An easy-read synopsis of the PASC report on Public Engagement in Policy-Making – 3 June 1013

‘Public engagement in policy-making’. Second Report of Session 2013-14 of the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC)

A full version of the report is available from

Mike Bracken (GDS) gives evidence to the PASC

Mike Bracken (GDS) gives evidence to the PASC


The June 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan the UK Government introduced a commitment to “open policy-making” – engaging the public and experts from outside of the ‘Westminster village’ in debates about policy and policy-making process itself.  This is seen as a significant departure from the traditional approaches to public engagement, which usually involved ‘consultation’ after the Government has already determined a course of action.  This important and in-depth review by the PASC suggests that there is great potential for open and contested policy-making to deliver genuine public engagement, and that “Digital technology and new media have a huge role to play” (p5)

Why involve the citizen in policy-making?

There is significant history to the UK Government’s espoused desire to get UK citizens more involved in policy-making.  The PASC itself has been quietly raising the issue since the Governing the Future  report in March 2007, and cranked up the volume in Strategic Thinking in Government report in April 2012.  Following the Government’s commitment to open policy-making in the June 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan the PASC announced an inquiry into open policy-making, looking at how effective and genuine engagement with the public could be best achieved in order to support policy development. In doing this the PASC covered a range of issues, including:

  • How current models of engagement promote or discourage people from being involved;
  • The best tools and methods for public engagement in policy-making;
  • The changes to be made by those carrying out public engagement activities; and
  • The ways in which success or failure can be measured.

A range of definitions of public engagement are provided from a range of external ‘experts’, although no new light is shed really. General consensus from the evidence received from the PASC is that the public are cynical, and that engagement – and particularly consultation – is used as “a fig-leaf of legitimacy for bad policy” that occurs too late in the ‘policy cycle’.

Salient Quote:

” Through ideas such as “the Big Society” and “Open Public Services”, the Government is aiming to redefine the relationship between the citizen and the state, enabling and encouraging individuals to take a more active role in society. The process of policy-making is one where the public can play an active and meaningful role, and it is right that the citizen and people with knowledge and expertise from outside Government should have the opportunity to influence the decisions of Government.” (p.10)

Involving the citizen and experts from outside government in policy-making

The Civil Service Reform Plan has pledged two separate actions to improve policy making by government: “open” policy-making and “contestable” policy-making.

A “clear model of open policy-making” is explained as one that exploits technology and social media to engage the public in debates about policy and in the policy-making process itself.  As well as referring to “web-based tools, platforms and new media”, the plan mentions “crowd sourcing” to help to define particular problems, instead of only consulting on solutions, and using “policy labs” to test policies with a range of people and organisations before implementation.

“Contestable policy-making”, by contrast, involves external sources are given the opportunity, through competition, to develop policy with “the additional benefit of bringing in expertise on specific subject matter when it does not exist in the Civil Service”. To achieve this, the Government has established a central match-fund, known as the Contestable Policy Fund, which is worth up to £1 million per year, allowing departments “to bid for an allocation of £500k funding (and provide £500k match funding themselves) to open up specific pieces of policy development to competition”.

Open and contestable policy-making is recognised as posing a real challenge for senior civil servants and Ministers.  Evidence presented to the PASC suggested that those civil servants involved in policy development will need to change the overall approach to their role, which may evolve to become one of “a custodian or guardian of the process, at the heart of decision-making” which could involve “vouching for the fairness, inclusivity and the representativeness of the process”.

Salient quote:

“If open policy-making is to succeed civil servants will need to integrate ongoing public engagement into “the day job”. The Civil Service does not have a monopoly on policymaking but civil servants are well placed to act as the guardians of the policy process, ensuring representation, analysing, moderating and support must be given to help civil servants with the transition to this new way of working. Training on public engagement should be routinely included in wider policy development training and leadership programmes. This should include, for example, information on the benefits of engagement, tools and techniques, as well as analysis of evidence.” (pp15-16)

Addressing the risks

The PASC recognises that good public engagement means being open to risk, particularly of the policy-making process being further dominated by vested interest, failure not to meet up with public expectations, and the failure to generate sufficient public interest.

