• The hype cycle shows how a technology develops from conception to adoption
  • How do new technologies arrive at the plateau of productivity? @dannybuerkli explains...
  • Asking about impact, rather than appearance, can help technologies progress faster

The hype cycle has quickly taken firm root in both the public and private sectors. Created by IT consultancy Gartner, it is a graphic that represents how a technology develops from conception to maturity to adoption.  As new technologies and ways of doing things come into the world it takes experimentation to fully grasp the potential (or lack thereof) of something new. And much like in the private sector, the hype cycle can be applied just as well within government.

New technologies start in the technology trigger phase, climb the peak of inflated expectations, fall into the trough of disillusionment, and traverse the slope of enlightenment before finally arriving at the plateau of productivity. Things go from new and shiny to mature, from hyperbolic to realistic expectations, from courageous first users to mainstream adoption.

New Public Management (NPM) was at one point the peak of inflated expectations, but is now firmly and, many would argue, productively embedded in the practices of many governments. Along the way governments have learned, sometimes painfully, how to make best use of NPM. With that in mind, and without being too serious about it, here are 10 hot topics in government innovation and their place in the hype cycle:

New hype cycle

 

1) Artificial Intelligence: out with the humans, in with the machines
Transitioning out of technology trigger phase, scaling peak of inflated expectations

If you’re a policymaker you should be very afraid. DeepMind has beaten the world’s best Go player, something all experts thought was at least another decade out, and governments are only beginning to grasp what might be possible using machine-learning and artificial intelligence (AI). When will you be replaced? Expectations are high, but will rise even more as governments start experimenting in earnest with this technology.

2) Blockchain: one distributed crypto ledger to rule them all
Peak of inflated expectations

Blockchain is the technology behind bitcoin. While worthwhile government applications for blockchain will surely emerge, it no doubt has been hyped. Few people seem to genuinely understand what the blockchain can and cannot do. Everyone is still trying to figure out where this really makes sense.

3) Design Thinking: post-it sized citizen-centred insights
Peak of inflated expectations

Originating in the world of product and service design, this method borrows heavily from ethnography and is particularly valuable to improving governmental services. Design is not likely to be the solution for all of our governmental problems, but you wouldn’t be able to tell if you only listened to some speakers at design conferences. It’s a solid method that delivers great results if used thoughtfully and, in the right context, we should stick with it through the disillusionment that’s coming.

4) Policy Labs: the creative science of better government
Just past the peak of inflated expectations, about to descend into trough of disillusionment

Policy Labs are the hottest property in government innovation land. They bring together design thinkers and other creative problem-solvers to tackle government’s hardest problems. Organisations such as MindLab, OPM Lab and the UK Policy Lab are leading the way. The trough of disillusionment will likely come as more governments adopt the model, but it’s worth sticking with it since they, if set up and run well, can make a difference.

5) Randomised Control Trials: randomise this!
Trough of disillusionment

Having originated in development economics many countries developing and developed alike are warming up to the idea that randomised studies of interventions can help them figure out what works and what doesn’t. After an initial hype practitioners and policymakers are getting better at understanding where and how this method can deliver most value.

6) Social Impact Bonds: pay for success only
Trough of disillusionment

Social Impact Bonds, SIBs for those in the know, were first trialled in Peterborough, UK, in an attempt to reduce prisoner recidivism by using an innovative financing mechanism where private investors would get a return if the new intervention performed better than a conventional one. After much initial, and justified, excitement it today seems clear that they should work in theory, but it’s less clear where they work in practice.

7) Open Data: spray and pray
Trough of disillusionment

To the casual observer it may not be immediately obvious if “open data” has produced much of practical value to citizens, other than better public transportation apps and free pizza at government-sponsored “hackathons”. Making government data openly accessible should improve accountability and allow smart outside actors to spot opportunities for improvement, but so far actual results have been below expectations.

8) Behavioural Insights: gently nudging citizens to better decisions
Slope of enlightenment

Behavioural science has given governments a new tool to not just better understand the sometimes puzzling decisions their citizen’s make but to find ways to gently nudge people towards better choices. The method is well on its way to mainstream adoption in some (Anglo Saxon) countries, but remains under-utilised in others.

9) E-Government: bringing government websites into the 21st century
Slope of enlightenment

Allowing citizens to conduct their interactions with government online is a somewhat boring but absolutely essential service to citizens. No one should be subjected to long, pointless queuing to pick up a piece of paper anymore. Building user-friendly government online services can also act as a gateway to a more digitally enabled government in other areas.

10) Lean in government: cut the slack the Toyota way
Plateau of productivity

As a structured way to cut waste in all kinds of processes “lean” has long established itself as a useful tool for government operations too, not just for car factories. While “lean” doesn’t generate any particular excitement anymore it’s become a productive tool to improve government services.

***

The movement of new ideas, methods and technologies through the hype cycle is inevitable, as we collectively take promising new approaches and figure out what exactly they can and cannot do. Asking about impact, rather than appearance, can help us get there faster and discern the useful from the hopeless a bit quicker. Some amount of experimentation where the end result is unknown is however inevitable and indeed desirable.

Not all countries, regions or cities are in the same place concurrently. Inflated expectations in one place can co-exist with utter disillusionment in others. All of these methods have a valuable contribution to make, and it is worth persevering through the trough of disillusionment if we want governments and citizens to reap the benefits.

FURTHER READING

  • Googling better government. After helping rescue healthcare.gov, Mikey Dickerson is now focusing on the US federal government’s wider deployment of digital technology. He takes time out to tell Danny Werfel why it’s no more business as usual
  • Taking tech to the citizens. Tired of politicians saying one thing and doing another once they are elected? MIT’s Emilie Reiser reports on a new data-driven approach to accountability and impact
  • Transforming technology, transforming government. Rare is the policymaker who doesn”t see digital as a doorway for strengthening public services. But as Miguel Carrasco explains, the pace of the digital evolution means there is always more to do
  • Power to the people. Few countries have embraced the digital era as successfully as New Zealand. We talk to one of its government”s key digital transformation leaders, Richard Foy, about how they”ve done it.
  • Computer says yes. Governments are increasingly reliant on digital technology to deliver public services and Australia”s myGov service is a potential game-changer, says Gary Sterrenberg
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