Making open policy a reality (part 2)

A couple of weeks ago the Government announced its plans for ‘open policy’. In this post and the previous 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 ‘open policymaking’. It has 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 post and the previous post set out how Government can make open policy a reality – staring with a few things that Government should avoid doing.

6. Don’t focus only on generating new policy – improve existing policy

One of the problems with the ‘policy industry’ of think tanks, charities, campaigns and commentators is the restless hunt for and promotion of ‘new ideas’ (what David Walker calls ‘neophilia‘). This competition distracts from a more considered approach to improving policy and public services which focuses on how policies and approaches can be steadily improved and refined, better implemented, delivered and administered – in other words, sufficient time to research, think, reflect, plan and review. Openness should enrich existing policy, not serve only to add more ‘noise’.

7. Don’t focus on new technology – use what we’ve already got (used to)

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. But just as neophilism often results in costly, unnecessary and untested new policy, so technologism tends to assume that new ways of working always require new technologies. They don’t. Wherever possible, Government should use existing technology and platforms. Don’t fall for the tech hucksters, keep it simple (even if it’s not perfect), and focus on the content instead.

8. Don’t listen to the loudest – openness is about hearing quieter voices

Government has said that the open policy agenda is about widening access to policy to individuals and organisations not normally involved. Fairly or unfairly, a certain type of personality comes to mind when you think about the policy industry. But if open policy really is going to reach out, it needs to include the people and organisations who aren’t always so confident in their own perspicacity but have relevant evidence and insights to contribute. Open policy should carve out spaces for the people we don’t usually hear from – especially those marginalised and vulnerable users and communities who rely on public and voluntary services.

9. Support lots of experiments – and do it openly

Like anything new, parts of the open policy agenda won’t work, and the critics and cynics will do what they do best (sneering). But the best way to discover what works is to invest in a diversity of projects so that we find out and learn. The scale of projects is then important. What will kill open policy is ‘too big to fail’ pilot initiatives. What will allow it to grow and thrive are lots of little experiments – and a commitment to keep testing and keep learning.

10. Stimulate a new ‘market’ – then step back

Government should be congratulated for its public commitment to the open policy agenda, but this doesn’t mean it has deliver it all on its own. In part, this agenda reflects what entrepreneurs and organisations outside of government have already demonstrated is possible – from and 38 Degrees, Mumsnet to the Spartacus Report. There is already an emerging ‘market’ in open policy, one which Government can play a useful role in helping to legitimize, but not one it has to direct itself. If some or most of the platforms and places where open policy gets done are independent from Government, this will also be an advantage – for the integrity, transparency and credibility of open policy, and also for the specific policies it produces.

To some, the open policy agenda might be a gimmick. But we’re confident that in the (hopefully not-too-distant) future we’ll look back and wonder why the way we currently create policy was ever considered ‘normal’, and why we ever thought it was credible that policy was developed largely behind closed doors, by a relatively narrow group of people, many of whom lack direct practical experience of the issues they were creating policy for. These two posts have been about how we can bring forward this future and make open policy a reality sooner – let us know what you think and what we’ve missed.

Put your name on policy – blog with Guerilla

We’ve got lots of plans for the next few months as we develop Guerilla Policy. Our ambition is to create a movement of people and organisations who use and provide public services, working together to create better social policy. This is just the start. One of the things we’d love to do is create a hub for frontline practitioners and service users to blog about their work, their experiences and how they think policy needs to change.

We’ve written before here about our love of public and voluntary service bloggers, and how we’d almost always rather read a dispatch from the frontline than (largely) warmed-over opinion from a Westminster-centric commentator. At their best, frontline bloggers capture the day-to-day reality of public services in a way that no-one else can, including the dirty, difficult, and sometimes dangerous experiences that form the basis of real expertise and so the insights we need to improve social policy. For example, read BendyGirl‘s writing on the reality of welfare reform at Benefit Scrounging Scum (shortlisted for the 2012 Orwell Prize). These blogs are often highly informative, contentious, challenging, and sometimes as dull as real life – which after all is the reality of life at the frontline.

