Policy inside out

The world of public service bloggers hit the headlines last week when it was revealed to the Leveson inquiry that the anonymous police blogger NightJack was hacked by The Times. Lancashire detective Richard Horton was ‘outed’ by the newspaper in June 2009. Horton’s blog, which won the Orwell Prize for its description of life as a PC, was deleted and he was reprimanded by his bosses (only a partial NightJack archive still exists online).

I love public service bloggers. Whether I share their particular political and social views or not, I’d almost always rather read a blog written from the frontline than from a Westminster-centric commentator. Frontline blogs are often highly informative, contentious, challenging – and sometimes as dull as real life. But that’s the point: they’re authentic (usually), which is why they matter to our new think tank.

At their best, these bloggers capture the day-to-day reality of public services in a way that no-one else can. This includes the dirty, difficult, and sometimes dangerous experiences that form the basis of real expertise – and so the insights we need to improve social policy. These bloggers don’t shy away from policy issues, but they often have a practical, pragmatic, ‘why-it-won’t-work-here’ perspective that could surely be usefully incorporated into policymaking before, rather than after, we’ve wasted millions of pounds introducing a new policy that’s effectively designed to fail.

Guardian Professional Networks has a great roster of frontline commentators (I’d point particularly to Mark Johnson and The Patient from Hell). But such voices are usually shut out of policy debate, at least in the think tank-Westminster bubble, because it’s a bit embarrassing in polite society when too much reality intrudes into otherwise safely abstract policy discussions. I’ve sat in a number of meetings in thinktankland where – presumably because they couldn’t reasonably be barred – a real life practitioner (or god forbid, a service user) has been present, and witnessed for myself the often uncomfortable reactions of policy insiders at their presence: an odd mix of condescending ‘respect’ (exaggerated listening and nodding) and please-go-away-now shuffling.

Which makes me think: what ‘insider view’ do we choose to care about, and why? The conventional wisdom in policy circles, or the practical wisdom that’s earned at the frontline? Or to put it another way, how did ‘insider’ come to mean positioned as far away as possible from reality?

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