The “Hackathon” As an Instrument in Policy Design – Canadian Government Executive

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November 10, 2016

The “Hackathon” As an Instrument in Policy Design

The Hack-cessibility brought together policy professionals, community leaders, policy experts, people facing accessibility issues and students. They were grouped in multidisciplinary groups of four to six people. The Hack was executed over the course of two weeks and four events. Throughout the Hack, teams refined, tested, and strengthened their ideas through a facilitated process.

There is already a surging literature on the application of design thinking (DT) to government services. Ressler and others have argued that DT pays dividends to many: to citizens, who benefit from more sharply focused programs and to elected governments as well, who may benefit from more satisfied voters. In many jurisdictions, the main institutional vehicle to bring in DT has been the creation of innovation labs, many of which have been described in this magazine by Patrice Dutil and Peter Jones. Still, the spread of DT across government is far from complete. As Diamond and Vredenburg recently put it, “Design thinking and design should be front and centre in Canada’s federal innovation agenda, both in the creation of policy and in its implementation.”

There are many ways to trigger DT. In this article, we present the application of a “hack” to address a policy question posed by the provincial government of Ontario. It was organized by the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship (BII+E), a new, independent and nonpartisan institute, housed within Ryerson University, that is dedicated to help make Canada the best country in the world in which to be an innovator or an entrepreneur. It supports this mission in three ways: (1) insightful research and analysis; (2) testing, piloting and prototyping projects; which informs BII+E’s leadership and (3) advocacy on behalf of innovation and entrepreneurship across the country.

In June 2015, the Ontario Public Service (OPS) approached the BII+E to explore how its abilities could be applied to policy challenges. A first step was the creation of the Policy Innovation Platform (PIP), a pilot initiative to assist policy professionals in generating innovative solutions to complex public policy problems. The OPS provided support via the secondment of a policy director and an agreement to provide challenge issues that would be tackled via the Platform. The PIP would be a neutral space for policy professionals to test new tools and methodologies for developing policy, including design thinking: using data analytics, rapid prototyping and crowdsourcing.

The first “challenge issue” presented to the Brookfield Institute and the PIP was this: how to improve the implementation of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA)? Although the AODA was legislated in 2005, a number of implementation challenges remained in its quest for to achieve a baseline of accessibility in Ontario by 2025. The issue was refined with the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario as “How can we accelerate the dialogue on accessibility with the goal of helping to shift attitudes and change behaviour?”

To answer this question, the PIP organized a Hack, taking the unique title of “Hack-cessibility.” “Hacking”—a term borrowed from the world of computer science to designate outsiders who would creatively to crack codes designed to protect institutions, typically with malicious intent.

In our case, the motivation was hardly malevolent, but it did retain the mission of “cracking” obstacles such as received attitudes, outdated processes and weak policy partnerships. The intention was to push participants not only to think about policy but to craft tools that could actually be used quickly to accelerate the dialogue, shift attitudes and change behaviour.

The Hack-cessibility brought together policy professionals, community leaders, policy experts, people facing accessibility issues and students. They were grouped in multidisciplinary groups of four to six people. The Hack was executed over the course of two weeks and four events (see Figure 1). Throughout the Hack, teams refined, tested, and strengthened their ideas through a facilitated process.

That process included a series of sequenced activities that were intended to guide participants through different stages of problem-solving inspired by human-centred design. These stages included problem definition, ideation, prototyping and testing, business model design, and pitches. For the challenge of shifting the dialogue on accessibility, it was crucial to centre the process on the perspective of user groups with lived experience of accessibility challenges. There was a need to lead the process design—and to scope useful and innovative solutions—without co-opting this lived experience or undermining existing work.

The process design was co-created by the evaluation users and an external consultant. It carried the objectives of (1) supporting facilitators in guiding teams through the design thinking phases; (2) setting participants up for success in designing and delivering potential responses to the challenge question; and (3) exposing participants to human-centred methods. The hack participants were guided through the process by  table facilitators and one head facilitator. Mentors from business, government, and community organizations made rounds to provide advice and support to participants as appropriate.

The centrepiece activity of the process design was empathy mapping, particularly in the context of an accessibility challenge in which the lived experience of the user was crucial. It focused problem solving efforts on a chosen user group to enable understanding of potential pain and gain points the user experiences. A second key activity was journey mapping, to understand the touch points of a specific user experience. This helped teams find potential areas for intervention and to identify opportunities to remove barriers or leverage opportunities.

The two-week process was intended for teams to refine, test, and develop their solutions. Over this period, two optional evening workshops were offered for participants to learn and apply prototyping techniques and business model canvases. The prototyping phase was designed for participants to “show, and not tell” their solution ideas, and create a tangible artifact to test with their intended users. The last portion, a business model canvas, offered participants a way to consider how to sustain and scale their ideas in the long term, and strengthen their pitches.

At the end of the two-week period, teams were allotted seven minutes each to pitch their solutions, with the winners receiving cash prizes of $5,000, $3,000, and $1,000 respectively. All participant teams were also extended the opportunity to further develop their solutions by joining an incubator within the Ryerson Zone Learning network.

The Hack Post-Mortem

The energy was intense and inspiring on pitch day, where nine teams competed (see: http://www.accesshack.ca/winners/). The three winners were: (1) abil, a program that helps schools to connect with public speakers, for students with disabilities to be better represented in their learning community, and for people living with disability to earn a secondary income; (2) Live Notes, a real-time note taking platform for students in post-secondary settings that delivers a human generated text format of the classroom dialogue on any wireless device; and (3) Clear Path Alert, a cloud platform that provides real-time updates on the status of built environments. It would report and receive updates on devices that provide a universally “Clear Path” of travel in public spaces, business establishments and other organizations. One participant stated in a follow-up interview, that the hack “…taught me more than I ever imagined about accessibility and has changed the way I see the world.”

picture1

In reflecting on the goal of using a hack to tackle a policy challenge, the results were mixed. Some participants thought that hacks could be used to build policy, where others were concerned and cautious as only one of the winners produced a solution that actually broached policy.

BII+E has since gone on to complete another hack in conjunction with the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change which tackled two core questions: What challenges do people face in making low carbon choices?” and “How might we empower people to instinctively reduce their carbon footprint?”

 

Kelly McShane is Associate Professor in Psychology at Ryerson University. Leanne Wilkins is a Research Associate in the Psychology Department. Andrew Do and Annalise Huynh work in the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship

Recommended Reading
Bellefontaine, T. (2012). Innovation Labs: Bridging think tanks and do tanks. Retrieved September 13, 2016 from http://www.horizons.gc.ca/sites/default/files/Publication-alt-format/2012-0115-eng_0.pdf
Diamond, S., & Vredenburg, S. (2016). There’s no innovation agenda without design thinking. Globe and Mail, August 6, 2016.
Dutil, P. (2015). Mindlab’s culture shift. Canadian Government Executive, December 2015, p. 8-9.
Ressler, S. (2013). 10 ways that design thinking can save government. Retrieved September 7, 2016 from http://www.govtech.com/policy-management/10-Waysthat-Design-Thinking-Can-Save-Government.html

 

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