These bloggers often engage directly in policy issues, but from a practical, pragmatic and informed perspective that could surely be incorporated into policymaking before we’ve wasted millions of pounds (and harmed people’s lives) introducing policies that are destined to fail. So much ‘professional’ commentary is dominated by that week’s ‘inside baseball’ nonsense, to the exclusion of how policy effects real lives and how it could be improved. Frontline bloggers make policy real, sometimes uncomfortably so from the perspective of policy wonks – which is probably why their views aren’t usually invited into national policy debates (Guardian Professional Networks is a notable exception, along with parts of the trade press).

We want to put the real insiders where they belong – at the centre of policy. What we’re looking for are practitioners and services users who can provide a real-life perspective on policy – just as BendyGirl does on the reality of welfare. It doesn’t matter if you don’t consider yourself an expert – in fact, we’d prefer it if you didn’t (self-proclaimed ‘expertise’ often denoting an arrogance and insularity from other viewpoints).  It doesn’t matter if you don’t know the ‘right’ words, because writing that’s worth reading doesn’t depend on anything other than your proximity to the reality of public and voluntary services. And it doesn’t matter if you can’t write for us every week (you have a life to live and a job to do, after all) – we’d prefer it if you posted when you have something to say and a bit of time to reflect.

If you already blog, we’d love to syndicate you here and hopefully add to you readership. And if you’ve never blogged before, why not give it a go – your voice deserves to be heard as much as anyone else’s. If you’re interested or have any questions, just fill out the form below and we’ll get back to you asap. We can’t pay you – but we can help you to put your name on policy.

Reflections on New Think Tank – 3. Crispin Oyen-Williams

This is a series of posts in which we’ve invited people to give us their reactions to the New Think Tank project. This post is from Crispin Oyen-Williams. Thanks to Crispin for contributing this post, and we welcome your comments.

I think the New Think Tank is a really innovative and brave idea. Getting real people from the front line of services to input into policy ideas gives findings a new potential level of authenticity and relevance – something currently lacking in the public policy process.

As I said above though, opening the process up to any potential input takes courage, as what will come back will be unknown. Managing potential tensions between a sponsoring client and some views that come back that are uncomfortable will undoubtedly occur. In reality, though, gaining real input should be seen as the measure of success for the New Think Tank – that real people feel comfortable enough to deliver some out-of-the-box left field thinking.

This theme of real people with real thoughts (warts and all) cannot be understated. It must shine through though in the brand, the ethos and the work of the New Think Tank. This is key, both to its credibility, as well as the new Think Tank’s ability to differentiate itself from competitors.

This is a blog and I am writing informally, so forgive me if it sounds like I am going a bit over the top about the ‘get the real people in here’ point. But, I feel that this could be a sizeable challenge, as moving think tanks away from the idea that the dog wags the tail and not that the tail wags the dog (the tail being a small group of policy experts to the body that is the everyday ‘Joe Blogs’ public) is easier said than done.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to a workshop looking into ideas around the formation of the New Think Tank. The workshop was an exciting session where all attending came up with lots of innovative thinking about the way forward for the New Think Tank. Only problem for me, was that the entire table was made up of public policy experts and not the real people the New think Tank seeks to engage.

Now, having met the founder Mike, I have no doubt that he has made sure that real people do have ownership of the formation of the New Think Tank; with this table being just a branch of a much wider process. However, the workshop did point out to me a very clear illustration of the very large challenge that awaits in trying to make sure that real people from the frontline of services are always involved in all aspects of idea creation in the New Think Tank.

Stepping out onto a less travelled path, let alone cutting out a new path is always tough. But I have real admiration for Mike and the goal of the New Think Tank to involve real people and their expertise in creating ideas for policies that affect them. I am a world-weary student of the political theory realm, where many arguments portray the importance of representation as being in conflict to the brightest idea winning. But rather than see them as mutually exclusive, I have always seen representation and good idea generation as interdependent and mutually reinforcing. I therefore look forward to seeing the innovative ideas that the New Think Tank generates. Best of luck on the journey!

