Why we need a new approach to developing social policy – 9. It’s the future

This is the ninth 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 last in the series on Monday, and we welcome your comments.

According to How Stuff Works, the top five future technology myths are:

5. We’ll all be driving flying cars soon

4. We’re approaching the technological singularity

3. Moore’s Law will always hold true

2. Robots will be our friends

1. We can stop climate change.

In the case of policy, the equivalent myth is the inevitability of policy development and determination dissolving into some kind of ever-rolling 24/7 technology-enabled plebiscite, and that we will all feel perfectly represented. Of course, the future is not inevitable. Despite the obvious benefits to opening-up policy research and development (at least from our point of view), the future is something we make, and innovation is mostly about implementation. At the same time, and at the risk of falling into the myth trap, it also feels inevitable that policy research and development is going to change – for two main reasons.

Firstly, social change. Politics is changing and our political institutions aren’t changing nearly quickly enough to keep up. We’re in the middle of a long-term cultural change, flowing away from deference and attachment (to a community, to a class, to a party) and towards individualism, autonomy, and self-determination. This is often assumed to mean that we no longer want to be part of anything, that we’re all just self-acquisitive, selfish individualists. We hope it means the opposite.

We increasingly expect and demand that our voice is registered and (to some extent) listened to. We want to be involved – where institutions can demonstrate that they recognise who we are and that we have something to say. We want to exercise individual self-determination, but we want to do it together. We want to represent ourselves, rather than be represented. It’s not incidental that the President of the United States was a community organiser. Look also at the rapid growth of communities and movements such as Avaaz, Change.org, 38 Degrees, Citizens UK (London Citizens), and Make Poverty History (returning in 2013). We’re only at the beginning of finding new ways to mobilise people in order to change policy. Any existing institutions – from charities to companies as well as political parties – that don’t provide meaningful ways for us to participate will surely just fade away.

Secondly, technology. Many of the communities mentioned in the previous paragraph wouldn’t have been possible even a few years ago; now because of the internet and social media anyone can establish a socially purposeful social network (which is what we’re doing here). These platforms represent the principles of community organising made digital, but our conventional political and policy processes haven’t begun to reflect these various forms of digitally enabled community organising.

Part of the public’s disengagement from politics is certainly about structural issues – the decline in the efficacy of the nation-state in an age of globalisation and transnational corporations, the increasingly widely shared view that whoever we vote for, the government we get is of, for and by the 1 per cent, and so on. But part of it is also probably due to the fact that our democratic processes are in the dark ages technologically speaking, on the apparent assumption that applying even twentieth century tools to the business of taking part would be tantamount to ‘letting light in on magic’. So we can vote instantly for something as inconsequential as a Saturday evening TV talent show, but we still trudge to an empty school on a week day to exercise our democratic rights. Institutions that don’t use the technologies we use everyday quickly seem out-of-date and out-of-touch.

From this perspective, the UK Government’s moves towards openness are welcome but limited. Initiatives such as open data, e-petitions and opening-up publicly funded research are innovative but, given the extent of public disengagement, also insufficient. Alongside open data and open services, the third dimension of open government – and we would argue the most important of all – is open decision-making. This isn’t about developing better forms of consultation, rather it has to be about cooperative problem-solving. The future of national policymaking, the only way we can resolve the crisis in trust and legitimacy facing us, paradoxically lies in the ethos and practices of community organising.

In this project, this means developing new ways that policy development can be informed by providers of public and voluntary services, frontline practitioners and the public who use services. It’s their expertise and experience that’s largely missing from policy development at the moment, and policy is poorer as a result. The working title for the project is ‘new think tank’ (at least for the next couple of weeks), but it’s not really a think tank as commonly understood – rather it’s an open public platform for policy research and development. We’ve suggested here before how many think tanks neglect social media and how in particular they miss the opportunity to use it to host conversations. We think that a social network could be used to work with frontline practitioners and service users, in order to draw directly on their expertise, experience and insight to create better policy.

It’s not inevitable that our approach will work, but it’s inevitable that the way we develop policy has to change. In the future we might not all be perfectly represented, but we definitely need to be much better represented. This project is about what we can do right now to improve policymaking, but it’s also about anticipating and responding to this future – starting today.

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, Change.org, 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?

