Ten reasons why we need a new approach to developing social policy – 5. Policymakers and decision-makers could get intelligence more quickly

This is the fifth in a series of posts on why social policy should be developed by and with the people who use and provide public and voluntary services. We’re publishing the rest of the series over the next week and a half, and we welcome your comments.

Ronald Reagan used to tell a joke about how long it would take for anything to be delivered in the old Soviet Union (it’s worth catching it here). Wouldn’t policymaking be incredibly slow and time-consuming – unworkable even – if ‘everyone’ was supposed to have a say, if decision-making had to be run like some kind of national collective? One response to this is that, given the social and economic cost of bad policy, good policy should take as long as it needs to take, and what we suffer from is too much new policy rather than too little. Both of these things might be true, but policy research and development could be faster and more timely as well as more credible if we made it more open and if we used readily available technology to facilitate it.

The reason we – practitioners, providers, service users and the public – don’t feel we have much of a say in policy at the moment is not primarily because of the speed at which policy is developed but because of the way it’s developed. It’s not because policy consultation timescales are too tight – though they often are – but because we don’t have confidence that anything we submit as part of these processes will be listened to. We suspect that the policy has already been determined behind closed doors, and that policymakers are going through the motions (as well as meeting a legal requirement) to consult with us – hence the tight timescales.

This suggests that what we need are better, real ‘pre-consultation’ processes by which we can propose, develop and inform policy. Formal consultations would then come towards the end of a process of more open, collaborative and cooperative policy research and development. We’ve suggested already in this series of posts how this kind of openness could help to strengthen democracy, trust and participation. At the moment, there are no such processes, at least not public ones. What we have instead is lobbying that is expensive, time-consuming and exclusive – the latter meaning taking place behind closed doors, but also because it’s often too expensive and demanding for smaller charities and campaigns to commission the policy work that might help them to influence policymakers (something we consider in the next post in this series).

So far this sounds even more time-consuming. But the point is that, through policy development being more open at an earlier stage and to more participants, we could more easily root out the bad ideas that should be killed off quickly. What we would avoid with this approach is the current situation of often quite poor policy being developed too slowly (because government doesn’t listen to what providers and others are telling it) and then implemented too quickly (because government continues not to listen). Instead we’d stand a better chance that the right amount of credible policy would be developed at the right pace.

Of course, some types of research and analysis need to take a certain amount of time – but many don’t. Rigorous and robust long-term research will still take the time it needs to take. But many aspects of research and policy projects could take much less time if we could find a quicker way to get to the right people and organisations and to collate the knowledge they already have. In other words, the challenge is often more one of coordination. There’s no reason why, if we could develop a large enough community in one place or network, we couldn’t much more rapidly source the initial ‘good enough’ evidence (existing studies, evaluations, case studies etc) that might support further policy development in certain directions. We could also gather new ideas and proposals for policy in much less time from a far wider range of contributors. This is where technology can play an obvious role, in providing a platform for this coordination and networking to take place.

All that’s really being suggested here are the advantages of crowd sourcing applied to policy research and development. The answer then to the question we started with is that if ‘everyone’ had a say, policymaking could be quicker as well as more credible and more democratic.

That’s what this project is about – developing a platform to conduct policy and research work quickly and easily by involving more people in it. As we’ve outlined in an earlier post, we want our project to be a place where organisations such as charities can instantly test out ideas for a new research project and invite people to participate, call for suggestions for a policy statement or consultation response, or source case studies for a developing news story. This isn’t the old Soviet Union: we don’t expect to wait months for something we’ve bought to be delivered. It’s time for research and development to enter the twenty-first century – for it to be made quicker, better, and cheaper (the subject of the next post in this series).

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