In a rush? Read the Exec summary of the Little Manual of Political Creativity

What is political creativity? Does it even exist? Can it be fostered? Stephen Boucher’s Little Manual of Creativity in Politics – How to Unleash Collective Audacity (Petit manuel de créativité politique – Comment libérer l’audace collective, Paris: Le Félin, 416pp.), published in February 2017, shows how creativity and innovation can be encouraged systematically in the public sphere.

Political creativity, an oxymoron?

While rows of business management libraries are filled with books on managing innovation, design thinking, and cultivating your team’s creativity, very few, if any, study where there is creativity in politics and what it means to be a « creative politician ». Some have even come to think that the two words, politics and creativity, are antithetical. Politics kills creativity, some would argue, and solutions have to be developed outside the circles of power, of stalled institutions and politicians under the influence of lobby groups.

Most people have doubts about the ability of democracy to generate the best outcomes for society. Didn’t Winston Churchill say that “The best argument against democracy is a 5-mn conversation with the average voter”?

Didn’t Thomas Jefferson state that “A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where 51% of the people may take away the rights of the other 49%”?

Against the received wisdom, through over 20 case studies taken from various countries, a diversity of situations – local, national, international – and solving a variety of problems, Stephen Boucher shows that politics can be creative. And so can we, the people.

political creativity
Well here’s an illustration that has nothing to do with political creativity, but it’s a cool picture isn’t it?

This text can be shared under a Creative Commons licence, by clearly referencing the author and the source: CC Stephen Boucher, political creativity /, 2017.

Executive Summary – Little Manual of Political Creativity

Creativity has conquered all areas, helping bring new, more effective and efficient solutions to the corporate sector, the design industry, science and many other fields. Only one area appears to resist the transformative power of creativity: politics. Yet politicians are the first to stress the need for « radical change », « new ideas” and “innovation solutions”. So how can creativity help solve our problems faster, better and with less?

This is the question at the heart of  the Petit manuel de créativité politique – Comment libérer l’audace collective. In this “manual”, Stephen Boucher offers a concrete method to trigger a creative revolution in the public sphere, based on numerous case studies from Europe and abroad.

Introduction: A wind of innovation is blowing on politics

The city of Athens has faced considerable difficulties in recent years, not least massive immigration and huge financial problems. Civil society has picked things up where the city couldn’t act, refurbishing schools to house refugees, providing classes, organising citizens against vandalism, renovating open-air markets… Some of these initiatives were in principle not permitted by law, though providing solutions sorely needed on the ground. Rather than try to control this movement of spontaneous self-organisation, the administration of Athens has adopted a new attitude. It created synAthina, an online platform which allows members of the community to engage in problem-solving and reform. Individual citizens and groups can volunteer activities, as well as ideas on how to improve their city. Citizens who submit ideas are then connected to the relevant government representatives, non-governmental organisations, and private businesses that can support their efforts. If outdated regulations are needlessly prohibiting the advancement of good ideas, the synAthina project team works with partners in City Hall to update those regulations, policies, or procedures.

With this approach, Athens has changed its role from one of central organiser, to one of facilitator of decentralised initiatives. synAthina won the 2014 Mayor’s Challenge, organised by Bloomberg Philanthropies. It is an example of a wave of new approaches to public policy and public management that put co-creation with relevant stakeholders at their heart and that reinvent the role of public authorities, enabling them to harness the creativity of people wherever it lies to solve collective problems faster.

SECTION 1: The obstacles that political creativity faces

Citizens are increasingly frustrated with the perceived inefficiency of government. Some are looking for radical new approaches, from artificial intelligence running government affairs to replacing elected officials with randomly selected citizens. Others have simply concluded that democracy is not the most efficient political regime, and that an authoritarian one would be preferable. Real change is needed, and fast.

When will we see real change?

For decades, policy makers in France and elsewhere have been promising radical change. Candidates in the French presidential elections since 1954 have recycled similar slogans. They all promise “new solutions” and “turning the page”. This contrasts sharply with the electorate’s expectations. 84% of voters in France before the 2016 presidential election stated that they felt a “powerful need for change”. “Creativity” and “innovation” were cited among the most valued concepts, at the same level as “Family”, “Freedom” and “Effort”.

