A full version of the report is available from http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmpubadm/75/75.pdf
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’.
” 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”.
“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”
“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)
“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)
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)
“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
- 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;
- the PASC supports the Government’s proposals for both “open” and “contestable” policy-making;
- Ministers should have the final say on whether to accept policy-advice generated in this new way;
- 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;
- civil servants will need to integrate ongoing public engagement with “the day job”;
- public engagement in open policy-making should be addressed in the Ministers induction programme to enable MInisters to drive change in through their departments;
- Government should conduct a proper risk analysis of open and contestable policy-making projects;
- 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;
- 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;
- government must take steps to build confidence in the open policy-making process;
- 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;
- 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;
- digital technology must not be used to the detriment of other forms of engagement;
- 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;
- 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.