Engineering her way to better policy outcomes


September 6, 2017

“I’m an engineer by training, but I’m one of those folks who has slowly morphed into other fields,” says Alexandra Conliffe. She’s too modest. Conliffe is not only an engineer but also a social scientist, who has clocked up much experience in both policy and operations. No wonder she was snapped up by Canada’s Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship (BII+E) to run its Policy Innovation Platform.

BII+E, much like the UK’s Nesta or the Kauffman Foundation in the US, leads the charge for innovation and entrepreneurship across Canada, helping move policy-focused academic research onto the national stage. It’s an ideal home, then, for Conliffe, who is enjoying applying her engineering mindset to the world of policy innovation.

“My engineering background potentially gives me a couple of things,” she says. “One is the problem-solving aspect to engineering, which has stood me in good stead. There is a mindset which engineers develop that can be really powerful when brought into multi-disciplinary groups. I don’t want to oversell it and say it is the only problem-solving approach that works – it has limitations like all others – but it is pragmatic and, when paired with people of other backgrounds, can help address tough, systemic problems.”

Introducing the Policy Innovation Platform

The Policy Innovation Platform was introduced by BII+E as a pilot initiative designed to assist public policymakers in generating innovative solutions to the challenges in today’s society.

And Conliffe is no stranger to such policymaking – among her former roles is a three-year stint as a senior policy analyst at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, where she worked on issues such as food security and climate change. She then joined Engineers without Borders, which she says “was really a movement of tens of thousands of people and the notion that great ideas can come from anywhere”, and she is keen to use her experiences and expertise from both organisations in her current role.

“I think that the role of the public servant is changing, as is the ecosystem around a public service,” she says. “Great ideas exist in unexpected places, as long we have the methods, the tools, and the culture to enable that,” she says. “The Policy Innovation Platform is about bringing different people and different learnings together to really tackle the hardest issues that demand new approaches. The role of public service is more important than ever, but it also needs to evolve – and our hope is that, as a neutral third party, we can help move the dial.”

They plan to do so in a variety of ways – stand by for a raft of announcements later this year – but Conliffe and her team are full steam ahead, having already solidified partnerships with the Ontario provincial government on a number of different initiatives. “Although we are a policy and research institute, we also have a piloting and prototyping function which allows us to test some of the ideas that we generate,” she says. “One area we are working on is women and entrepreneurship. We’re supporting Ontario’s Ministry of Economic Development and Growth to better assist women entrepreneurs – we have helped them identify some targeted levers, helping them test out some new ideas to help women start up their own businesses.”

Innovation in Canada

Of course, Canada’s policymakers are hardly the first to aspire to be more innovative. Governments around the world, just like their colleagues in the private sector, are looking for new approaches and new ideas. But “innovation” means many different things to many different people. Conliffe agrees that it is an overused term.

“The way we are thinking about it is really about experimenting and finding new ways of developing policy, bringing unusual experts to the table and thinking of new ways to conduct the traditional policymaking process,” she explains. “This is already happening in many ways in governments of all levels across Canada and globally. But what neutral third parties like ours can do is help take on some of that risk and reach out to people that governments can’t sometimes access. We have a little more flexibility – we can move faster and more nimbly, because when we experiment, it doesn’t have to go up and down a hierarchy of approval.”

When asked whether Canada’s government is getting better at innovation, she says that there are some good examples and others that are less positive. “It is probably like anything – there are some real hotspots that are at the leading edge of trying new things, but there are also others that are probably more static and reluctant to do things differently to how they have been done in the past.”

She goes on to say that while there are these two extremes, she thinks that, in general, public services are thinking about the future and how to keep adapting. “Certainly in Ontario and the federal government – which are the two I am most familiar with – there is a real desire to make this kind of testing, experimenting culture more widespread,” she adds. “And this will enable those hotspots to really grow in number and really get out there and try new things. We are absolutely headed in the right direction.”

To illustrate her point, she highlights the progress that both federal and provincial governments have made in enhancing their use of digital technology. “Ontario has its first chief digital officer, recruited from a senior position in the US, and a similar unit is being developed in Ottawa as well, so this is a very welcome trend at both levels,” she points out. “It’s also something that is very apolitical – it’s something that you can get behind on all levels. That said, yes, in terms of the Trudeau government, there is clearly an appetite and a permission to adopt these new approaches, which comes from the political level.”

Future focus

Conliffe, who has been at the Institute for under a year, is looking forward to moving her ideas from the drawing board to reality. But further ahead, she hopes that their current experimental work will be adopted by government.

“In five or ten years, I really hope that government will look very different, because a lot of the tools and experiments we’re doing right now at the Institute will be much easier to conduct and apply from within government,” she says. “I also hope that institutes like ours can really remain at the leading edge of experimentation, testing out new ways that governments can engage citizens and improve the policy development process.”

If it does so – and there’s no reason to doubt that it will – then both citizens and policymakers alike stand to benefit. Stay tuned.

This article was first published by the Centre for Public Impact.

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