The What, Why, Who and How of the Language Policy Hackathon, Part II

By: Jack Xu

The What, Why, Who and How of Language Policy Hackathon, Part II

By Eliana Trinaistic, Social Impact Manager

Who (The Alliance and Audiences)

With some ambiguities around what exactly our hackathon experiment “should be or should deliver,” we needed to find strong and trusting partners. Early in the planning process, we identified a young, immensely competent group of soon-to-be graduates from The Policy Innovation Initiative (Pii) at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, University of Toronto. The Pii’s experience with running workshops and hackathons, publishing reports, as well as their aim to equip professionals and students with innovation and design skills to support “a new generation of public policy professionals and change-makers with an enhanced capacity to address multidisciplinary challenges,” helped us to feel more confident about our capacity and objectives in hosting a language policy hackathon. We also recognized that the event would need to include three distinct audiences – staff, language professionals and service providers – all sharing a somewhat limited exposure to policy design and a slight overexposure to language service delivery.

For example, the first group, MCIS’ translation, interpretation, training, and vendor management staff, are high caliber professionals with a deep understanding of the nature of nonprofit service delivery and the principles of funding them. They understand the technology and the role of the human factor that expands and changes the nature of their services.  They requested a backgrounder and an understanding of expectations around their contribution.

MCIS’ language professionals on the other side, interpreters and translators, are predominantly 1st generation immigrants, armed with the lived experience of language barriers shaping the quality of access to information. They know of instances when otherwise perfectly fluent people suddenly lose the ability to remember official languages when confronted with violence or a family crisis. They intimately know of medical or legal settings where otherwise perfectly fluent individuals stop trusting their language out of fear that pertinent information will be omitted if they don’t have a professional interpreter present. They are well attuned to daily politics, both domestic and international, as their movement across the continents was often mobilized by a political force of one kind or another. As parents, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, and friends, their hearts are open, and they can easily relate to others, while understanding the responsibility that comes with being somebody else’s voice. They are the human face of language services, sensitive to the “otherness” of immigration where, despite a lifetime of working and contributing, you may still be discriminated against because of your name, your accent, or the colour of your skin. The livelihood of these language professionals and 1st generation immigrants is mostly dependent on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, so they are, as much as their clients are, vulnerable to legislative changes. All of them, almost without exception, expressed tremendous pride when  asked to participate and share their thoughts:

“I am very interested in participating in this event and I feel very honored to be invited. It is a great opportunity for us in the interpretation and translation profession to bring our experience and knowledge into an event of this caliber, to have our voices heard and be considered in the shaping of Policy innovation to ensure that language rights are guaranteed and not outdated.”

The third and final members of our audience involve our partners: organizations and service providers. Thanks to our previous hackathon in 2017 (#MigrahackTO) that engaged an extensive list of collaborators and interested parties, we are counting on some past participants to re-join us. WelcomeHomeTO is one worth mentioning. WelcomeHomeTO is one of those low-budget, high-vision, volunteer-based non-profits that, for the past three years, has continuously worked continuously on connecting the research, first-hand interviews, and direct participation in conversations about resettlement. They understand the landscape and over the years, they have helped us at MCIS, to understand the system of services within their complex labyrinth of issues. Of course, there are many other organizations and service providers, but small, unassuming organizations and individuals, such as WelcomeHomeTO, tend to be especially inspiring.

It is also our responsibility as organizers to stay vigilant and tone down the impossible while focusing on the principles of good policymaking.  We are accountable to our community to make sure that those invited will leave feeling genuinely empowered, knowing that expected outcomes, such as increased competence and knowledge about an issue, signing a petition or having an avenue to provide suggestions about service innovation, are created. The power imbalance starts with us, and will grow in proportion with our neglect to circle back and check where we are.

And, finally, how… the process

Given our intention to ensure that this experience will be successful and balanced from the perspective of power sharing, the Language Policy Hackathon work plan included the following steps:

  • – Test our current partners and a sample of the target audience to see if the idea will pass “the       excitement barometer” (check)
  • – Define the audience (check)
  • – Survey the audience (check)
  • – Adapt the content to the needs of the audience (policy making, language rights history)
  • – Define the challenges
  • – Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate
  • – Communicate, communicate, communicate
  • – Experiment (with the event)
  • – Refine
  • – Repeat

While the first three points were successfully accomplished by December, the issue with getting “the right” kind of expertise remained largely unresolved. In other words, if we are to provide an insight into policy, collaborative design etc., who is going to do it, how is this supposed to be done, and how will we know when it is too much or too little?

