Creating open space for policy

One of the great paradoxes these days is that we can be creators in so many aspects of public and cultural life that were previously the preserve of ‘elites’ – technology now enables us to make movies and music, to communicate and form our own communities so easily – but not in politics, which after all is really just the way in which we make public decisions.

We’ve been reading about methods for participative decision-making. These methods offer the possibility of a much more democratic, direct kind of politics. Our particular interest has been whether any of these approaches could provide the structure for the way our online policy and research community works.

It’s easy to see how the internet can be used for consultations and petitions, most notably leading to last year’s EU referendum debate in the House of Commons (the most popular proposal right now on the Government’s e-petition site is that convicted London rioters should lose their benefits). Contrary to the cynics, as suggested by Jackie Ashley at the time of the debate this could and should be seen as the start of something bigger.

It’s really interesting the way that campaigning platform 38 Degrees is expanding how it engages its growing community – most recently its partnership with Which? to reduce gas and electricity prices (a nice contrast to having your events sponsored by a big energy company). But can we go beyond ‘voting’ online as a form of protest; can we collaborate with practitioners and the public in positive deliberations in order to create policy?

Here we’re not thinking so much about the methods that can be valuable for local consultation (for example planning for real) or priority-setting (such as participatory budgeting). Rather, we’re focused on methods for deliberating on national policy issues.

What about structuring our platform based on citizens’ juries? Originally developed by the Jefferson Center, these consist of a small panel of non-specialist members of the public convened to examine an issue in detail and deliver a ‘verdict’. The jury is presented with information on the issue, including from ‘witnesses’. Such juries typically converge on a shared judgement, though not necessarily.

Citizens’ juries are typically convened by authorities when they face a particularly contentious issue. What about for more ‘normal’ issues? Citizens’ policy forums or civic forums could act as a pre-legislative deliberative process to improve proposals before they are turned into legislation and also scrutinise the implementation of policy by government. Andrew Lansley might have wished he’d done this for his health reforms (then again maybe not).

Beyond this, since think tanks play an important role not only in researching and analysing policy but in developing and designing new policy, why can’t expert practitioners and the public do this as well? (Their more practical perspective might also avoid what David Walker has called ‘neophilia’ in public services). For example, the idea of our new think tank convening long-running commissions on big issues (such as the future of social care) received a positive reaction in our recent workshops with charities; the timescales involved (say up to a year) would also allow these inquiries to gain momentum and help to ensure that we could engage marginalised groups.

In reality we’re unlikely to pick a single method. If it’s a case of balancing structure and openness (providing enough of a process to stimulate and guide participants’ activity but not so much that it inhibits participation and creativity), then one way to ensure flexibility is to allow for a range of approaches to be used depending on the issue and who we’re working with. As we’ve said before, we’re taking an iterative and experimental approach to developing our new think tank. We’ll discover that some methods will work better than others, but for different subjects and participants at different times. In this sense only, if there’s one method that best reflects the project overall it’s open space – creative, participative, and at times probably also a little bit messy.

(Thanks to Perry.)

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