The issue is that “change is no longer what it used to be”: the problems we face collectively are more complex, arise faster, are accelerated by technological change, they are more interlinked globally, they now even threaten the very survival of mankind, and we face increasing resource constraints. The speed and magnitude of such change creates a level of anxiety in citizens that can be harnessed to challenge traditional ways of conducting affairs. Studies in psychology show that at this point in time, we have reached the conditions that can help overcome resistance to change, if we decide to see such challenges as an opportunity worth harnessing. As Woody Allen once said, “confidence is what you have before you understand the problem”. We now understand the problem and we can consider new approaches to public administration and politics. Meanwhile, citizens have become accustomed to being involved in decision-making in all walks of life. They reject top-down only approaches and call for new forms of policy making.

What is political creativity?

When thinking of creativity, most people imagine a room full of post-it notes on the wall and a fun session that leads to ideas that will most likely not be followed through. People believe that in comes in a “Eureka” moment. That it is the product of lone geniuses. That some people are creative and others not and that it can’t be taught. That it is stimulated by financial incentives. That a good “brainstorm” session is enough to generate new ideas. That it thrives on peace and is harmed by conflict and constraints. That having a good idea is the key step, or even enough to win minds over.

The opposite is true. Understanding properly what creativity entails in the field of public policies entails a whole new way of doing politics. One that is collaborative, open to different types of expertise, founded in shared solidarity, that sees constraints, dissent and even conflict as opportunities, and that considers societal issues in a holistic fashion.

Michael Gove, the British justice and then education minister who thought he was very innovative, faced considerable opposition for not taking these obstacles into account and for trying to ram reforms through without proper time, involvement of relevant stakeholders and experimentation. His approach exemplifies how creativity cannot be limited to “having a good idea”.

But how do we recognise creativity in the public policy field when we come across it. What qualifies as a “creative” public policy, policy maker or solution? In order to nurture our collective creativity, we have to understand it better.

A creative public policy should be:

  1. original, although originality is relative. A solution may be new in a certain context, but have been tried elsewhere or in the past. And originality is of course far from sufficient.
  2. useful. Over time, any “new” solution will only be acknowledged as “creative” if it is superior to others in solving the problem at hand.
  3. efficient. If it’s new and impactful, but is more costly (financially and otherwise) than previous approaches, it may not be seen as creative.
  4. on time. Being right too late is pointless. A creative political system addresses issues with better and more efficient solutions in time.
  5. agile and persistent, because some new solutions may have come too early and need to be adapted over time to fit new circumstances.
  6. transversal, i.e. it should minimise collateral damage and maximise collateral benefits, as opposed to linear thinking that addresses one issue but creates problems elsewhere (think of propositions that look like “too many immigrants / build wall”).
  7. persistent in its benefits, vs shortsighted quick fixes.
  8. well received. The best solution in the world will be pointless, if it is not understood and if it is ultimately rejected by the relevant stakeholders.

Why is change so hard?

In the political arena, many obstacles stand in the way of collective and individual political creativity. These obstacles are of three types:

  1. political actors face structural constraints: lack of time, insufficient diversity, and a time horizon that is too limited;
  2. there is a strong trend towards a simplification of political debates fostered by populists and online media;
  3. culturally and psychologically, change is hard.

The lack of creativity of political debates and policy options being considered is manifest, all too often:

  • Solutions that work in some contexts can be totally ignored in other contexts. The different, for instance, in how France, the UK and Denmark for instance try to “deradicalise” djihadists is striking.
  • The range of options being considered is limited, often binary, and shaped by past debates more than by a careful consideration of the future.
  • The time and geographic horizon of policy makers is limited.
  • They tend to focus on linear causation rather than holistic or systemic analyses of issues at hand.
  • Politics is perceived as boring. Citizens turn their back on traditional forms of political activism.

Why do those who talk the most about creativity seem to be the least creative?

While talk of “innovation”, “new approaches”, “innovation solutions”, “new ideas” is on everybody’s minds, none of the key actors involved in policy making seem to be wired for creativity and innovation. Public administrations give priority to stability. Parties have become machines to support or oppose governing majorities and cultivate their “market share” of votes. Lobbies resist change, sometimes very effectively, but rarely promote progressive policies. Lawyers and economists, while well-equipped to understand and promote change, are too often employed to justify and support the status quo. Think tanks have a particular role to play to foster creative thinking, but few aim for true renewal of policies. Philanthropists can – and some do – also play a shining role in promoting boldness and supporting experiments and innovation, but few have yet seized on the agenda of policy innovation in the same way as the Bloomberg foundation for instance, that funds the yearly Mayors’ Challenge.

