Making open policy a reality (part 1)

A couple of weeks ago the Government announced its plans for ‘open policy’. In this post and the following post we suggest how it can make open policy a reality.

As part of its recently published civil service reform plan, the Government has committed itself to promote ‘open policymaking’. This includes:

  • commissioning policy development from outside organisations such as think tanks;
  • crowdsourcing questions to shape the definition of the problem (not just consulting on solutions);
  • using ‘Policy Labs’ to draw in expertise from a range of people and organisations and test new policies before they are implemented;
  • making more data available freely so experts can test and challenge approaches effectively; and
  • using web-based tools, platforms, and new media to widen access to policy debates to individuals and organisations not normally involved.

Most significantly, the plan announced a new “presumption in favour of open policy making, with policy developed on the basis of the widest possible engagement with external experts and those who will have the task of delivering the policy”.

This project, Guerilla Policy, is about how policymaking can be (and needs to be) re-thought for the age of mass participation, social networking and media, and open online collaboration – in particular, how these offer the possibility of getting more frontline voices into policymaking. So we obviously support the open policy agenda, and we think that government, so often characterized as being resistant to new ideas (especially where these ideas are likely to challenge the power of government) should be congratulated for thinking about how to open-up policy and for its bold public commitments to put this into practice.

Despite the widespread cynicism about politics and politicians today, then, we should take the Government at its word and seize this opportunity. This post and the next post are about what Government needs to do to make open policy a reality – and the role the rest of us can play.

1. Make open policy itself open and transparent

Government has set out its ambitions for open policy. Putting this agenda into practice should start with open policy itself, which is to say how the agenda is developed, how opportunities for funding and support are designed, down to how individual projects are selected and commissioned. An open policy agenda designed and determined behind closed doors would not only be ironic – it would be a missed opportunity to develop and extend the current proposals. Government could start with an open forum to discuss and co-design the open policy agenda.

2. Demonstrate how this is different from consultation

It would be tragic if open policy becomes the new consultation, that’s to say distrusted, devalued, and discredited. As stated in the reform paper, an important part of open policy is that those outside government can define problems, not just express their view on proposed solutions. Government needs to signal how open policy marks a fresh start. This doesn’t mean abdicating responsibility for setting policy objectives, just avoiding preempting the answers. One way for Government to do this would be to establish two or three ‘open policy challenges’ – competitions for potential policy solutions for difficult issues – and to see what happens.

3. Crowdsource the evidence on what works for crowdsourcing

‘Policy’ is obviously not one process but a set of related activities. As the US researchers on government innovation William D. Eggers and Rob Hamill recently pointed out, there are at least five roles that crowdsourcing could play in government – competitions, crowd collaboration, voting, labour (‘micro-tasking’), and funding. Government needs to breakdown the various stages of policy – from agenda-setting and development, to implementation and evaluation – and identify what approaches to openness might be most appropriate at each stage. It doesn’t have to start from scratch – it should ask the community of those interested in and supportive of open policy to help gather the research and case studies of what’s already been done, what’s worked and what hasn’t. In the spirit of crowdsourcing, we can help.

4. Make sure that open policy is open to new participants

There’s little point to open policy if it merely becomes a new way to generate policy from the same old suspects. New voices could deliver new (better) ideas, insights and evidence. Government has said it wants open policy to widen access to those people and organisations not normally involved. Two ‘rules’ might help to ensure this. Firstly, make it a requirement of individual projects and proposals under open policy that they engage seriously with typically marginalised people and organisations – especially those who provide or experience services at the frontline. Secondly, support and enable these people and organisations to engage in policy directly themselves – for example, if you want to generate new ideas about how to improve a public service, commission some service users and practitioners to work with you.

5. Deliver an early result

The biggest barrier to open policy – and especially our collective belief in it – will be Government’s preparedness to act on the outcomes. Without a notable ‘win’ – say, a crowdsourced policy passed into law within a couple of years – the armchair cynics will reassure themselves that they were ‘right all along’. The flip side of Government setting out such a bold agenda is that every time it falls significantly short it’ll be called on it. The Spartacus report – one of the inspirations for this project – was born of an angry reaction to a botched and seemingly disingenuous government consultation. Government can do better, and it should.

This is a really important agenda that could be potentially be very radical. The challenge is in how the agenda is developed from now on, and in the spirit of the proposals we believe that this is best done open and collaboratively. In the next post, we put forward five more ways that Government can make open policy a reality. In the meantime, what do you think about the open policy agenda? Do you agree with Government’s ambitions for this agenda – and how would you propose putting it into practice?


3 Comments on “Making open policy a reality (part 1)”

  1. Andrew says:

    It would perhaps be useful to send a print out of Parts 1 and 2 of this blog to Alan Beith, whose Justice Select Committee report on the FOI Act has fairly unquestioningly accepted the notion that good policy making will only occur if officials and ministers have a ‘safe space’ of secrecy – especially pre-decisional secrecy – when considering whether the Act has had a ‘chilling effect’ on the willingness of officials to provide frank and candid advice. It is sad that the question was ‘Has the Act damaged policy making?’ and not ‘Should we be more open about policy making?’

    Blair’s asinine and authoritarian comments are just the sideshow, and even disprove his own point, as he only submitted a statement after a leak of the committee’s report indicated they would criticise him for not giving oral evidence.

    • I agree, thanks for this point Andrew. It’s hardly surprising that policy elites would prefer to keep decision-making processes as secret as possible, but the fundamental logic of their argument – that policymaking is of higher quality when fewer people can input into it, when there is a lack of effective scrutiny and testing of evidence and analysis, and when those that are involved are protected from being held publicly accountable for their decisions – is questionable to say the least, and wholly contrary to genuine open policy and the benefits it would surely bring.

  2. […] a challenge to consultation. For us, taken to its logical conclusion (to its greatest openness), ‘open policy’ means we need to develop a radically different approach to policy and research. In terms of social […]


Let us know what you think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s