Pilots, pathfinders and prototypes
June 21, 2012
I was talking to a colleague in the pub recently about the language used to describe the testing of new ideas and approaches. This is good territory for some facetious comment about one person’s pilot being another person’s pathfinder (indeed I reacquainted myself with some Strategy Unit work from nearly a decade ago which did indeed contain stories about ministers being asked to choose which term they preferred regardless of what was actually happening).
Thinking a little more about the distinctions I became a little more serious.
Pathfinder has connotations of discovering the way in unexplored territory; a thirst for something entirely new and in some cases (particularly commercial) a prospectus to test reaction. Really thrusting types would probably demand to be a trailblazer.
Pilots are probably best thought about as early evaluation with a focus on identifying what works, closely monitored to test policies and to learn lessons prior to wider implementation. True piloting finds failure as interesting as success. Politicians in particular don’t always find the former too fascinating. There are scholarship questions about the distinction between an impact pilot and process pilot.
The big problem with pilots was that the implementation was often proceeding apace and they were never given the time needed. Indeed at worst they were window dressing or justification for a decision already made. They are also associated with big policy initiatives and top-down programmes. If you hear the word pilot you know something is probably going to descend on you pretty soon.
Prototyping is the newer kid on the block. Very much in vogue and pushed hard by social innovators and entrepreneurs and the policy by design school of thought. Indeed, if anything can be faddish in these areas, at the moment it’s probably prototyping. Nesta among others have bought into it in quite a major way.
My colleague and I both took the view that prototyping was a positive development. The attraction of simply going ahead and trying out ideas in a tangible and collaborative manner through a small scale mock-up to establish proof of concept is strong. Empirical bottom-up-ness, fleet of foot and fast of mind and with the aim to develop a specification for how things could be done: policy design as product or software development.
There is a palpable sense of urgency among many ‘prototypistas’, a frustration with the permission culture and with procedure which seems designed to delay progress. Piloting in the sense used above of early evaluation can follow on from prototyping.
But you can tell there is a ‘but’ coming. I think this arises from three concerns:
- evaluation is taking a major hit at the moment partly because many in government currently find it frustrating but also because it seems an easy target for cuts. That is a problem. We need evidence before we jump into major change which at the moment often seems to fly in the face of what evidence we do have. If piloting and evaluation remain decimated then the next stages beyond prototyping remain problematic
- prototyping itself can be a very fractured approach with everyone running around doing their own thing but with little influence on the way a system works more widely. The risk of its very bottom-up ness and pragmatism is that it remains just that
- prototyping does not escape from the need for follow through (I’m not claiming that anyone seriously suggests the contrary) and as with every other approach to reform it cannot avoid the need to address the organisational and cultural change that is needed among decision makers and implementers.
In the current economic climate experimentation is needed more than ever but what this short period of reflection made me wonder was whether, particularly at small area level, there is a need for some prototyping of the context for effective prototyping; about how the advantages of the approach can be tied into the weft and weave of how an area (let’s go out on a limb and call it a neighbourhood) actually works and is run.
If this suggestion has any value at all it must amount to more than just having a wide range of prototype activity under way and be different to the now quite extensive ‘how to’ literature. It is about addressing some of the questions about experience, fracture and culture. It would address community development activity, the way that front line professionals and their managers handle their budgets and how problem solving for the area is addressed across a range of services relating to the place and the residents.
Yes, it does sound as though it could have a lot in common with long standing thinking underpinning neighbourhood management. But that, of course, had pathfinders.