All in all, nobody is immediately responsible, but the fact is that creativity is not at the heart of these actors’ priorities. This stands in sharp contrast with a large number of companies and civil society organisations that have geared their staff and processes towards innovation. If creativity can be mobilised to invent more effective vacuum cleaners, why shouldn’t it be similarly stimulated to tackle long-term unemployment, for instance?

SECTION 2 – How to unleash collective creativity

The Manual reviews 22 case studies that illustrate different key principles of how to foster a creative process. Each case study proves that there is tremendous creativity in the political field at all levels of government, despite the obstacles it meets. However, such creativity too often emerges despite, not thanks to the political system as it currently stands.

The 7 key stages of political creativity

The 22 cases are organised around the 7 key steps that should be followed in order to produce better outcomes, beyond the ideation phase which is only one of the 7 steps:

  1. Clarifying what the issue is. Too often the various stakeholders rush to discussing possible solutions and get stuck on ideological grounds, without having properly defined the issue, how it relates to other issues, what are its different dimensions, etc.;
  2. Agreeing on a definition of the problem at hand;
  3. Then comes the idea generation phase which people usually solely associate to the creative process;
  4. Selecting among this enlarged pool of options;
  5. Testing ideas out, experimenting, prototyping, and, most importantly, evaluating;
  6. Defending the ideas in the public arena;
  7. Scaling up the new solutions thus developed.

22 case studies that exemplify the art of political creativity

Bogotá understood that tackling crime was not about more policemen and instead introduced mimes on the streets and enlarged the sidewalks.

  • This case shows that one has to properly define the boundaries of a problems and its different dimensions in order to identify new and better solutions.
  • It provides an example of “policy acupuncture”: by correctly identifying the nature of the problem (including here issues of respect, social capital…), one can act exactly at the intersection of different issues and have a systemic effect.

Sweden’s death toll on the roads is today half that of France, thanks to the country setting itself the radical goal of zero deaths.

  • This case exemplifies how a whole different vision will lead to different solutions, even though the tools (airbags, security railings and emergency services, for instance), may be similar.
  • It shows that systemic thinking can lead to very concrete outcomes and be well understood by citizens and the stakeholders involved.

Renault provides new ways of helping the less well-off have access to cheaper vehicles by helping them get a driver’s licence cheaper with innovative approaches.

  • Renault focused on the needs of its clients, thus redefining its self-concept from one of car maker to one providing wider services.
  • The same logic can be applied to public authorities, by focusing on the needs that people have (for energy, mobility, etc.) rather than the services that traditionally meet those needs.

The Finnish Parliament and the Swedish government provide interesting examples of efforts to think long term and the challenges of doing so.

  • Thinking long-term generates new thinking.
  • It is hard, and sometimes rejected by different parties. It requires strong support.

Germany, with its Agora Energiewende, has invented a mind-blowing forum to overcome ideological opposition between industry, environmentalists and unions on its road to a full renewable energy future and away from nuclear and coal.

  • Putting all stakeholders, even opponents, around the same table, with a common budget to investigate thorny issues, avoids any one blocking the decision making process.
  • Making an issue larger and more complex may, in some cases, help resolve it more easily by providing more options for compromises between the different stakeholders involved.

The small Dutch city of Drachten applied complexity thinking and as a result developed one of the first traffic intersections doing without any traffic signs or lights.

  • Before developing new public interventions, ask yourself: are public authorities needed?
  • Can things be set up such that society self regulates?

The French federation of real estate agents revived an old proposal to increase the pool of housing for low-income people on the market, without having to build new property.

  • Some policy options were developed in the past and deserve being revived when the time is right. “Creative” is therefore not necessarily “new”.
  • We need knowledge management systems to spot and recycle good solutions.

An exercise in creative ideation in a small workshop produces in 2 hours a range of interesting ideas to tackle the unemployed’s social isolation, using a “makestorming” card game.

  • This shows that the cognitive diversity brought by a group of non specialists can be extremely productive, even on very complex issues.
  • It also shows that there are effective ideation techniques that can be easily mastered.

IT firm Cisco deals with the internet of things. The exponential growth of data gathered requires constant innovation. Counter intuitively, it is working with competitors to develop new solutions.

  • Working with competitors is possible and necessary in contexts of extreme change.
  • This highlights the principle that contradiction, dissent, even opposition is fruitful in any creative process, and should be viewed as an opportunity in the public field as well.

When some seen constraints and opposing objectives as irreconcilable, others thrive on it, as demonstrates the case of flexicurity developed in Denmark.

