Policy labs, sociable governance and smart software

Ben Williamson

The announcement on 1st April 2014 that the UK Government Cabinet Office had launched ‘Policy Lab UK’ is indicative of an emerging shift in government thinking and activity. Its ambition is to put digital software and big data to work deep within the activities of government, particularly in the redesign of public services such as education, health, and social services. Although Policy Lab UK is currently little more than the Twitter handle @PolicyLabUK and a stream of tweets from new director @AndreaSiodmok, its Twitter description offers an ambitious signal of intent:

We’re bringing new policy techniques to the UK Government, helping design services around people’s experience, using data analytics and new digital tools.

Policy Lab UK aims to combine user experience and digital techniques in the redesign of public services and in the production of new modes of user-centred, sociable governance. So what are policy labs, and why and how are they aspiring to put software to work in contemporary public services?

Policy labs & smarter governance
While think tanks are a well known source of political influence, ‘policy labs’ are a more recent political invention. In the UK, for a few years now, Nesta (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) has had its own Public Innovations Lab which aims to mobilize ‘techniques such as co-production and digital platforms’ in public service redesign. In 2013, Nesta predicted that public and social policy in the future would emerge from new sites of governance that it imagined as ‘social science parks’ and the ‘public policy lab’ instead of from large central state bureaucracies. It defines a policy lab as ‘not so much a think tank but an experimental workshop that prototypes new forms of public service delivery.’ Policy labs, it claims, are the XEROX PARC of innovation in social and public policy, while social science parks are its Silicon Valley.

In the last few years policy labs have been emerging around the world, as a visualization of a global ‘constellation of government innovation labs’ clearly illustrates. Some are close to government, or even government-led; other are more independent but at least government-enabled. Many are centred on technology such as the Tech Policy Lab at the University of Washington. Others combine technological techniques with government services, such as the Public Policy Lab in New York and FutureGov in the UK. As the Public & Collaborative NYC programme states, policy labs build on current ‘societal and policy trends’ including growing public interest in collaboration and social engagement, and increasing public-sector interest in harnessing digital and design technologies to   public services:

Members of the public increasingly expect that their lives, and their services, will and should be both networked and personalized. This shift is driving a wave of social innovations, resulting in a new generation of services: collaborative services where end users become service co-producers.

One of the most well known and influential policy labs, MindLab in Denmark, was set up within the Danish government to mobilize techniques of experimentation, rapid prototyping, and design methods in public services.

Early in 2014 MindLab became an institutional member along with the Governance Lab (GovLab) in New York and Nesta on a major programme entitled Opening Governance funded by the MacArthur Foundation. The ambition of Opening Governance is:

built around agile and empirical experiments with institutional partners such as governments and NGOs. Experiments are designed to apply and test the latest advances in technology as well as new scientific insights on collaboration and decision-making to improve real world decision-making in the public interest.

Much of the programme is being developed through a network of ‘living labs’ that ‘model’ and ‘test’ new ways of governing. Its aspirations are described in terms of ‘smarter governance’ that mobilize ‘crowdsourcing,’ ‘open data’ and technology to ‘target’ opportunities for greater ‘public participation.’ The Opening Governance initiative demonstrates how policy labs are taking an increasingly significant role in the design of governance techniques and activities, locally, nationally and globally too.

Policy Lab UK is also clearly committed to making use of these various ‘smarter governance’ methods of design, experimentation, and data analytics within the work of government in the UK. Its new director, a former design entrepreneur, has previously produced materials promoting ‘people powered public services’ and ‘sociable services’ by combining a variety of design and technology-mediated methods of co-design, rapid prototyping, design ethnography, and citizen entrepreneurship. On Twitter, its director @AndreaSiomok has openly acknowledged the support of MindLab to the start-up of Policy Lab UK suggesting a flow of ideas among these policy labs. Policy labs are part of a shift to more ‘mobile’ forms of governance in which policy ideas are generated and mobilized by a more diverse range of governmental and non-governmental settings, and moved around and shared across geographical sites and cross-sectoral networks, much of it mediated through software technologies.

Smart software governance
In a paper written in February 2014 reviewing the emergence of various ‘labs’ around the world, Nesta chief executive Geoff Mulgan wrote that ‘social and public labs’ can be characterized by their distinctive methods. These include design methods, such as design ethnography, citizen input, rapid prototyping, and visualization; psychological and behavioural experimentations, such as those developed by the Behavioural Insights Team in the UK (known as the government’s ‘Nudge Unit’ it was spun out in January 2014 as a joint venture between Nesta and the Cabinet Office); and digital tools and data methods, such as data mining, data analytics, and predictive ‘machine learning’ methods.

In this latter category, the think tank Demos has recently established a Centre for the Analysis of Social Media (CASM) that uses techniques of ‘social media analytics’ and ‘social media science’ to produce ‘new political, social and policy insight and understanding.’ Demos has long described itself as a ‘do tank’ rather than a ‘think tank’ and was founded by Geoff Mulgan, and there has long been a flow of ideas and personnel between Nesta and Demos. CASM subscribes to the idea that the behaviour of citizens—conceived as a massive digital commons of ‘big data’—can be mined, analyzed and predicted through data in order to make it possible to develop new policy ideas or governing solutions. The research director of CASM makes it clear that ‘big data’ generated through citizens’ use of social media is now becoming the target for policy:

To cope with the new kinds of data that exist, we need to use new big data techniques that can cope with them: computer systems to marshal the deluges of data, algorithms to shape and mould the data as we want and ways of visualising the data to turn complexity into sense.

CASM utilises ‘taught algorithms’ to understand citizens’ behaviour and attitudes, and then to use that data to ‘predict how they act’ in the future. In the work of CASM, as well as likeminded policy labs, data analytics and data visualization are becoming governmentalized. Sophisticated algorithmic processes and database driven software are moving from the commercial domain into the activities of governance.

These ideas criss-cross social and technical, as well as political and behavioural boundaries. They make individual behaviour the target of political understanding, a task to be undertaken and mediated through massive data sets, machine learning techniques and taught algorithms. The vision offered by CASM and Policy Lab UK, as well as by other policy labs, is highly consistent with the version of ‘digital governance’ recently anatomized by the political scientists Helen Margetts and Patrick Dunleavy, which puts ‘human-computer interaction’ at the centre of government. Digital governance, they argue, embeds ‘electronic delivery at the heart of the government business model,’ and includes activities such as ‘digitizing interactions with citizens’ and ‘new forms of automation using ‘zero-touch technologies’ that do not require human intervention.’ Smart and sociable governance makes software into a key mediator between those authorities that govern and those who are governed.

Data analytics, taught algorithms, and other ‘big data’-related methods of ‘social media science’ are increasingly being promoted and prototyped by emerging policy labs, in tandem with other agile methods of design and methods to elicit people’s experiences. These organizations and their methods make software and algorithms into significant actors in how government seeks to understand and know citizens and public service users, and are combining in the production of ideals such as ‘smarter governance,’ ‘sociable services,’ or what I’ve elsewhere termed ‘knowing public services and algorithmic governance.’ The question for researchers of these developments is how the software being mobilized in sociable governance has been produced, how it is instructed and executed by its code, how algorithms are mobilized to process people’s data, and how it might augment or even automate the activities of government.

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