  • Inclusion, representation & vested interests – several contributors to the enquiry raised the risk of policy agenda being further hijacked by  those that are already most articulate and most aware of policy ‘opportunities’; point to a Guardian Public Leaders network survey that suggests that 82% of respondents were opposed to contestable policy-making on these grounds;
  • Managing expectation about public engagement – if the public’s expectations are not managed (ie clear boundaries set, process is open and transparent, results fed back) then they won’t feel empowered, of that their time and contribution has been worthwhile;
  • Public appetite – points to an Ipsos-MORI report that suggests that “almost six out of ten of the public want to be actively involved in decisions shaping public services” but the PASC suggest that far fewer – only c10% – are involved in either “direct decision-making about local services or issues, or in the active provision of these servicesby taking on a role such as a local councillor, school governor or magistrate.” (p19), with a recognition that “the public is motivated to take part because they believe they have something to lose or gain, not because they want to help the democratic process. Therefore there has to be a compelling call to action, preferably with a ‘burning platform’ issue—the loss of an amenity or service”

Salient quote:

“Citizens will be most likely to engage with Government if they believe they can make a real difference or where the issue affects them. We believe the Government has the difficult task of ensuring adequate public participation in open policy-making. Without this, the process will be of little value. The Government must take steps to build confidence in the open policy-making process and to ensure that participation is sufficient to make the exercise meaningful and worthwhile.” (p20)

The role of digital technology

The PAC points to the Government Digital Strategy  as being focussed on transactional services and information and also looking to ways of improving the broader policy -making process including through better engagement and consultation.  The evidence received by the PASC generally supported the significant potential for web based forms of engagement to create opportunities for, and manage risk of, engagement.

Two examples of ‘impressive’ digital engagement are cited a by the PASC:

  • London Borough of Redbridge – The YouChoose  ‘budget-slider’ tool as part of their 2013/14 budget setting process
  • US Patent Office – a form of peer crowdsourcing to sift the quality of a backlog of patent applications to prioritise the more formal review process

Mike Bracken, ED of the Government Digital Service, stated that more needed to be done in the use of the internet to change policy and public perception,and wished for a higher level of radical ambition from Government Departments to this end.

The use of social media was extensively referenced, particularly of facebook and twitter, with contributors urging civil servants to “go to where the conversations are being held” and recognising that “the cost of using things like Facebook and Twitter, and building that into thedaily work of press operations and whatnot, is relatively low. They are excellent ways of broadcasting out and reaching people in the same way we use television, radio, newspaper or other traditional media. For other kinds of collective action, or organising other kinds of processes, we do need some purpose-built tools.” (p23)

Salient quote:

“In order to use digital technology effectively in open policy-making, digital experts within the Civil Service and outside should work more closely with policy teams to explore opportunities for digital engagement and to provide support in carrying out digital engagement activity…a number of digital infrastructures, such as Twitter, are already well established and well used by citizens. In most circumstances, there may be no need to recreate systems such as these in order to carry out open policy-making activity. Wherever possible, the Government should use existing digital platforms to engage with citizens and to avoid “reinventing the wheel” or running costly parallel systems.” (p23)

Measuring Success

The PASC points to a number of factors that could be used to judge the success of public engagement, including:

  • number of responses received
  • perceptions of Government’s responsiveness
  • the avoidance of dominance of single-interest groups(s)
  • links between engagement activities and better policy outcomes

The report reveals weaknesses in understanding of, and access to, appropriate metrics to measure successful engagement. When asked whether there should be some baseline data against which to measure the success of open policy-making, the Minister for the Cabinet Office replied “I do not know how you would measure it”. When pressed on this issue, particularly as to how success could be determined, the Minister responded “I am not aware of any means of measuring it” (p27)

Various ‘experts’ contributed vaguely interesting, and thoroughly predictable, insights into factors for measuring success.  One contributor did introduce an ‘demand side’ measure: “The person doing the engagement, who wants to consult and improve their legislation, needs to feel they have actually benefited from a wide range of experience. That is ultimately the purpose.” (p28)

Salient quote:

“While we recognise that it is not an easy task, some form of measurement or assessment needs to take place. The Government should come forward with details of how the success of engagement efforts across departments will be measured. These indicators or measurements, and the progress against them, should be shared between departments and made available in the Cabinet Office annual business plan.”

