• United Kingdom (English)
Mike Cross

Cross talk - Patents


​Originally published on the Microsoft NHS Resource Centre on 09 June 2011

Unless you have a particular interest in patent application procedures, you probably missed a ministerial announcement concerning the UK Intellectual Property Office this month. But the development could be of enormous significance to policy and decision-making in the NHS.

Like their counterparts in most advanced countries, the UK’s patent examiners are overwhelmed with work and often find it difficult to keep up with what, by definition, is the cutting edge of technology. Peer to Patent works on the assumption that, somewhere in cyberspace, knowledge is available to help.

Under Peer to Patent, each patent application is subjected to online scrutiny, which is taken account of during the formal approvals process. It’s not quite a Wikipedia-style free-for-all - the online vetting is done by registered communities of experts - but it nonetheless relies on the wisdom of (unpaid) crowds.

The Intellectual Property Office is piloting Peer to Patent on the processing of IT patents over the next six months. If it succeeds, it is likely to be extended to other busy areas.

So, what does this have to do with policy-making in the NHS? The answer is that, if the government has its way, Peer to Patent will be only the first of many wiki-style exercises in decision making.  The creator of the original Peer to Patent site in the US, Professor Beth Noveck, thinks the wiki model can be applied to many other complex decision-making processes.

In 2009 the incoming Obama administration appointed Noveck as deputy chief information officer for open government. Her brief was to improve public administration by “collaborative decision-making”, based on open data.

Sound familiar? It should: this is very much the thinking of the coalition government, manifesting itself not least in the NHS reforms. In fact, Chancellor George Osborne announced last month (May) that Noveck would be coming to work for the Cabinet Office. The UK iteration of Peer to Patent is an early sign that the UK government is serious about adopting her ideas more broadly. The potential in decision-making related to healthcare is obvious.

If you want to get ahead of the curve, you can pick up Noveck’s thinking in her book  “Wiki Government”*, which mysteriously flew off the UK Amazon shelves in as soon as Osborne made his announcement.

But to save you ploughing through the whole thing, here’s a summary of Noveck’s 10 lessons for organisations and governments wishing to move to collaborative decision making. They are:

  1. Ask specific questions rather than open-ended ones, which lead to “unmanageable and irrelevant feedback” on the web.
  2. Ask the right people. Noveck is a fan of self selection, which “can be combined with baseline participation requirements”.
  3. Design the process to meet a specific goal, which should be communicated up-front.
  4. Design for groups rather than individuals.
  5. Use the screen to show the group back to itself, so that participants can see themselves as part of a “mini-movement”.
  6. Parcel the work out in manageable roles and tasks.
  7. Harness the power of reputation from “bubbling up” feedback.
  8. Make policies, not websites.
  9. Try out new ideas by running pilots and holding competitions to generate innovation.
  10. Focus on outcomes, not inputs. And measure success.

These sound like reasonable maxims for all IT-based change projects, whatever the fate of wiki government in the UK.