Policy is for other people

Our project is one month old today. What have we learnt so far?

The basic idea – a think tank where research is done by public service practitioners and the public who use services – seems to spark with people. By next week we’ll have talked to more than 35 charities in our first set of customer insight workshops, we’ve had 1,500 page views on this site and gained 400+ twitter followers. We’ve started conversations with potential development partners and we’re going to be writing a development diary for a national newspaper. It’s very exciting and more than we could have hoped for. It seems to be one of those ideas that many people want to see happen – so thank you to everyone who’s contributed thoughts and suggestions.

Some other reactions are a bit more ‘yes but…’. Possibly the biggest area of doubt at the moment is whether you really can engage frontline practitioners and service users in policy and research work through an online community. Lots of organisations including charities have extensive experience of trying to engage these groups with varying success, and focusing participation on an online platform is likely to exclude (or fail to include) some of them. Many people who we think should be interested – because social policy affects them directly or indirectly – just won’t be.

Moreover, many people don’t see themselves as having a legitimate voice in policy. For all sorts of reasons they might currently lack the confidence and capability to engage with policy issues. They’re especially unlikely to be involved in something called a ‘think tank’.

So over the next few months it’s crucial for us to develop good answers to these questions, in part by pointing to the organisations that have found practical ways to overcome similar barriers to participation. But we also need to get better at knowing when we’re being invited to share in the (often unspoken) assumption that ‘policy is for other people’ – the ones in authority who went to university and know the right words to use. Because ultimately it’s challenging this assumption – and not building online platforms or developing engagement mechanisms or anything else – that this project is about. The rest is detail.

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