Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

The Vestiges and Vanguards of Policy Design in a Digital Context

Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

The Vestiges and Vanguards of Policy Design in a Digital Context

Article excerpt

Introduction

The digital era--marked by the proliferation of digital technologies in all facets of society, from dating to shopping, personal health monitoring to political activism--alters the context of policymaking. Accordingly, policy designers--those engaged in "the deliberate and conscious attempt to define policy goals and connect them to instruments or tools expected to realize those objectives" (Howlett 2014)--increasingly find their work couched in a new vocabulary of "digital by default," "agile," "open," "innovation," "Government 2.0" and "government-as-a-platform" (O'Reilly 2011), which are weaved into public sector renewal agendas and political speeches across the globe. Designers' toolboxes have expanded to include a range of new digitally-enabled policy instruments, including open data, big data, crowdsourcing, social media, robotics and artificial intelligence. Altering the very context within which policy design is undertaken and the tools that are applied in that context, the digitization of everyday life presents opportunities, challenges and new expectations for policy designers operating in today's governments.

We argue those on the vanguard of digital era policy design (DEPD) should be aware of the contextual effects that have plagued "analog" (that is, pre digital era) design, and which may endure (or even intensify) in the face of new digital realities. There are clear risks, and early evidence that DEPD proves more heat than fire with rhetoric far outpacing its uptake (Clarke 2014; Clarke and Francoli 2017; Craft 2014). In this case, as society embraces the digital era and is transformed by it, governments may simply lag behind, blending forays into DEPD with an enduring commitment to analog policy design. And while many scholars presume that DEPD will foster a more collaborative, co-productive model of state-to-non-state cooperation, and with it, democratic renewal (see O'Reilly 2011; Noveck 2009, 2015; Margetts and Dunleavy 2013), the role of individual citizens and non-governmental organizations in social problem solving remains unclear in the digital age. We identify fruitful points of departure and sketch out a preliminary research agenda by which public administration students and practitioners can begin to identify, assess, and respond to these implications.

We begin by detailing the contours of DEPD, focusing specifically on the characteristics of the new policy instruments and related public sector renewal agendas through which its activities are being introduced. We argue that while DEPD consists of a varied and ever-evolving set of activities and instruments, it is characterized by four dominant traits: (1) prioritization of the tool of information; (2) heavy reliance on the actions of nonstate actors and resources; (3) iteration and short-term experimentation; and (4) segmentation of policy design to individuals and groups. We detail each of these characteristics below and then consider three key areas of policy design ripe for re-appraisal and ongoing monitoring as DEPD practices are integrated into government.

Characteristics of digital era policy design: an instruments perspective

DEPD is a moving target, comprised of a wide range of activities that evolve and expand as quickly as the technological offerings of tech firms, hackathons and basement-bound teenage coders emerge. We identify four core characteristics of DEPD, derived through an emphasis on the policy instruments the digital age makes possible. Policy instruments are the techniques or means through which states attempt to attain their goals and have long served as a lens for studying and undertaking policy design (Linder and Peters 1989).

In the digital era, governments are experimenting with several instruments for policymaking. For example, the ubiquitous place of web-based technologies in society--a trend fuelled by the growing uptake of mobile technologies and social media in particular--renders it possible for governments to access citizens anywhere, anytime. …

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