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The Glory of Failure

Perhaps one of the most oft-cited, although poorly researched, cultural challenges facing the UK is the population’s alleged fear of failure. In the 2006 UK Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Report, 36% of respondents indicated that the fear of failure would prevent them from starting a business, versus 21% in the US. This is bolstered by anecdotal evidence, characterised in speeches by prominent politicians, entrepreneurs and educators, which all seem to paint a picture of the UK as a nation of the risk-averse.

However, a healthy attitude towards failure and uncertainty is considered vital to an individual’s capacity to create, innovate and strive for achievement. In the US, many venture capitalists actively seek demonstrations of past failure in their prospective entrepreneurs. Penn State University even has a course for engineering students called Failure 101, encouraging experimentation and radical creativity. Without an appetite for these — and the capacity to absorb the occasional failure that inevitably accompanies trying something new — we deny ourselves the joy of discovery and the resulting benefits for society and ourselves.

The Glory of Failure project, which I started as part of the RSA networks project, aims to turn the conventional notion of failure on its head, with tongue planted firmly in cheek. It seeks to explore the benefits of failure — personal growth, introspection, knowledge, etc. –in a witty and engaging fashion, in order to promote a healthy sense of ambition, creativity and innovative spirit. The core element of the programme will be a multi-media campaign and some of the ideas floated so far include the following: Big Confessions, a book and film highlighting the positive failures of celebrities and other individuals; A Big Social Failure, a collaborative website that will provide a virtual channel for individuals to contribute stories and learn from the failures of others; and A Week of Failure, community-based events encouraging experimentation and creativity, perhaps run in conjunction with Enterprise Week.

Ideally, these will be bolstered by a programme targeted at organisations to promote an environment tolerant of failure and uncertainty as expected by-products of innovation. These could include tools or methodologies for more innovation-friendly risk assessments, project postmortems, performance development regimes, and organisational structures and processes. These will be based on the best thinking on innovation in organisations, and case studies from respected leaders and institutions on how they incorporate a healthy tolerance of failure into their ethic.

Pulling this off will require skills and involvement from sectors and disciplines such as sociologists, media professionals and policymakers. The RSA, with its diverse Fellowship, reputable brand and willingness to tackle challenging subjects vital to the UK’s social and economic success, is ideally positioned to address this national bugbear.

Changing broad cultural attitudes is extremely challenging, but it is not impossible. It requires capturing the imagination and attention of the public, particularly young people and those who influence them, through channels and messages of their own devising. That is what the Glory of Failure aims to accomplish.

This is a cross-posting with an article published in the RSA Journal.

Rewired State – great name, great event

This past Saturday, thanks to the spectacular vision and efforts of Emma Mulqueeny, James Darling, and Richard Pope, some 100 coders and geeks gathered at the Channel 4 offices for National Hack the Government Day. As per the Rewired State press release:

Rewired State is a free invite-only event to demonstrate the creative use of public data by great technical minds.

100 developers, designers, hackers and geeks, with support from a few government officials will evaluate government data to see how they could best use this information.

We expect the output of the day to expose better processes, application and ways of working for better use of public data as well as to expose government officials to the concept of allowing great creative minds to play with the data to provide interesting and creative solutions.

At 6 PM, the doors were opened to the non-technorati (including me), who had the pleasure of seeing presentations by the myriad teams who worked throughout the day. A few of my observations from the evening:

  1. I can’t believe that I used to call myself a computer programmer. Although I may have a CS degree, and have spent my life in and around the technology sector, it is clear that the world of code has moved far past me. What has not appeared to change is the general coder ethic. Think about it: 100 men and women (many more men than women, it must be said, must of whom were likely born in the late 80s) gathered on a Saturday to coop themselves up in an office, and just play with code. Just for the hell of it. Just to see what they could do. I love that. I love it in the same way that I once was likely to get together with friends on a Saturday and play with code, just for the hell of it. (Another constant: pizza still seems to be a primary fuel, although the drinks have changed a bit. No Jolt cola.)
  2. The UK is more than capable to create some spectacular software companies. Admittedly, this has more to do with my innovation policy interests than my govt 2.0 interests, but it was amazing to see what UK ingenuity could achieve in such a short amount of time.
  3. Intellectual Property is clearly a non-trivial, and in my opinion completely unnecessary, issue in exploiting government data. Many of the projects acknowledged with a wink-and-a-nod that full roll-out would run into IP issues. Even with OPSI’s click-use license, getting access to and making use of government data (regardless of social or commericial objectives) must be made easier. I applaud the Guardian’s continuing advancement of this issue, and hope to lend my voice to this information revolution.
  4. As spectacular as the results were, I couldn’t help but wonder what could be achieved if we combined the programming talent in that room with some policy wonks that know where the issues are. In other words, put the developers together with their “customers”. On this point, Harry at the Dextrous Web and I had a bit of Twitter back and forth, and he made the excellent point that: “This kind of stuff is for fun. If we’d done other ppl’s ideas it just would’ve been another day@work. Nothx!” My response: “I’m not saying to work on other people’s ideas, but rather *find inspiration* in other people’s *needs*.”