Conclusions and Recommendations

  1. The PASC has stated that is right that the citizen and people with knowledge and expertise from outside government should have the opportunity to influence the decisions of Government;
  2. the PASC supports the Government’s proposals for both “open” and “contestable” policy-making;
  3. Ministers should have the final say on whether to accept policy-advice generated in this new way;
  4. an open-source, or “wiki” approach to policy (where opinion, ideas and contributions are sought and welcome at all stages in the policy ‘cycle’) is central to moving away from old processes and embracing a new relationship with the citizen;
  5. civil servants will need to integrate ongoing public engagement with “the day job”;
  6. public engagement in open policy-making should be addressed in the Ministers induction  programme to enable MInisters to drive change in through their  departments;
  7. Government should conduct a proper risk analysis of open and contestable policy-making projects;
  8. As a minimum, contracts awarded through the contestable policy-making fund must require organsiations to undertake appropriate public engagement and demonstrate this influenced its conclusions;
  9. public expectations of engagement must be managed by being clear about the purpose of the engagement activity and the reasons for decisions taken as a result;
  10. government must take steps to build confidence in the open policy-making process;
  11. the PASC found that digital engagement by government departments could go further and embrace radical and innovate approaches that support the genuine and continuing involvement of citizens in policy;
  12. digital experts within the civil service and outside should work more closely with policy teams to explore opportunities for digtial engagement and to provide support in carrying out digital engagement activity;
  13. digital technology must not be used to the detriment of other forms of engagement;
  14. the PASC is concerned that Government has not given enough thought to measuring the impact of open policy making, and that it will not be able to demonstrate vfm and improved outcomes in this new approach;
  15. Government should come forward with details of indicators and measurements, and these should be shared across departments and made available in the cabinet office annual business plan.
Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

It’s all about the Policy, Stupid!

The Guardian suggests the latest round of funding cuts revealed in the Autumn Local Government Finance Settlement comes at a time of  ‘existential crisis’ for Local Government;  Council Leaders warn of riots on our streets in 2013; Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, accuses Birmingham City Council – the largest local authority in western Europe – of ‘screaming incompetence’ and tells the c1,000 Birmingham Council Officers who may be losing their jobs in the coming months that they only have themselves to blame for the cuts.

Oh dear.  It’s really not feeling a lot like Christmas.

jaws of doom

Birmingham City Council’s ‘Jaws of Doom’ graph illustrating budget inflation pressures v’s projected government grant reduction 2010/11 – 2016/17 (Birmingham CC, 2012)

Some Councils are getting seriously apocalyptic (‘jaws of doom’; ‘graph of doom’), many are politely controlling their indignation, and a few are being positively chirpy about these latest ‘nudges’ towards change, looking at the brighter side and counselling against ‘whingeing from the sidelines’.  But whatever the political and personal outlook of local council executives, the task of balancing the local books must be made all the more difficult when faced with yet another round of cuts.  Indeed, even the relatively non-partisan local government association has called the 2013/14 cuts ‘unsustainable’.

And at the front-line, users of local non-statutory ‘niche’ services are only too aware of the impact of cuts and closures.  As a young speaker recently told the Leader of Birmingham, the impact of the current threat to a local Youth Service that ‘reaches out to everyone, inspires them, keeps them off the street’ could well be more young people ending up in prison or committing suicide.

The debate on the counter-intuitiveness of making ‘easy’ cuts to non-statutory niche services that will end up costing the statutory services significantly more in the long run will undoubtedly continue, and I won’t go into the detail in this particular blog.  But what I do find quite remarkable is that the recent DCLG guidance for local authorities ‘50 ways to save’ makes only one mention of Councils fundamentally changing the way that the commission, develop, monitor and review their strategies and policies for service delivery (see suggestion no2, referring to ‘total place’ style ‘Community Budgets‘).  Mr Pickles’ introduction speaks of ‘a change in culture’ and a ‘significant potential across both local and central government to save taxpayers money’ but the guidance document points almost exclusively to the transactional, not the transformational.

In a previous blog I’ve pointed to the fact that the c400 Local Councils in England, Scotland and Wales spend around £140billion per annum to comply with a complex web of 1,300 statutory duties, and in doing so they employ around 2million council officers from Accountants and Administrators to Youth Workers and Yoga Instructors.

A typical Council has well over 100 strategies and policies in place to guide the work of their staff to spend that money and deliver those duties. And in my experience of working with almost 200 Local Councils I have yet to come across one that has a good holistic understanding of what these policies and strategies are, how effective they are (or aren’t), where there are gaps or overlaps, and to how to pragmatically restructure the local policy framework in a way that respects the ecology of multiple policy interaction and reduces unintended consequences of cuts.

And because they don’t know what they know, or what they don’t know, Councils will make unintended policy mistakes. One Local Council Officer told me recently of a situation where a decision had been made to close a local village youth club as part of a review of a policy in the Council’s C&YP service on the basis that a reliable and relatively-frequent bus service was in place to enable kids to travel to the next village to use theirs.  In the same financial year, under a different policy review, a decision was made to significantly reduce the evening bus service between the two villages due to low utilisation.  That particular council inadvertently closed both the club and the bus service, essentially ham-stringing the local kids from participating in meaningful social, recreational and educational evening activities and engagement with local services.  A relatively minor example in the great scheme of things, and one that could very easily be avoided.