Crispin Oyen-Williams


Why we need a new approach to developing social policy – 10. It’s the right thing to do

This is the tenth 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 welcome your comments on the whole series.

In this series we’ve suggested that we need a new approach to developing social policy, one that involves the people who use and provide public and voluntary services in the research and development of policy. We’ve put forward a range of benefits that we think this approach would produce – namely policy that is better quality, more implementable, more representative, more inclusive, more timely, more cost-effective, more innovative, and would help to produce the better public services we want. For these reasons, and because it reflects social and technological change, we think this is the future. There’s one last reason to add to this list: it’s the right thing to do.

Public and voluntary services don’t belong to policymakers or policy wonks. Public services belong to all of us. We pay for them, and although it might not always feel like it, we own them – literally if they are publicly provided services, and figuratively if we rely on them. They’re our GP surgeries and hospitals, our schools and nurseries, our police forces and courts. More than this, we are all public services. Co-production reveals that the people who use services are as critical to their effectiveness as the practitioners who deliver them. Indeed, services wouldn’t exist without the people who use them – they’d just be buildings and equipment and staff standing around.

All of which leads to the point that it’s our policy as well – not one person excluded. This challenges some deep-seated (but rarely articulated) notions about politics and policy – about who has the ‘right’ to be involved in policymaking and who is sufficiently ‘expert‘ to be brought into the charmed circle.

Talking about this project with a lot of people over the past few months, we’ve been encouraged by plenty of positive reactions and offers of support. But we’ve also heard some ‘concerns’. These usually start with ‘yes I love the idea of course, but how are you going to…’, followed by one or more of the following:

  • …make sure that people will want to be involved;
  • …make sure that they will continue to want to be involved;
  • …go beyond the ‘usual suspects’ who get involved in anything;
  • …manage people who are unmanageable;
  • …manage people’s expectations when the world doesn’t change overnight;
  • …find money to develop the project when there’s no money around;
  • …respond when other think tanks don’t like the idea;
  • …react when you realise that no-one actually wants better social policy, rather what they really want is more funding for their prejudices;
  • …produce policy given that practitioners and service users can’t write (this was actually said to me);
  • …feel when you discover that it’s been done before, and by implication, hasn’t worked.

Some, any or all of these ‘concerns’ might be true. Some of them could be considered patronising to what the media refers to as ‘ordinary people’ (i.e. anyone who doesn’t work in the media or isn’t interviewed regularly by those who do). But ultimately, none of these concerns matter. Even if they were all true, it would still be worth trying to develop a new, more inclusive way to create better social policy – because it’s the right thing to do.

No piece of policy will make everyone happy, but then this project isn’t about policy reflecting what practitioners and the public feel, rather it’s about policy reflecting what they know. It’s about policy research and analysis that engages more of the people who know what they’re talking about because they experience the services and issues at first hand. It’s about examining a problem, developing policy options, evidencing the best option, and considering how this option could be implemented most effectively (the kind of thing that few think tanks actually do that often). Not everyone will be happy with the outcome, but everyone should have the right to contribute to the process.

In the main then, as we’ve suggested throughout this series, this project is about harnessing the practical benefits that we think would derive from the greater involvement in policy work of the people who use and provide public services. But then, even if none of these benefits were realised or realisable, even if there were no other reasons to support this approach, and even if the problems and barriers often seemed insurmountable, we still think it would be worth trying – because it would still be the right thing to do. Join us from 1st June if you agree.

Ten reasons why we need a new approach to developing social policy – 7. Policy would be more diverse and inclusive, and so better

This is the seventh 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 we welcome your comments.

With more voices able to participate in policy research and development, policy would include more perspectives beyond the ‘usual suspects’. Policy would better reflect who we are. That policy would be more representative is a good in itself, but a much more open and participatory approach to policy development would also greatly enhance the range of intelligence that informs policy. Policy would better reflect the reality of providing and using public and voluntary services. Let’s deal with these two points in turn.