  • Clarifying the underlying goal behind two seemingly contradictory approaches and philosophies helps reveal what values they have in common.
  • Bringing together two seemingly contradictory goals can lead to creative approaches.

The European paper industry challenged itself to take on the challenge of an 80% greenhouse gas emissions reductions goal seriously while being 50% more profitable.

  • Thinking long-term helps overcome competitors’ reluctance to work together.
  • No need for expensive consultants to develop a creative thinking process.
  • A constraint can be seen as an opportunity, if considered as such.

French civic tech collective Parlement & Citoyens developed an online platform allowing French MPs to consult citizens on draft legislation.

  • Digital tools allow crowdsourcing and the leveraging of collective intelligence.
  • They enhance politicians’ role, by helping citizens understand the complexity of their job.
  • Yet online tools cannot replace face-to-face deliberation. Just “consulting” lots of people online may not lead to smart outcomes without proper methodologies.

Iceland’s crowdsourced the drafting of a new constitution in 2011, with huge success.

  • Mobilising collective intelligence is possible even on complex matters as a constitution.
  • Be prepared that the establishment may reject such forms of citizen consultation.

Other benefits of the digital revolution are to allow open government and open data approaches that generate new solutions and business models.

  • By sharing its data, public authorities can generate new business models and solutions.
  • Open gov questions government and leads to new ways of seeing the state’s role.

The Greens in the Brussels neighbourhood of Schaerbeek are inventing new ways to come up with an appealing electoral platform with a specialist in lean management.

  • Innovative collective intelligence tools can also be harnessed to win elections.

Alternativet, a new Danish party, has generated a lot of interest by professing to be agnostic on policies but placing the emphasis on 6 central values and developing its manifesto through creativity sessions with its members.

  • There is real appetite among citizens for more creative forms of doing politics.
  • Admitting that one doesn’t have the answers to everything can be accepted by voters.

In the UK, the Youth Justice Board reduced the level of juvenile crime by giving autonomy to local teams, working across silos and supporting innovation.

  • Demonstrates the power of giving autonomy to local teams while ensuring that the central authority supports innovation and disseminates good practices.
  • Stresses how social change requires time.

Companies such as clothes retailer Kiabi demonstrate how a “freed staff” can generate more value, a logic that can be replicated in the public sector.

  • “Freeing” one’s team is more than a mantra. It requires that managers be ready to let go.
  • Such an approach is more important to address complexity than it is to satisfy staff.

The small city of Malmberget in the North of Sweden has re-invented its down town with the help of designers.

  • The user-centric principles of design thinking can help renew public services.
  • Citizens may not have the required expertise to solve all problems, but they are best placed to identify their own needs.
  • Co-creation reduces the risk and the fear of failure.

The French Secrétariat Général à la Modernisation de l’Action Publique has been introducing new ways of working in the French administration since 2012.

  • There is appetite within public bodies for new and more effective approaches.
  • Working differently at administrative level also has an impact on elected officials’ way of seeing their mandate. It is not just a more effective form of public management, as the methods introduced change the relationship with citizens / users.

Living labs and prototypes are being introduced at all levels of government.

  • Prototyping and experimenting are becoming increasingly popular in some public administrations. They reduce costs as they avoid costly mistakes and back pedalling.
  • Such approaches can be implemented at all levels of government.

The local authority of the French department of Isère has trained its management team into various creativity techniques, producing new solutions and improved team morale.

  • It illustrates what research has shown: when people approach an issue with a positive mindset, the issue seems less hard to resolve.
  • Highlights how the creative process helps build stronger teams.
  • Creativity thus creates its own fuel.

How can we reform our institutions and political culture in order to place political creativity at the heart of the public sphere?

These cases illustrate that collective creativity and intelligence can be mindfully tapped into. However, to change the whole political system to make it more conducive to fostering, supporting and disseminating creativity, more needs to be done than to identify creative solutions. With this in mind, the manual details the following 6 reforms.

  1. Make creativity and political innovation a priority.
  2. Acknowledge complexity and develop the tools to embrace it.
  3. Involve relevant stakeholders using the experience gained in terms of effective participatory democracy techniques.
  4. Teach creativity to civil servants and public leaders.
  5. Organise the State as a catalyst of creativity in society.
  6. Organise institutions accordingly.
  7. Use creativity to make politics more appealing.

Putting political creativity at the heart of our system is far more than a “new new public management” technique. It is an antidote to populism, which feeds on people’s frustrations, fears and desire for being genuinely listened to.