Tuesday 17 January 2012

Standing on the shoulders of failure.

“so what policy ideas have you got, what’s your big idea?”

I started working on the Entrepreneurship Charter for Cambridge (a joint project between me and my local MP) in mid 2010.  I had just been introducing myself to the people in the shared MPs offices and was asked this question. I think it’s a very dangerous question to have an answer to, and here’s why.

My first experience of innovation policy was when I worked for the communications regulator Ofcom. One of my jobs was to try to resolve the following problem:

If someone wants to develop a new innovative use of spectrum they apply for a testing and development license. When they want to expand and deploy a prototype, so long as they don’t charge, that’s still a testing and development license. When they want to deploy a commercial service, they have to purchase spectrum. Someone, almost certainly, would have been granted this spectrum already, and they have no obligation the sell or share it. The inventor has invested resources for that spectrum in particular and has no mechanism to access it on a commercial basis. The innovation is suffocated, investment squandered.

What was my big idea for solving this problem? I went round and talked to all the people in the area about the problem, did some internal searches on our archives and looked at what other countries were doing. What I discovered made my job a lot easier.

This had been ‘solved’ by at least two people before me in the last 5 years – in Ofcom! They put together slides, flow charts and some supporting documents. That wasn’t it though, the first instance of this problem, and a solution was “the wireless telegraphy act” – 1904, which someone found for me when they heard that I was looking into how old the problem was. Handy stuff.

The other question that I asked was; is there really something going wrong? Is this a problem that it is easy to say it exists? Anyone will argue for a helping hand from government, and it is easy to argue that an existing system hampers innovation (something I’ll get onto in a later post). Is there something really there?  In this case, interestingly, there was no data, just anecdotes.

With “the plural of anecdote is not data” ringing in my mind, all that I had to do was collect the past solutions and look at why they failed. I know they failed in some way because if they had succeeded completely I wouldn’t have been asked to look at solving the problem! Then just re-design them in a way that would not fail for the reasons already discovered, and add a step to the process to collect data (so that the scale of the issue could be assessed in the future).

The first thing you get told when starting academic research, is that the problem you’re investigating is not new. There isn’t “no existing work” in the field, that phrase is you not doing your job properly. If you do identify a gap, you have to justify it with evidence – and lots of it. I love applying this to policy.

Except in policy it’s easier! The number of people you can talk to for ideas is so much bigger than in academia. So many problems have been solved before in many different ways (inside and outside any given country). So many people experience them. So many people have vested interests in solving them (real and imaginary ones).

For the entrepreneurship charter this made the job very simple: We would just go and talk to people and find out what their problems were, and what improvements could be made to existing policies. Then we would draw up an overall framework into which we could classify them, create a rejection criteria (why we would include some ideas and not others) and do some further analysis on the costs and implementation – usually tweaking existing schemes.

So… What was my answer to “what policy ideas have you got, what’s your big idea?”. It was that I didn’t have any, just that I hoped that I had the ability and resources to find and evaluate some. As it turned out, we got some fairly good ways of evaluating potential policies from the people we talked to!

It is all too easy to presume that a problem is new, or that because no solution is currently present that a solution has not been found in some form – or that it is indeed a problem. This is almost always never the case, and the great thing is, it makes the job of solving it much easier.

My next post will be about a problem that has been around for a while (and has been solved in the UK before) – the small business funding gap, AKA the Macmillan gap circa 1931.

I will leave you with another ongoing problem: The problem of the youth of today:

What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?” Plato, 4th century BC

Addendum: I was once accused of writing a policy document that was “… just Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown all over again” I know it was meant as a criticism, but I find it genuinely difficult to see it as such.