Firstly, democracy and representation. The policy world, including think tanks, can be exclusive and elitist – not because they are designed to be, but as a result of a set of implicit assumptions about who is able and willing to participate in policy issues, the ‘correct’ language to use, and an often competitive style of policy debate and discussion. In short, policy and politics is highly off-putting to a great many people. Commentators often describe low turnouts at elections as a symptom of ‘apathy’, but it’s not that we’re lazy. To quote from the film Slacker: “Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy.”

The problem is that we haven’t yet adopted and popularised an appropriate and accessible set of mechanisms that enable mass participation in policy development. Many of the required mechanisms already exist; what’s missing is the desire to use them. Fundamental to this project is our belief there’s a much larger constituency of people who would be involved in policy if the opportunity was presented to them in the right way – for example through a community-based approach, by creating a place to share and consider practical intelligence on the policy issues that are closest to people. The debilitating apathy, we would suggest, lies instead with the established political class and their reluctance (and resistance?) to experiment with some of these participatory decision-making mechanisms in order to try to establish a new legitimacy for our politics.

Secondly, a greater diversity of voices in policy would greatly enhance the range of intelligence, insight, experience, expertise that informs policy. Progressive businesses have recognised that there’s a strong business case for diversity and that this goes well beyond the glossy corporate recruitment brochure. Politicians have often urged companies and the public sector to be more diverse; they should do more to ensure that the policymaking for which they are ultimately responsible is similarly more representative of who we are.

The particular focus of this project is to develop a way to enable more organisations to conduct and contribute to better policy and research based on frontline expertise, experience and insight. This means the organisations that are typically excluded from policy such as smaller charities, but also individuals as well – the lone practitioner or service user who wants to contribute their perspective to policy but currently doesn’t have any way to do this. This would also increase the amount of (practical, tested) innovation and creativity in policy (the subject of the next post in this series).

History suggests that, one way or another, people eventually find a way to be heard. The new social movements of the 1960s and 1970s – for racial equality, women’s rights, gay rights – were (and continue to be) calls for recognition, acceptance and participation. But what’s remarkable about today’s sense of marginalisation is how widespread it is, and just how many of us feel ourselves to be excluded by the political system. When the majority feels like it’s on the outside, those on the inside need to recognise the dangers of complacency. Much greater diversity, then, isn’t just a ‘nice to have’ – it’s now critical to better policy development at a time when better policy development is critical, and to the sustainability of democracy when our democracy is looking increasingly unsustainable. We welcome all of your thoughts.

Ten reasons why we need a new approach to developing social policy – 6. Policy would be cheaper to research and develop

This is the sixth 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.

Innovation means that products and services get faster, better and cheaper – but only generally and only over time. On any given project, engineers say you have to ‘pick any two’ – that you can’t cut costs and improve quality while delivering in less time. In 1992, then NASA administrator Daniel Goldin disagreed. Under his ‘faster, better, cheaper‘ management philosophy, NASA launched 146 payloads worth a total of $18 billion, and all but 10 were successful. The problem was that the ones that were unsuccessful were hugely embarrassing – among them the debacle of the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter, which was lost because a contractor failed to convert from imperial to metric units when coding its software.

In previous posts in this series we’re suggested that a lot of policy research and development could be conducted better and faster than at present, by being conducted collaboratively by and with provider organisations, practitioners and the public who use services. But we also think that this approach could prove cheaper as well, and that in this case instead of working against each other, faster-better-cheaper could be mutually reinforcing.

First of all though, why does ‘cheaper’ matter when it comes to policy? At the moment, many valuable contributors to better policy research and development are effectively priced out of the market. No organisation that conducts or commissions policy and research work has money to waste, but smaller charities typically don’t have sufficient resources or capacity to undertake much policy work themselves or to sponsor a think tank or a research consultancy to do it for them. The result is a narrower set of voices in policy – and policy is poorer for it.

The heart of the problem is the business models used by policy and research providers such as think tanks. We’ve suggested before that the business model behind think tanks is ripe for disruption. The reasons for this echo why incumbents in so many other sectors, from retail to media, are being disrupted by new market entrants based around the internet and social media: high fixed costs; incumbents focusing on existing ‘high-end’ customers; over-specified, often expensive products; and limited use of cheap, commonplace ICT. Most of the time, most think tanks operate as part of the old economy rather than the new.