My suggestion to the Rewired State team, then, is not necessarily to change the model, but to consider augmenting the teams with other, equally passionate people, who could bring some context to the table. Social Innovation Camp provides an interesting example of such an approach. I believe that the technical folk that attended SI Camp appreciated having the “customer needs” in the room, and vice versa.

To Harry’s point, doing similarly with Rewired State would likely require a bit of additional coaxing to ensure that the geeks still felt that this was their day and made it out with the same level of energy and curiosity. However, given the level of interest for this year’s event, I don’t believe this would be at all beyond the team. An equal challenge would be to get the right government folks to the table, with open minds and a willingness to take a back seat for much of the action. But again, not insurmountable. And anyway, what would a Hack the Government Day be without a good challenge?

Congrats again to the Rewired State team, the coders who devoted their time to the cause, and the various sponsors that made it possible.

To have a glance at the various projects resulting from the day, check out the Rewired State projects page.

Case Studies on Innovation through a Recession

Perhaps the only thing these days as common as comments of woe and catastrophe, are comments on how the recession is an ideal time for investment and innovation. Numerous organisations, including my old employer NESTA, have released reports on innovating through the recession.

We have recently been asked to put together a set of case studies on companies which have survived and thrived through a depression or recession. In particular, our client is interested in cases in which a company has emerged from a recession a stronger organisation due to some form of innovation (writ large).

We’re looking to write ten of these case studies, and I’d welcome any suggestions or thoughts from those of you Out There. These are the time periods and themes we’ve thought of thus far:

Time periods for consideration:

  • C19 Recession
  • 1930s Depression
  • 1970s US recession
  • 1990s UK recession
  • 1990s Japanese recession
  • 2000s Post .com recession

Business model innovation themes for consideration:

  • Moving into new markets
  • Switching from product to services provider
  • Customer experience strategy
  • Disintermediation / Partnering / Leveraging across value chain
  • New staffing models / wage cuts / organisational model / innovative staff relationship
  • Ownership structure
  • Industry consolidation
  • Investment in R&D

Any other ideas on these (and demonstrable case studies) would be greatly appreciated. Thoughts?

Online Engagement Musings: Part I

This past weekend’s UK GovWeb BarCamp was a huge success, and it was an honour to be one of the supporters. While I could wax lyrical about the diversity of conversations and the general sense of empowerment conveyed through the day, I’d like to focus on the one topic which has been consuming my mind both prior to, and since, the big event:

Evolving from “consultation” to “engagement”

As luck would have it, it was the first session of the day to which I was most excited, proved to be the most meaningful for me. Roughly titled “Online Engagement and Consultation”, it was ostensibly chaired by Steph Gray of DIUS and Paul Johnston of Cisco/Connected Republic.

Steph gave an excellent, brief overview of the challenges of online consultation, and provided a few examples of how DIUS has experimented in this space of late. This approach echoed Paul’s blog post prior to the event, in which he suggested what I might call a “scenario” approach — i.e. looking at the different phases or scenarios of consultation/engagement, and considering these individually.

It occurred to me following the discussion, that there are essentially two dimensions by which we might consider online engagement: the stage of engagement, and the type of engagement.

