Practicing Data-Driven Policy: Where to start?

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As a lifelong policy wonk, I’ve been increasingly fascinated over the last four years with the trend to data-driven policy development models. I’ve invested considerable time investigating the potential for data-driven policy in Alberta, but in many ways I feel no further ahead than when I started – as least as far as uptake of new practices goes.

I’m convinced of the value of data and analytics for policy development, government decision-making, and operational performance. And, I’m well aware of loosely related policies and strategies that move toward open and digital forms of government.

But, it’s been nearly impossible to gain a toehold in bridging from what makes sense in theory to anything resembling application. Not only is there a dearth of tangible examples of data-driven government in Alberta (notwithstanding the City of Edmonton’s pioneering work); there appears to be a complete lack of information or tools to facilitate uptake or early adoption of data-driven practice.

If you’re a policy or public sector professional wondering, “how can data help me?” there are thousands of articles and conferences out there to properly school you. But, if you’re someone thinking “Great! Now how do I develop the skills, tools and partnerships to use data in my work?” – you’ll quickly find yourself out of luck.

Part of me wonders whether I just haven’t looked hard enough, long enough, or in the right places to find what I’m looking for. Maybe this is all unfolding behind the curtain, and we’ll wake up one Monday morning to discover a dramatically different working environment for policy professionals – one in which data is available, linked, and comprehensible.

If this isn’t the case, and there is a genuine lack of action underway to harness the potential of data in government, this gap needs to be addressed – and quickly.

Over the coming months, I hope to document my exploration of data-driven policy: my efforts to better understand it, to practice it, and to support – even champion – the growth of the practice. I’ll post my findings and frustrations here, and as always welcome discussion and suggestions.

Is Justin Trudeau Canada’s modern CEO?

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The role of corporate leaders is changing rapidly. Especially in complex contexts, in which success is based on many factors outside the control of managers, CEOs are less accountable to boards for traditional command and control-based performance metrics, and are increasingly accountable for creating platforms upon which collaboration, co-creation, and innovation can emerge through employee self-organization.

In the lead up to the May 5 provincial election in Alberta, the Edmonton Journal published an editorial titled “In this election, we are picking a CEO for the province.” Rabble asked, “Is Jim Prentice Alberta’s Premier or its CEO?,” while Metro referred to “Jim Prentice: Alberta’s CEO Premier.”

If political leaders can be viewed as CEOs, an interesting shift is taking place by which the electorate is decisively rejecting the old-style management of the past in favour of leadership for the modern era – and not just in Alberta.

The amount of time Justin Trudeau spends weaving a national narrative on what it means to be Canadian, and generally inspiring hope in the masses, in contrast to Stephen Harper’s focus on institutions, budgets, and legislation, is case and point.

Are our political leaders modern CEOs of state, responsible for creating the platforms through which citizens collaborate, co-create, and innovate to build, and re-build, a nation; or old-school managers, responsible for quarterly reports and institutional efficiency within a set policy framework?

Show me the data

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Data is the new big thing in policy development. This seems a little odd to say since, in leading jurisdictions, data-driven policy and program development has been around for well over a decade. But in many ways it is new, and it’s far from wide-spread, in Alberta.

In the past conventional wisdom, such as the views of practitioners and stakeholders, documented thought leadership, and leading practices from other jurisdictions, was the primary source of guidance regarding future policy options. A major criticism of this approach is its focus on what has worked in the past instead of what is likely to happen in the future.

Data-driven policy relies on facts and predictive modeling rather than conventional wisdom to inform policy and program design, leading to user-customized interactions between citizens and government; and massively better results through prevention, early intervention, and targeted responses. An often-cited example is the use of data to predict where crime is likely to occur, guiding deployment of police resources to “hot spots” to prevent crime before it happens.

With increasing availability and quality of data, the opportunity for disruptive innovation in policy development exists across the board – in all spheres, at all levels. As policy capacity contributes to grow in Alberta’s public service, there is need to also establish the data and operational infrastructure to move rapidly toward new and more effective methods of policy development. The potential benefits are boundless.

Introducing Adapt MC

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When I founded Steeves Advisory Inc. in the spring of 2012, my plan was simple: find a way to do meaningful work, with the flexibility to do it from home (ideally gainfully) while my son is little. Six months later, I had a big problem: too much work, not enough time – the balance of family and professional life that I had cherished was suddenly at risk.

We brought on talented employees and contractors to meet the demand, and at around this time, I was introduced to Chris Hartman, who collaborated with me on many of Steeves Advisory’s most important projects.

Over the last few years Chris provided far more than just another pair of hands. He proved a fantastic addition to the analytical and organizational acumen that our clients sought. We quickly concluded there was much greater value to what we could deliver together then apart. For us, the next step was a no-brainer.

I’m incredibly thrilled to announce that Chris and I are launching a new firm this spring: Adapt MC.

Adapt embodies our passion for tackling confounding problems, as well as our commitment to growth, development and customized solutions. Anyone can deliver a process that has been tried a hundred times before, but the challenges that we face today are rarely predictable or repeatable.

Adaptability is the core of our vision of what consulting looks like when done exceptionally well: thoughtful, strategic and responsive in light of every unique situation. This takes creative energy as well as a deep understanding of the challenges that our clients face, and the strategies that have already been tried. We see Adapt as a nexus for a new generation of management consultants in Edmonton to work hand in hand with our mentors, clients, thought leaders, and community.

As an MC practice that focuses primarily on public sector clients and projects, we launch Adapt with a full recognition of the current provincial budget crunch; and the new rules governing procurement of consulting services in Alberta. In this context, we are committed to nurturing innovation within our industry to ensure that our services, and our business model, respond to the financial and operational imperatives of a sector facing incredibly tough choices.

When the public sector is pressured to do more with less, the need for innovation and real value are even greater. We are confident that there has never been a more important moment to do the hard work of building something that lasts – not as an outsider but as an ally committed to learning in the face of problems that evolve over time.

Our role as advisors is to support clients in taking manageable, meaningful steps toward a long-term, transformative vision, in the midst of complexity and even adversity. To understand what makes a problem hard, and how to make a plan and adjust it as conditions, people and pressures change.

Our mandate is clear: adapt. Adapt to help our clients deal with the shifting and challenging environments in which they work. Adapt to build strength in our clients’ organizations to weather whatever comes next.