I should be writing my research methods chapter at the moment but to be honest I am finding that a combination of dull and demoralising so am just quickly putting this together instead. I am trying to resist the urge to write about the policy making cycle as part of my thesis because I really need to focus at this point and my focus is around that formal / informal transition that turns civic activity into democratic participation. However – there is clearly a huge need for reform around the policy making process – mainly with respect to transparency and speed. That post on transparency is still on the todo list so this is more a post about speed and process.

This is not a fully formed thought but the similarity between the evolution in software development methodologies and the needs of government keep occurring to me. After all – software developers have been adjusting to the pressures of the network society for some time now so they may well have something to teach us. But firstly – unusually – a picture:

Look familiar? This is the waterfall model of development (thanks to Conrad Huang for the picture) See how we have a nice tidy progress from the requirements to the delivery – with no change of context on the way? No new information is allowed to intrude on the sanitised process of development. This is how I think of our current policy process – though of course we don’t actually use it like that as we give it little political nudges enroute as per my last post. Look instead at this agile model of development:

Thanks to Neil Perkin for this one The thing that strikes me is that the idea of iteration is central to the Agile model (as is the idea of continuous testing and constant progress against a larger goal) and this is where it differs so much from the waterfall model. Instead of assuming that we can write the omnipotent specification document Agile (and associated methodologies such as RAD for example) assume that there is some kind of learning during the building process and that we can adjust to accommodate this without some kind of weighty change control process – we build the idea of change and learning into the process. There are many reasons why software developers have adopted this kind of approach but the main one is that the speed of web development means that its quicker to try things out and see what happens rather that fully describe them first. This may not be what we want from the people who are building roads and hospitals but as digital simulation technology improves it will become easier and easier to model policy before implementing it and the network society means that we can get more and more detailed reactions from the public before committing.

One of the byproducts of this kind of approach is also a shift in the attitude to failure as it becomes a learning enroute to our destination rather than an insurmountable problem. Isn’t this what we need to do with political decision making? Build a little more humility in and ask people as we go along? The risk here is that of never delivering anything as we constantly creep the mission – and its a mistake to think of Agile as a less disciplined approach than the command and control style of the waterfall approach.

If we were to translate this to government then we would need far better decision support tools and also a more transparent discussion as to our destination – our shared vision. There are some really strong parallels between the pressures that have moved software development from an engineering / waterfall type model to a RAD or Agile method that could be used to discuss the changes need to the policy forming process to both involve citizens more directly and also to speed up the process. One big barrier to this is the get popular acceptance for the idea of a non-perfect policy enroute to a good one – ie that mistakes can happen – but as people grow up with a digital footprint of youth indiscretions we will have to get more tolerant of ‘mistakes’ on public life generally.

Anyway – this is a rather wide ranging and undisciplined post – but its really a marker for a larger piece of work that needs to wait for the thesis to be a little bit more formed. Oddly it does also relate to the reading I am doing at the moment on action research methods so perhaps I will try and join this up as well.

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