Open policy is a challenge to government consultations – and an opportunity

More than 40 years ago the American sociologist Sherry Arnstein developed the ‘ladder of participation’ to represent the degree of involvement by citizens in decision-making. Arnstein’s levels range from ‘non-participation’ at the bottom of the ladder – at worse, the manipulation of citizens – to ‘citizen power’ and true citizen control at the top. One of the challenges for government today is that many people increasingly agree with Arnstein’s view of consultation as basically a form of tokenism. More positively, Arnstein’s ladder points to the possibility of different forms of engagement that could contribute to a better, more trusting relationship between citizens and government.

The widespread skepticism about consultation reflects a broader context of course – the steady decline in the number of people who say they are engaged and interested in politics and who trust politicians. To its credit, the current Government has recognised the extent of the problem and is trying to do something about it. Its Civil Service Reform White Paper published in June 2012 announced the Government’s commitment to ‘open policy making’, that:

“Open policy making will become the default. Whitehall does not have a monopoly on policy making expertise. We will establish a clear model of open policy making.”

Our own project, Guerilla Policy, is about developing a radically different approach to policy and research. We want to develop a way for public service practitioners and services users to conduct research and policy analysis. These groups are at the frontline of public services and social issues, and as a result they have practical expertise and experience that could be used to improve social policy, especially to make policy more credible and pragmatic.

Unsurprisingly then, we agree with the Government that open policy is an idea whose time has come. Policy development has been too closed, to a too narrow set of participants, for too long. We agree with the Government that Whitehall hasn’t got a monopoly on policy expertise, and we’ve made some initial suggestions about the ways in which Government can make open policy a reality, including by making open policy itself an open and transparent agenda and by opening it up to new participants.

One of the challenges facing open policy is the widespread lack of confidence in consultation, and whether the conventional approach to consultation can be improved or needs to be ditched altogether. Two relatively recent examples point to how significant doubts about the authenticity of consultation processes can very quickly translate into very strong reactions against the policies being consulted on.

First example: more than 538,000 people took to social media to protest against the consultation which proposed to sell off England’s forests (this included a major campaign by the online community 38 Degrees). In the face of an avalanche of protest, Caroline Spelman, then Environment Secretary was forced to suspend the consultation and apologized in a statement to the House of Commons for the way it had been handled: “I am sorry. We got his one wrong. We have listened to people’s concerns.”

Second example: earlier this year the Spartacus ‘Responsible Reform’ report was researched, written and promoted by a band of disabled activists who felt that a consultation on welfare reform was being manipulated by the Department for Work and Pensions. The report, based on a rigorous analysis of responses to the Government’s own consultation on reform of Disability Living Allowance, revealed the overwhelming opposition to the Government’s proposed reforms. The report took the social media world by storm, including trending number one on Twitter.

It’s not hard to see why this is happening; research by the Consultation Institute suggests that in only 40 per cent of consultations is it possible to make a clear link from the outcomes back to the responses received. In response, we are witnessing the emergence of new forms of ‘unsanctioned’ citizen consultation and mobilization. There’s always been protest of course, but these citizen-led campaigns, supported by social media and the internet, are increasingly fast-moving, flexible and distributed. We call this ‘guerilla policy’ – citizens stepping into the gap when they think the political establishment is failing to recognize, let alone act on, their views.

Such campaigns are difficult for policymakers to anticipate, and hard for them to respond to. Fundamentally, these campaigns aren’t just calling for different policies in the areas they care about; they’re also calling for a different way of making policy. In this respect, guerilla policy also offers government the possibility of a more positive approach, one that enables citizens to shape and inform policy in a more meaningful way. Social media-supported campaigns have the power to overwhelm consultation processes if the public loses confidence in the integrity of these processes. But social media also potentially offers a cheap and easy way to engage many more citizens to improve policy.

For us, what’s especially missing in consultation (to quote from the Government’s own proposals) is how to “enable policy to reflect the real-world experiences of citizens and harness public engagement with the policy making process.” We’re not suggesting that government delegates its ultimate responsibility for policymaking – for full ‘citizen control’ in Arnstein’s terminology. But the challenge for government – and for the open policy project we’re conducting with DemSoc – is that unless we find new ways to improve how to develop policy such that it reflects the experience and insight of citizens, then citizens will increasingly do this for themselves, working against government rather than with it.

This blog is the first post for our new project, in partnership with The Democratic Society. You can get involved by visiting the discussion space for the project, hosted by DemSoc in association with the Cabinet Office – and of course you can also share your views on this site.



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