Given that we had little time and budget, we decided to use our in-house powers and rely on 20+ reports from various hackathons (policy and others) completed in the United States, Canada, Australia, and countries from Europe, as well as feedback from #MigrahackTO. The primary guide we used was called Powering European Public Sector Innovation: Towards A New Architecture, a comprehensive and explanatory how-to document with tons of practical examples and links to relevant projects.  We changed the language so that “insufficient co-design and co-creation of innovative solutions” became “insufficient conversation about language services,” and “adopting an attitude of experimentation” changed into “being willing to share lunch with people you do not know and try to think about what is possible.”

Lunches seem to be key to everything

For MCIS’ staff, four lunch-and-learns are scheduled: three about Policy Design (Fundamentals, Evidence Gathering, Stakeholder Consultations) and one about Canadian language policies between 1871-2018. Four hours, we thought, should give sufficient orientation about language and the language policy design process in a historical context.

The two other audiences, language professionals and community agencies, will have access to online webinars using the same foundational base. The topics covered in the preparatory materials created for this audience include consultation processes, what “good” contribution means, as well as a self-reflection on the nature of power and empowerment. The challenges that will be researched and explored are in the domain of the Pii, who identified eight areas of impact:

  1. 1. Immigration Services and Social Services (e.g. Ontario Works, settlement)
  2. 2. Healthcare Services
  3. 3. Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement
  4. 4. Education and Job Training
  5. 5. Legal Information and Services
  6. 6. Translation and Interpretation Services
  7. 7. Labour Relations and Services
  8. 8. News and Media Relations Impact (including “disaster communication” e.g. environmental catastrophes)

This research and discussion will feed a final report.

In conclusion…

For now, we believe we are doing well. The invitations have been accepted, schedules arranged, and guests confirmed. We are comfortable with the slight ambiguity, hopeful that if everyone is a bit insecure, we might actually have the necessary openness to overcome the tyranny of some voices, and get to a place of genuine shared expertise.

Governments are meant to face difficult policy choices but they do not have to do it alone. Nonprofits, as their extended arm, could be given an opportunity to interact with constituencies, because they have already been interacting with some segments for years, while responding to service needs. Governments are also pressured to innovate as much as the social sector is pressured to create social innovation. In Countless Rebellions — Challenging the Terms of Collaboration, Adam Kahane states: “That idea that social innovation is primarily about thinking up something new is only occasionally true. What it’s more often about is an alliance or a group being willing to do together something that had already been thought of.“

Perhaps the essence of policy innovation is nothing more than an attempt to balance the power by bringing in new people: making sure that service recipients and also non-recipients will be included in much larger numbers (new actors, new alliances), that everyone will be incentivized to participate, provided with appropriate participation skills, given frequent opportunities for contribution, and be informed about outcomes in a timely manner. If this was done regularly, then consultations and interactions would not be a novelty, but a power that we, as citizens, feel excited to have. Real reform will happen, as David Bulman and Luis-Felipe López-Calva suggest, only if there are “changes in the incentives of actors to pursue reforms, a shift in actors’ preferences and beliefs, and changes in the way decision making occurs to enable contestability by marginalized actors.”

So here we come, Language Policy Hackathon! Fingers crossed for doing our absolute best.

For Part I of The What, Why, Who and How of the Language Policy Hackathon, click here.

Interested in keeping track of the Language Hackathon? Follow along on our social media, using the hashtags #languagehack and #polihack.




To learn more about the Pii, please visit their website

Additional sources:

  • Policy hackathons: waste of time or fast track to innovation? Wonks, wine, and women’s empowerment – insights from a weekend in Geneva (Apolitical)
  • Policy Analysis in Canada (2007) by Laurent Dobuzinskis (Editor), Michael Howlett (Editor), David Laycock (Editor) Institute of public Administration of Canada series in public management and governance, University of Toronto Press