Open to all

This week Sir Jeremy Heywood seemingly floated the idea of contracting the private and third sector to develop policy. An important part of our new think tank project is about opening-up policy development, so why do we think this might be a bad idea?

Firstly, it’s not (yet) clear how this would be different from what happens at the moment, but it sounds like it would cost money. If ‘contracting’ means paying for, why should government (i.e. us) pay for something that it gets largely for free at the moment? As Sue Cameron notes in today’s Daily Telegraph, Whitehall has not had a monopoly on advice to ministers for years, rather advice pours in from think tanks, paid lobbyists, unpaid campaigners, academics and pundits. If anything, ministers are overwhelmed by it, and it’s the job of civil servants to organise and filter this advice (‘din’) for ministers so that they can take informed decisions.

Secondly, however, rather than opening-up policymaking, this could actually engender even greater suspicion about behind-closed-doors influence. As Sue notes, consultants and others should contribute to policymaking – but at a distance. If they’re brought in too close, the public (and the media) will suspect their motives. Indeed, they already do – for example McKinsey’s apparent role in advising on the NHS reforms. Instead, why not really open-up policymaking to the widest possible range of participants and so hopefully avoid any such suspicions? It coud be that Sir Jeremy’s thinking is that private or third sector organisations become the vehicles for this type of much more open policy development, since many people don’t have much faith in government-run consultations. But contracting-out consultations to McKinsey is hardly likely to improve their confidence (and recall that the final provocation for those behind the Spartacus report was what they saw as the Government’s inaccurate accounting of consultation responses to its welfare reforms).

Thirdly, would outsourcing actually improve policymaking? Take implementation. We think it’s crucial that policy is developed in ways that ensures it can be implemented more easily and effectively. But pretty PowerPoint packs do not mean well-designed policy. We’ve noted here before that the intelligence about policy implementation available to consultancies such as McKinsey is not the same as (doesn’t compare to) that held by practitioners and the public. The latter groups have the practical insight (and foresight) that the former just don’t have, so we need to finds new ways to include them in policy. If they are excluded, policy risks becoming a car crash.

The conclusion, as suggested by our fellow WordPresser Puffles, is not that we need to outsource policy, rather it’s that we should crowdsource it. But the specific type of crowdsourcing here matters. There is a case to be made that there’s currently insufficient competition in policy development – that there is something of a ‘cartel’ in who gets to advise – but the problem isn’t that government has the ultimate monopoly on policy formulation (and isn’t it rather inherent to the definition of ‘government’ that it does?). We don’t need sharper, more intense competition (whether crowdsourced or otherwise) for the one ‘winning idea’ that is deemed to be the best solution (this would represent a rather characteristic think tanky ‘battle of ideas’ way of looking at the world). More often, what we need are a multitude of voices that help to inform how to execute a widely agreed policy direction – that’s to say, collective intelligence rather than competition. (This week also saw the publication of a report by Charlie Leadbeater for IPPR in which he argues that we need to design policy and our institutions to promote more cooperation to tackle pressing contemporary problems; surely this should apply to how we develop policy as well).

The potential here is that crowdsourcing policy could be cheaper, more transparent, and produce better results. What’s not to like about that?



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