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Getting off the Ground: Policy Innovation through Design-Thinking

Updated: Jan 24, 2022


Authored by, Kevin Ramnarine


An interesting aspect of my role as Policy Manager with Prairies Economic Development Canada entails “fostering a culture of policy innovation in the department.” But what is policy innovation? There are so many elements and buzz words that come to mind when I think of policy innovation. In a nutshell, I think of policy innovation as a new or different process, tool, or way to develop better policy. Yes, that is still a fairly nebulas statement. One of the most important ways my team has embraced policy innovation through a design-thinking approach is experimenting.

It all starts with an experimentation mindset. As a strategic policy unit, there is often no rubric or existing mechanisms to follow. So in science terms, we have to begin with a shallow R-squared value and conduct experiments to learn and adapt. Every time we know something new, the R-squared is improved, and the picture becomes clearer. It is vital to understand; there will never be a full picture (or R-squared of 1.0). My team has successfully used this approach in much of our work, such as developing an economic growth strategy, designing COVID19 relief and recovery supports for businesses, and creating a new federal agency.

In the case of COVID19 economic relief, we faced an ever-changing environment. It felt like we were building an airplane while in the air. Like many public servants, we met a daunting task with timelines where “aggressive” would be a gross understatement. It would have been easy to fall into the “paralysis by analysis trap” - where you wait for more information and fail to move forward.

The first step in any good experiment has a strong hypothesis. What problem are you trying to solve? What assumptions have been made, and how can you clarify them? In the early stages of the pandemic, there was not much information available about the coronavirus and its impacts; however there were some striking similarities to the Spanish Flu. We also looked at responses by national and subnational governments to other financial crises.

It became clear that our role was to augment other Government of Canada small business supports targeting SME liquidity needs for our agency. From there, we tested several different ideas for solutions and programs. We created multiple models and process diagrams as prototypes to understand who we could help and how. The evolution of our thinking was a constant loop of design – prototype – test, learn and do it over again.

We worked with regional development agencies across Canada, and the Regional Relief and Recovery Fund (RRRF) was announced in April 2021. As the environment kept changing, prototyping and program design continued until the program intake was launched in June of 2021. The RRRF helped keep more people employed and sustain more employers for recovery. Total funding of the RRRF was over $2 billion, with over $700 million allocated to western Canada.

My team was not alone in working in a new way while also adjusting to a virtual environment. This pandemic experience has developed new skills for the public service that will be applied to future challenges and opportunities. However, we can’t afford to forget the last step of experimentation: evaluation. We need to celebrate success. But we also need to take stock of our learnings and ask, what could we have done better?

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