Thankfully, while Government continues to push spending cuts through to Local Councils and offer such helpful tips as ‘tackle fraud’ and ‘ban mineral water at meetings’, more and more Councils are waking up to the potential for transforming the way that they make and engage on local Policy.

For much of 2012 I’ve been working with a select group of Councils and Government Departments in Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and Wales on how they can be more focussed, more effective, and more efficient in the development, delivery and administration of their local policy framework. One Council that I have worked with is looking at a 30% reduction in overall policy activity – becoming much more focussed on what it sets out to deliver – and then a further 25% efficiency saving in the way that it makes, monitors and reviews policy by driving improved processes and technology platforms.

And this work is slowly but surely increasing. In fact, just last week another Council in the south of England has confirmed a set of interviews and workshop with their CX and executive management team to help them set a pragmatic, deliverable agenda for transformational change on the way that their council consults and engages with their local residents, business and other stakeholders. I think 2013 is going to be a busy year!

The budget cuts are real, and will continue to drive significant cuts in local services that may very well fundamentally change the size and scope of local government in the UK for generations to come. And undoubtedly as the DCLG guidance suggests there is much we can do to improve local approaches to Council operations.  But the big missing piece in this particular jigsaw is a fundamental review of the way the your local Council sets out its policy responses to the local vision and outcomes for change.  I’ll be delighted to speak with you about how you can go about this in the New Year.

Festive Greetings to All, and Health and Happiness for 2013.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Policy? What the BLEEP is policy?

Do you know…

Policy-making by local councils guides the activity of 2million employees and the gross expenditure of around £140bn per annum across England, Scotland and Wales.   It helps to ensure compliance with c1,300 statutory duties.  And the typical upper-tier council spends c£2m per annum to produce and maintain its policy ‘framework’.   Those are big numbers, which ever way you look at it, and so ‘policy’ in local government must surely be something that is understood, rationalised and controlled. Right?


In fact, we don’t even have a clear definition…

What the heck is policy?

‘Policy’ is one of the most frequently used words in government, both national and local, and yet public policy-making is possibly one of the least well understood and articulated processes.

If asked, most reasonably-aware citizens would identify with Political Party manifestos as basic statements of policy direction in a democracy. At this level, ‘policy’ is a reasonably well understood concept – a term used to describe the Government’s attitude, proposals and plans to deal with issues in any given aspect of public life.  But is it also a concept without a clear definition, and one which is used to describe a very wide range of activity.

In the central government context, the generation of policy ideas – the ‘attitude’ of Government – is initiated by Ministers in the political arena where manifesto pledges, special advisers and think-tanks are prominent.  The civil service is primarily focussed on managing the process of policy development, providing the secretariat function for the policy process.

In the local government context, a similar process occurs whereby the elected members, through the executive (generally a leader and cabinet or a directly elected mayor), make decisions on policy options within the national policy framework prescribed by central government, and the allocation of resources to deliver these options.  The elected members appoint a Head of Paid Service’ (usually a Chief Executive) who is responsible for a structure of council employees, whose delegated tasks include the process of policy development.

Nope – still not got there – what is policy?

Here at Objective, when we’re working with our Government clients we think of ‘policy’ as any document or related documents that are delivered as part of the council’s activity around policy development, consultation, publication and delivery. This includes:

Policies – A Policy provides guidance, a framework, or set of principles that determine decisions, actions, and other matters.  It may or may not have a prescribed timeframe.

Strategies – A Strategy is defined as a long-term approach to implementing a set of principles, based upon a shared vision, establishing the current situation and the desired future outcome. A strategy is not static and should evolve in response to or anticipation of changing needs and circumstances, generally strategies have a 3-5 year timeframe.

Plans – A Plan follows on from a strategy and is a detailed document that sets out the intended methods of progressing from the current situation to achievement of one or more desired outcomes. The sequence of steps should ideally be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound.

Procedures – A Procedure is a particular way of accomplishing an objective through a set of behaviours, and is usually developed to describe the methods for implementing a policy.

4 steps to Rationalise and Improve policy-making in your organisation

 We have used our extensive experience of working with policy professionals in over 200 UK local authorities to develop an approach to ‘policy lifecycle management’ that will enable you to make real, lasting changes to your local policy-making context.  Essentially it involves four key steps:

 1. A review of your existing corporate policy framework;

2. Working with you to establish and communicate the vision and compelling case for change;

3. making some decisions on the future governance of policy-making to achieve that vision;

4. Putting in place the appropriate systems to enable the required behavioural change to occur.

To find out more about how to achieve better policy-making, for less, across your organisation please take a look at my PLM Whitepaper and get in touch!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment