement cycle becomes critically important here and as to adapt. It becomes vitally important to close the circle: Engagement starts with listening, moves on to conversation, responding by summarising what has been heard and then finally acting. Effective engagement is just as much about listening and reporting what happened as it is about asking for submissions and holding discussions. Philosophically, it’s about recognising the policy development must become a process of ‘doing with’, not ‘doing to’.

So far, I’ve talked about the cloud as if I mean it is simply a metaphor for being online, but it’s more than that. The cloud is a repository, toolbox and conduit but this can be combined with offline as well as online techniques. It’s also about aggregation and sharing – levelling the playing field. In the old model, governments controlled the engagement, in the new world, they don’t. We do. Or rather, we all do. Engagement doesn’t have to occur inside government fortresses (digital or otherwise), it can and should occur anywhere and everywhere that people with an interest congregate. The final benefit of the cloud is that it takes you beyond the firewall to where the real conversations happen.

This creates a challenge though as policy makers are not really trained in on-going, more intimate engagement models. It presents issues in terms of the volume of data and how this is to be analysed effectively. And remember, you can’t just consult and move on, the new model requires feedback loops too, so communication strategies need to be enhanced and refined. There’s a risk in all of this that engagement is boiled down to simple quantitative measures but this is problematic; engagement is a largely qualitative process. So as well as changing the inherent culture of engagement, governments need to re-train their staff and employ real engagement specialists.


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