The stages of engagement

There are a number of ways to describe or outline the policy lifecycle. The Home Office has their own “Policy Wheel” with five key stages, if I recall. A popular model in the US is the “Eight-Fold Path“, created by Prof. Gene Bardach. In general, though, the policy process can be abstracted out to the following (Prof. Bardach, please forgive me):

  1. Define issue and outcomes
  2. Understand system
  3. Identify alternatives
  4. Analyse alternatives
  5. Deliver
  6. Evaluate

I’ve long argued that although “consultation” tends to take place at only point of this process (usually 4. Analyse), true engagement can and should occur throughout the policy lifecycle. However, doing this is not only difficult in and of itself, but frequently forces the stakeholder to think in terms of the language of the policy-maker. If we instead think of this in plain english, we can envision the following ‘phases’ of public engagement (which may or may not happen in a linear manner):

  • Identifying the issues – identifying problems or potential areas for policy intervention
  • Identifying the outcomes – describing the vision or objective, or rather, what is trying to be achieved
  • Providing context – contributing detailed information on the current issue, environment, stakeholders, and forces
  • Identifying policy ideas for addressing issues – suggesting potential policy interventions, perhaps based upon examples seen elsewhere
  • Generating evidence or feedback – contributing specific perspectives, observations, or data related to proposed or existing policies
  • Participating in the delivery of a policy – Contributing resources to the actual delivery of a policy intervention

A range of ways to participate

For each of the above, one can envision different degrees of input, ranging from low-effort to high-effort. Consider this my twist on classic “ladder of citizen participation“:

  1. Vote – Providing a yes/no or Likert-scale response to a posed statement.
  2. Multi-dimensional vote – A more nuanced version of a vote. This could include allocating some set of units or £s across a set of alternatives, to embed some notion of resource constraints. It could also include evaluating options against different criteria (impact, resources required, time limitations, etc.)
  3. Comment – Providing a short item of input, usually in response to something posed. This could be a perspective, a rebuttal, or a piece of evidence.
  4. Idea – Providing a unique or standalone item of input. This could be a suggestion for an issue, a policy proposal, or an independent observation which might be used as context for other deliberation.
  5. Deliberation – Providing detailed input or content to an item or discussion (e.g. fleshing out a wiki outline).
  6. Execution – Participating in the actual delivery of a policy intervention.

In subsequent posts, I will try to analyse the challenges to online engagement, and to aggregate and evaluate some of the tools being applied along these two dimensions (stage of engagement, and type of engagement). Finally, I will try to marry all of this up describing polyWonk’s own development of a platform for online policy collaboration/consultation/engagement/involvement/participation.

Building an OpenGov Index

Houdini was once quoted as saying that it is easier to break out of a safe than it is to break in to one. Well, how difficult is it to break out of our government? Earlier this week, Steph Gray over at DIUS released the results of a little skunkworks project he ran to answer this question. As he describes in his original post, his objective was to:

We have the Civil Service guidance on participation online, and yet in organisations across the UK, public servants and others are being prevented from engaging online at work thanks to restrictions placed on their internet access by their IT providers. Some of these are well-intentioned: designed to prevent malicious attacks through unguarded use of attachments to webmail messages. Some are questionable, but understandable, like blocking access to webmail to prevent leaking of sensitive material. But often, they’re just bloody-minded and a symptom of a lack of understanding that social networks, wikis and online video are increasingly important tools that people need to access from work in order to their jobs properly.

To address this problem, Steph created his social media suite, a compendium of tests, and released them through his network to test. (I believe a nod also goes to Mark O’Neill at DCMS who may have started the bandwagon).

As an entrepreneur developing a hosted platform (i.e. external to government), these results clearly cause me some concern, as it means that it is entirely likely that a number of central government departments will not be able to use our software, irregardless of what demand might exist from inside policy departments, without our first negotiating some serious bureaucratic hurdles. But, to be honest, we already knew that. It is why our particular model is predicated on uptake from the outside in: from all the myriad local authorities, politicians, advocacy groups, representative bodies, etc. that form the hidden bulk of the public/third sector and who likely have a bit more freedom of motion.

But enough of my whingeing; Bravo to Mr. Gray

But actually, I didn’t want to write this post to criticise. Quite the opposite. I’d like to publicly congratulate Steph on this project (one of many from the lesteph/mlyons/DIUS skunkworks, I might add). Steph saw a need, had a good idea, and rolled up his sleeves to make it happen. It was clever, rapidly executed, and generated some important insights. It is why, during my foray into the public sector over the past several years, I have grown such respect for the civil service and its potential. Steph, like many other civil servants, could easily take his talents elsewhere – but he chooses instead to apply them to the betterment of his nation. Bravo.

