Opinion piece: Hackathons can help policymakers — here’s how to maximise their potential

This opinion piece was written by Mikk Vainik, an expert on Start-Up Policy at the Estonian Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, for Apolitical.co in February 2019.


Picture the last time you attended a policy conference to share and gain best practice and it worked out really well. Not so easy to recall? Let’s be honest — designing really good policies rarely happens by transferring what works from other political, cultural and legal settings. Nevertheless, that is what we usually do at policy conferences. We know it rarely works, yet we continue on the well-trodden path. Why?

Two years ago, the Government of Estonia and the Global Entrepreneurship Network set out to create a policy development tool that would help design policies that had a better chance of success.

In spring 2017, we launched a call for policymakers that wanted to make a difference for their startup ecosystem, but did not have the tools or the courage to step forward.

Over the next few months, we set up regular webinars and set mini-tasks to ensure that each team was developing their thinking and securing the buy-in of senior management. And in November, we invited the selected teams to the Startup Nations Summit in Tallinn, Estonia to expand their thinking in a safe setting.

Where traditional weekend hackathons usually focus on a software idea being supported by a team of designers, coders and business people, we brought together startups, investors and peer policymakers. A third of the ideas were deemed good enough to pursue beyond the conference. Not bad for a first time.

Our success wasn’t just luck, however. Three core ideas helped our policy hack succeed:

1) Be bold

Everything starts with enough policy idea owners who want to make an difference, but do not know how to do it. The Policy Hack takes a critical mass of such ideas and makes them compete with each other in a safe and gamified setting.

2) Teams matter

The Policy Hack teams are tailor-made for the specific policies to be hacked and always include the target group. For example, if the policy idea is to set up a GDPR stress test for startups, the hack team will comprise the idea owner, two startups in data management, two data regulators and one investor. If the idea is about setting up a fintech sandbox, the team will have fintech experts from the public and private sector from around the world.

3) Timing is everything

Policies do not happen over a weekend. The approach must take into account budgetary and democratic cycles where applicable. A few interventions over a multi-month period should lead up to a hack day where most of the magic happens. And if the results are promising, the timing needs to be right for the new budgetary cycle to ensure that great ideas don’t fade from underfunding.

Since November 2017, at least five Policy Hacks with a very similar methodology have been executed, mostly with very promising results. There is now a Policy Hack movement with its very own Playbook for changemakers that want to empower their communities to test out novel ideas together with entrepreneurs. I challenge you to try it out for yourself. 

— Mikk Vainik

Mikk Vainik

Head of Accelerate Estonia | Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications

My experience in Estonian public service began in R&D policy, continued in e-governance and startup ecosystem development and is now focused… More