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That Word Doesn’t Mean What You Seem to Think it Means

What word is that? It’s INNOVATION.

According to the handy online dictionary, it means:

Now why on earth would I write a research blog post on the definition of a word, you ask? Because this word has been bandied about frequently as an excuse for why some programs remain untested (and by untested, I mean empirically, rigorously and independently by highly qualified impartial evaluators).

Let’s begin unpacking this.The definition of innovation is clear: it's something that is NEW.

Now when I criticize a highly touted program for being untested, a frequent rejoinder is that "it's an INNOVATION!", as though this is the ultimate rhetorical trump card. Now, I'm not exactly sure why people think that's a magical answer, but it's actually kind of a silly response for several reasons.

1. Most programs referred to as INNOVATIONS are not exactly NEW. One program frequently heralded as an innovation is at least 5-8 years old in this country and 20 years old in its country of origin. I think that is, at best, a very big stretch of the word NEW. You might want to ask yourself, how long exactly does a program have to be in operation before it stops being NEW (and therefore an INNOVATION). 5 years? 8 years? 10 years? Forever?

Having been married for only 10 years, I shall now start referring to myself as a newlywed and demanding the bridal suite for our upcoming holiday. We shall see how far my use of this version of the word NEW gets me at the JW Marriott.

2. Most current policing programs in Canada are not truly original. Rather, they are programs based on pre-existing models that have been brought into the policing world. The police wellness program, Road to Mental Readiness (R2MR), is one such example. Originally developed for the military, it was recast as a mental health program for police and other first responders, and then subsequently promoted without solid testing on police audiences.

More often, though, these ‘innovations’ are imported from other countries through a process called ‘naive policy transfer’. This means that the program worked somewhere else (usually New York), so someone believed it would work in Estevan, Saskatchewan*.

Sometimes, Canadian officials simply simply take an idea from somewhere else, import it and then repackage it as a Canadian INNOVATION. The classic example of this is the hub model. Ostensibly based on a Scottish model known as ‘partnership working’ (at least in its earliest days when I was doing field work on policing in Edinburgh), it was then renamed after Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.

Where am I going with this?

Simple: almost all Canadian policing programs come from somewhere else (another industry, public sector, city or country). Since we are taking other people's ideas, shouldn't we at least be taking ideas with a demonstrably, strong evidence base?

I can name several INNOVATIONS that are not that NEW and weren't rigorously, independently and/or otherwise tested in their own countries before somebody thought it would be a good idea to adopt them here.

3. Can you imagine Health Canada saying, we can't demand the makers of a new pill for heart disease run clinical trials because it's an INNOVATION? Sounds a bit foolish, right?

Let’s take a different example. How many of you would’ve bought your iPhones or your Samsung Galaxies if you knew the manufacturers had packaged pre-existing ideas and then didn't bother to test the product before they brought it to market? Right. No one would ever do that. And, yet, we’ll do that with policing programs. Over and over again. Is that phone really more important than a community? A person? A family? A neighbourhood? If you wouldn't spend $699 on an untested product for yourself ... well ... I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions. 4. It's hard to call a program an INNOVATION, and demand it be exempted from normal standards of scientific evaluation because of its NEWness, when you've replicated it over 100 or more times. Making such assertions is a bit like insisting that you are both (physically) alive and (physically) dead at the same time. Besides, that's not what you do with innovations. What you do is, as one commentator keenly observed,

pilot a program on a trial basis and then rigorously test it before you even think about reproducing it.

* I am using Estevan as an example only because I know the Chief at EPS, Paul Ladouceur, is a big believer in research and would probably roll his eyes hard at the idea of borrowing programs for Estevan simply because they work in New York.

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