Hacking our way to better outcomes

Policy hacks are new way of bringing people together to share ideas and develop solutions to some of Northern Irelands most pressing social, economic and environmental problems.

Why ‘policy hack’?

The short version

A policy hack will borrow the techniques and ethos of the tech sector, apply them to a number of social policy topics and come up with solutions to key social, economic and environmental problems. People attending do not have to know anything about technology – it’s the approach we are adapting not the topic or focus.

The longer version

There are lots of things that voluntary and community organisations and technology companies have in common.  Both maintain a sharp focus on the end user, are quick to react to emerging trends, outcome driven and want to act rather than deliberate.

The voluntary and community sector has the added advantages of being user lead and often user owned, has access to decision makers, has a representative role as well as being focused on impact and is underpinned by a strong social justice value set.

However there are some interesting characteristics of the tech sector that voluntary and community organisations can benefit from in developing our responses to social policy issues.  The most important is the openness and ethos of sharing that tech companies employ when developing their products. Even if you have the gem of a multimillion pound idea if you participate in a hack event you have to be prepared to share it, discuss it and have others contribute to it.  There is no room for protectionism. It’s a brilliantly liberating approach.

This kind of approach is one part of the overall open policy project in the Cabinet Office in the UK.  One of the most interesting developments is the notion of adapting an agile approach to policy making. Lisa Ollerhead from the Open Policy Making team, has adapted the agile manifesto for government policy making here.  I’ve had a go at tweaking it for the voluntary and community sector.

Agile manifesto for voluntary and community sector


  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools;
  • Viable solutions that benefit citizens over endless papers;
  • User input and over bureaucracy;
  • Responding to change over following a plan.


  • Our highest priority is to improve the lives of the people, families and communities we work with through early and continuous delivery of viable policy solutions;
  • Welcome new information, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for advantage during policy implementation;
  • Deliver policy milestones frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale;
  • Policy makers and service delivery must work together regularly throughout the project;
  • Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done;
  • The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a policy team is face-to-face conversation;
  • The testing of solutions is the primary measure of progress;
  • Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, policy makers and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely;
  • Continuous attention to evidence bases and good design enhances agility;
  • Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential;
  • At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective and tunes and adjusts its behaviour accordingly.

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