Extending the idea: Building an OpenGov Index

It is also why I am moderately embarrassed to build on his great idea with my own, far less clever, suggestion: creating an OpenGov Index. Yes, yes, I know that this is an “old school” approach. But just as contemporary Govt 2.0 wisdom is to engage in those places where your constituents reside, we the OpenGov community must apply the same reasoning to our own target market – the Govt. Politicians love indices. So does the press. They make for good, quick press releases and articles.

So how about we apply this logic to shine a light on those departments which are actively trying to embrace the new world of collaboration and engagement, and perhaps shame those that couldn’t care less. The OpenGov Index could use Steph’s statiscs as part of an “Inside-Out” component of the index. These would be augmented with some “Outside-In” measures, such as a department’s use of blogs, wikis, twitter, etc. in communicating – and engaging – its constituents. I imagine it should also include an analysis of offline approaches, as well. Extra points should be given to particularly bold experiments, or rapid adoption (or creation) of new tools.

Given yesterday’s launch of the Digital Britain interim report, it strikes me that yet another star has come into alignment, all generating more pressure for an OpenGov. Steph and his colleagues have long been champions of this notion, and I applaud them for yet another exceptional contribution.

Bringing Citizen Participation to the Heart of the Administration

Over the past several weeks (and months, really) much has been made of the Obama campaign’s impressive application of the internet and Web 2.0 to connect with, raise funds from, and mobilise his supporters.

I have long applauded those activities, particularly the degree with which such efforts enabled supporters to feel part of the movement. However, I’ve also said that mobilisation is only one step of the engagement process. Despite the popularity of, it did not provide much of a mechanism for supporters and other interested parties to actively participate in the development of the his policy agenda. Activities like the Briefing Book aside (which was a great experiment, I must admit), my understanding is that his policies were generated in the old-fashioned way: by a coterie of policy advisors, think-tanks, and external experts.

Which is why I have been immensely pleased at the imminent inclusion of a Director of Citizen Participation directly within the White House. I had heard through the grapevine that such a post was being created, but saw that it was announced yesterday that Google executive Katie Jacobs Stanton is taking this appointment.

This announcement excites me for two reasons. The first, and perhaps most importantly, is that it is placing Participation with a capital “P” at the heart of the administration’s activity. As I have argued in the past, Web 2.0 at its heart is about a set of principles, not technology; principles of collaboration, and user-generated content. It is the notion that expertise, experience, and creativity are all around us, and that the more our governments embrace and engage broad participation, the better our policies will be. And the better our outcomes will be. And the stronger our democracy will be.

My sense in the past is that the resistance of government to Web 2.0 tools hasn’t been so much resistance to technology, but resistance to these principles. Broad participation is, quite simply, antithetical to bureaucratic operations. This isn’t because government is nasty and doesn’t want to involve people, but simply because the way government operates does not easily make allowance for it. The power structures, the hierarchies, the general risk intolerance, the workload, the limited resources, the need for accountability — all of these make it hard to simply open the floodgates to really broad engagement.

And this is what excites me so much about Ms. Stanton’s appointment. Because it means that — all fancy technologies aside — that the Obama administration is well and truly committed to the principles. By placing Ms. Stanton’s close to the seat of power, and with the voice of our new leader clearing her path, that the US central government writ large is better positioned than ever to chip away at the bureaucratic obstacles and infrastructure which hamper meaningful participation and engagement. Because if we can get the government to truly adopt a participative and collaborative culture, then the rest, including technology, will just fall into place.

Which brings me to the second reason that I’m excited for Ms. Stanton’s appointment: because she comes from Google – the heart of the tech landscape, and an innovative, private sector juggernaut to boot. It means that technology can’t help but be a part of her Participation Agenda. And all of my ramblings above aside, I am a geek at heart. I would so love OpenGov technology (such as polyWonk!) to be one of the primary mechanisms to help transform my government, the way policy is made, and the way the people are included at its heart. Because as many have said before me, that is the true meaning of democracy.

P.S. Thanks much to Emma Mulqueeny for prodding me yesterday to get these thoughts finally down onto paper.