The top 35 think tanks by Twitter followers

Here’s the  top 35 (well, 40 now since we’ve added a few as a result of updates) most well-known UK think tanks ranked by Twitter followers (this is only for the main organisational Twitter feed, i.e. it doesn’t include dedicated team or issue feeds, or individual feeds):

  1. Chatham House (19,320)
  2. The RSA (18,597)
  3. new economics foundation (18,214)
  4. Joseph Rowntree Foundation (15,807)
  5. IPPR (14,324)
  6. Demos (14,220)
  7. The King’s Fund (13,462)
  8. The Overseas Development Institute (11,841)
  9. The Fabian Society (11,572)
  10. The Young Foundation (9,955)
  11. Adam Smith Institute (8,927)
  12. Open Europe (8,553)
  13. The Institute of Development Studies (7,863)
  14. New Philanthropy Capital (6,027)
  15. Compass (5,828)
  16. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (5,615)
  17. Policy Exchange (5,578)
  18. Transform Drug Policy Foundation (5,009)
  19. The Institute for Government (4,810)
  20. ResPublica (4,405)
  21. Ekklesia (3,359)
  22. Centre for Policy Studies (3,253)
  23. LGiU (3,185)
  24. The Work Foundation (3,143)
  25. Centre for Cities (2,927)
  26. Runnymede (2,439)
  27. Reform (2,357)
  28. New Local Government Network (2,307)
  29. International Longevity Centre – UK (1,969)
  30. Centre for Social Justice (1,881)
  31. Social Market Foundation (1,848)
  32. Resolution Foundation (1,718)
  33. The Institute for Economic Affairs (1,383)
  34. Centre for Local Economic Strategies (1,362)
  35. CentreForum (1,140)
  36. British Future (1,089)
  37. Civitas (657)
  38. Policy Studies Institute (328)
  39. Politeia (52)
  40. RAND Europe (1).

(The last one is odd – you have to request to be a follower. I’m not sure that RAND, despite their other considerable capabilities, really get social media.)

For the sake of comparison:

  • UK Uncut (40,082)
  • Mumsnet (23,405)
  • 38 Degrees (12,500)
  • Lady Gaga (20,860,123).

869, if you’re asking.

Not asking for permission

Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, is to act as an unpaid adviser to the UK government to support its “agenda to open up policy-making to the public.” His ideas on how technology could be used to give the public a greater say in policymaking might be very valuable, and government should certainly try to create better platforms for public participation. But let’s recognise that the main barrier isn’t technological. It’s political.

One of the ideas behind this project is that policymaking would be better (i.e. higher quality) if it engaged and involved more of the people with practical experience of the issues at hand (in the case of social policy, this especially means frontline public service practitioners and service users). But such is the widespread scepticism about government consultations that it seems unlikely that government (or the Government) will be successful in attracting many more members of the public to respond to such exercises, whatever technology it employs. Perhaps it will be possible over time to shift this scepticism, but trust (and so willingness to participate) can also be destroyed virtually overnight when any government is seen to ignore majority or professional opinion (as in the case of the NHS reforms).

It’s good that the Government is considering what ‘all this’ (wikis, social media etc) means for policymaking. But I’m not sure that what we want  are savvier forms of government-sponsored engagement. I think what we want most of all is for government to listen when we do express a view, through whatever means. A wiki could be a great way to develop policy collaboratively and transparently. But if government wanted to more accurately and faithfully reflect and respond to public or practitioner opinion, then it wouldn’t need a wiki to do it.

We can recognise that government is difficult, that there are lots of conflicting and competing interests that act on policymaking, that there are times when policymakers actually think that much of the public is ‘wrong’ on an issue, and that politics – which is to say party political interests – is often the defining factor in decision-making. This means that the challenge isn’t ultimately about finding the right methods for participation, however important this is, so much as developing the right mindset about policy and politics.

Part of this challenge is that government is somewhat inevitably attached to a ‘consultation mindset’, where it sets out certain times and ways in which ‘we’ (by which it typically means respectable and ‘responsible’ organisations) are asked for their views on a specific proposal. But social media is not about asking for, or being granted, permission to voice your opinion. It’s about taking that ‘permission’ for granted (which is to say, not asking at all). Spartacus didn’t ask for permission. Neither did Occupy the SEC. If the Government really wants to explore how technology can be used to give the public a greater say in policymaking, why not just give a bit of money to 38 Degrees and a few other organisations and see what happens?

This makes me think that we don’t so much need better ways in which government can invite us to register our views (which it may or may not subsequently listen to anyway). Rather what need are powerful platforms that we own, that are ours. No-one needs official authorisation, or that much money really, to experiment with various kinds of platform to support collaboration around how policy could be improved. We could and should do it right now if we want to. In fact, we are.