The good idea business

We’re more likely to get good social policy if we involve practitioners and users in developing it.

Many of the most exciting ideas in public services over the past few years have come from practitioners and users – personalisation and direct payments, Nurse Family Partnerships, the Expert Patients Programme, The Swindon LIFE programme (developed by Participle with 15 local families), Keyring and Shared Lives in social care, the Richmond Fellowship’s RETAIN programme and Star Wards in mental health.

This isn’t surprising. Practitioners and users are much closer to the problem. They can see and experience for themselves the ways that existing services aren’t working. Everyday they are met with the frustrations of services users, their families and the local community. They can also start to test out new approaches on the ground, sometimes surreptitiously.

Practitioners and users experience policy as well. They see how approaches designed in Whitehall and think tanks – from funding and commissioning to regulation and performance measurement – actually operates at the frontline. They are better positioned to anticipate how it will be interpreted and implemented, not according to the perfect blueprints of its creators but when it encounters reality, often with a thump. This includes likely unintended consequences, for example, how measurement and targets can be ‘gamed’ (we all remember the hospital trolly example). This kind of insight can only come from frontline experience and expertise, not from on-high.

Given this, practitioners and the public should be involved in developing policy, not limited to commenting on it. This demands a different kind of think tank, one that’s built to include them from the outset.

Think tanks need to get into the good idea business.

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