Falling in love with the problem, not the solution

Blog by Kyle Novak: “Fall in love with the problem, not your solution.”  It’s a maxim that I first heard spoken a few years ago by USAID’s former Chief Innovation Officer Ann Mei Chang. I’ve found myself frequently reflecting on those words as I’ve been thinking about the challenges of implementing public policy. I spent the past year on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. working as a legislative fellow, funded through a grant to bring scientists to improve evidence-based policymaking within the federal government. I spent much of the year trying to better understand how legislation and oversight work together in context of policy and politics. To learn what makes good public policy, I wanted to understand how to better implement it. Needless to say, I took a course in Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA), a framework to manage risk in complex policy challenges by embracing experimentation and “learning through doing.”

Congress primarily uses legislation and budget to control and implement policy initiatives through the federal agencies. Legislation is drafted and introduced by lawmakers with input from constituents, interest groups, and agencies; the Congressional budget is explicitly planned out each year based on input from the agencies; and accountability is built into the process through oversight mechanisms. Congress largely provides the planning and lock-in of “plan and control” management based on majority political party control and congruence with policy priorities of the Administration.  But, it is difficult to successfully implement a plan-and-control approach when political, social, or economic situations are changing.

Take the problem of data privacy and protection. A person’s identity is becoming largely digital. Every day each of us produces almost a gigabyte of information—our location is shared by our mobile phones, our preferences and interpersonal connections are tagged on social media, our purchases analyzed, and our actions recorded on increasingly ubiquitous surveillance cameras. Monetization of this information, often bought and sold through data brokers, enables an invasive and oppressive system that affects all aspects of our lives.  Algorithms mine our data to make decisions about our employment, healthcare, education, credit, and policing. Machine learning and digital redlining skirts protections that prohibit discrimination on basis of race, gender, and religion. Targeted and automated disinformation campaigns suppress fundamental rights of speech and expression. And digital technologies magnify existing inequities. While misuse of personal data has the potential to do incredible harm, responsible use of that data has the power to do incredible good. The challenge of data privacy and protection is one that impacts all of us, our civil liberties, and the foundations of a democratic society.

The success of members of Congress are often measured in the solutions they propose, not the problems that they identify….(More)”