As a result, and because of a lack of suitable alternatives, think tanks have in effect played a gatekeeper role in helping only a minority of organisations to develop and strengthen their policy messages to government and introducing these organisations to policymakers. Think tanks provide a platform, but not to everyone. It’s not that they want to exclude smaller organisations, just that most smaller organisations can’t afford to commission them.

However, the lesson from other sectors is that the internet and social media can offer routes around existing gatekeepers, by creating faster, better and cheaper ways for smaller ‘producers’ to reach new audiences. And for many charities and other organisations, the engineers’ dilemma  is actually less significant, since if ‘good enough’ policy work was faster it would also be better (for example, so that they can input to a current policy debate or media story).

The key is this is finding and building a better business model, which is what we’re attempting to do here. Our approach is based on building an online platform – a social network – so that organisations such as charities can work directly with frontline practitioners and service users on policy issues, and harness the time, commitment, expertise and support of these groups in order to produce more credible, independent policy.

What’s certain is that if we don’t manage it, someone else will – that’s the inevitability of innovation. Like other sectors before it, policymaking is about to be disrupted.

Ten reasons why we need a new approach to developing social policy – 3. We would strengthen democracy, trust and participation

This is the third 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 whole series over the next two weeks, and we welcome your comments.

We face a significant and growing public disillusionment and disengagement from mainstream politics. Scepticism and cynicism is rife about politicians, political parties, and as a consequence, about politics itself. However unfair, inaccurate and self-fulfilling this scepticism might be, it is a real phenomenon and an increasingly serious one. How do we resolve it?

Not by tweaking, a bit of reform here and there. What’s happening reflects a longer-term social and cultural change, flowing away from deference and attachment (to a community, to a class, to a party) and towards individualism, autonomy, and self-determination. It’s both good and bad, and depending on your political position, what you might consider to be largely good, someone else might consider to be largely bad – the changing nature of the family for example.

What unites us is that we’ve had enough of bullshit. We’ve reached the end of the ‘marketing age‘ in contemporary politics. That’s not to say that we won’t get fooled again, but we might be quicker to rumble it. Clever political marketing also doesn’t sit very well with a grinding economic recession. Greater authenticity does. We don’t care where someone went to school – it’s what they do, their character and what they stand for that matters.

What’s next? The opposite of being marketed to is being part of something and helping to create it. It’s not that we don’t care about politics, it’s that traditional institutions and mechanisms don’t reflect the social and cultural change that’s happened. They don’t reflect our scepticism, but neither do they reflect something much more positive: our desire to be involved, to participate, and to exercise our self-determination collectively.

This is not a passive age, quite the opposite. There’s massive engagement in movements and platforms that show that they recognise this social change and provide ways for us to be part of something good. Look at Avaaz,, 38 Degrees,  Citizens UK (London Citizens), and campaigns such as Make Poverty History (returning in 2013). It’s not a coincidence that the President of the United States was a community organiser: he knows how to mobilise people, and many of us want to be mobilised. Charities, political parties and companies are having to adjust to this reality; those that don’t give us meaningful ways to be involved will fade away.

So the obvious question is, why not government as well? Why can’t we – as the providers and users of public and voluntary services – help to shape the policies that determine how these services are provided, how they are financed and held accountable? Traditional consultations are the policy equivalent of being asking to sign a petition, when we want to be the petitioner. Open data, open services – these are good things, but the third dimension of open government is open decision-making. For us, that means developing new ways that public policymaking can be democratised, and in particular ways in which a greater diversity of the people who use and provide public services can more directly inform policy based on their own expertise and experience – something that’s largely missing from policy development at the moment.

It’s not about a better form of consultation, it’s about cooperative problem-solving. What this means is that the future of national policymaking, the way that we can resolve the crisis in trust and legitimacy facing us, lies in the ethos and practices of community organising – in developing platforms for real change that are non-partisan but passionate, hard-headed but optimistic, accessible but serious. Anyone got any better ideas?