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Measuring the Impact of Public Innovation in the Wild

A foundation-backed "research institution without walls" is studying new strategies for tackling tough problems.

With complex, seemingly intractable problems such as inequality, climate change and affordable access to health care plaguing contemporary society, traditional institutions such as government agencies and nonprofit organizations often lack strategies for tackling them effectively and legitimately. For this reason, this year the MacArthur Foundation launched its Research Network on Opening Governance.

The Network, which I chair and which also is supported by Google.org, is what MacArthur calls a "research institution without walls." It brings together a dozen researchers across universities and disciplines, with an advisory network of academics, technologists, and current and former government officials, to study new ways of addressing public problems using advances in science and technology.

Through regular meetings and collaborative projects, the Network is exploring, for example, the latest techniques for more open and transparent decision-making, the uses of data to transform how we govern, and the identification of an individual's skills and experiences to improve collaborative problem-solving between government and citizen.

One of the central questions we are grappling with is how to accelerate the pace of research so we can learn better and faster when an innovation in governance works -- for whom, in which contexts and under which conditions. With better methods for doing fast-cycle research in collaboration with government -- in the wild, not in the lab -- our hope is to be able to predict with accuracy, not just know after the fact, whether innovations such as opening up an agency's data or consulting with citizens using a crowdsourcing platform are likely to result in real improvements in people's lives.

An example of such an experiment is the work that members of the Network are undertaking with the Food and Drug Administration. As one of its duties, the FDA manages the process of pre-market approval of medical devices to ensure that patients and providers have timely access to safe, effective and high-quality technology, as well as the post-market review of medical devices to ensure that unsafe ones are identified and recalled from the market. In both of these contexts, the FDA seeks to provide the medical-device industry with productive, consistent, transparent and efficient regulatory pathways.

With thousands of devices, many of them employing cutting-edge technology, to examine each year, the FDA is faced with the challenge of finding the right internal and external expertise to help it quickly study a device's safety and efficacy. Done right, lives can be saved and companies can prosper from bringing innovations quickly to market. Done wrong, bad devices can kill.

Beginning in 2015, the FDA will start to use an expert network that catalogs and makes the expertise of its employees searchable, as well as the expertise of its parent Department of Health and Human Services, the broader academic community and industry. Network members with expertise in policy, law, computer science, public health and behavioral economics are working with the FDA to design and deploy experiments to test the capacity of such expert networking to improve the medical device review process over a six-month time frame.

Improving the efficacy of medical-device review is just an initial foray for the Network. If we can generate rapid results and insights into what's working across government, our hope is to develop a replicable, step-by-step approach to studying governance innovations in the wild -- documenting the underlying change theory, for example, as well as producing a set of metrics to track performance. Done right, such research could help innovators inside and outside of government mitigate risk and try new ways of working, safe in the knowledge that they will have some evidence of what works.

Government readers interested in partnering with the MacArthur Research Network should contact Andrew@thegovlab.org.

New Jersey's chief innovation officer and director of NYU's Governance Lab
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