The power of Mumsnet – for Blog Action Day #PowerOfWe #BAD12

This post is about Mumsnet. We believe that sites like Mumsnet could represent the future of developing public policy. They point to the potential of mass membership online platforms to engage thousands of people in practical consideration of policy issues and so radically widen participation in policy – or as we call it, guerilla policy.

This post is also part of Blog Action Day, held on 15th October 2012. Founded in 2007, Blog Action Day brings together bloggers from different countries, interests and languages to blog about one global topic on the same day. Past topics have included water, climate change, poverty and food with thousands of blogs, big and small, taking part. The theme for 2012 is ‘The Power of We’ – something ably demonstrated by Mumsnet and its peers.

Now in its twelfth year, Mumsnet was founded by Justine Roberts, a former investment banker and sports journalist, and Carrie Longton, a television producer. The site is now Britain’s busiest social network for parents, receiving nearly six million visits a month. It is the 460th most popular site in the UK – much, much more popular than the Labour Party (5,057th), the Conservative Party (15,040th), or the Liberal Democrats (19,346th). With more than 600,000 registered users, it also has a bigger membership than all of the main political parties combined. In May last year, Mumsnet also launched a site aimed at grandparents, Gransnet, which already has 70,000 members and rising.

On the day I’m writing this, the most popular discussion thread (with more than 1,000 posts) focused on welfare reform, specifically the proposal from George Osborne at the Conservative Party conference to limit the number of children people can claim for as part of the Government’s aim of cutting £10 billion more from welfare (the thread was titled “to be fed up of George sodding Osborne and his Knobbish Ideas”).

As Mumsnet itself states, it’s a community, not a lobby group, and has “no particular political axe to grind”. Despite this, it has been highly active about issues it (or rather its community) feels strongly about. Mumsnet has initiated several national campaigns, and publicly supports a number of causes related to parenting, for example:

  • ‘We Believe You’, a campaign showing the hidden scale of rape and sexual assault in the UK.
  • A campaign for better miscarriage care and treatment, including the Mumsnet Miscarriage Code of Care, a five-point code that proposes a series of simple changes to current health service miscarriage treatment.
  • Successfully challenging major retailers to ensure that lads’ mags are kept out of children’s sight on newsstands, and its Let Girls Be Girls campaign against the commercial exploitation of children’s sexuality.
  • Monitoring how much money local authorities are spending on short breaks for families with disabled children.
  • Opposing cuts to Legal Aid.

This compares pretty well to any think tank or lobby group, even though it’s not Mumsnet’s core business. As a result, Mumsnet has come in for some criticism, which really boils down to two main points.

Firstly, critics question how representative Mumsnet is. The site has been labelled “a bunch of Guardian-reading, laptop-wielding harpies” (by Toby Young, of course, in the Daily Telegraph) “…peopled almost exclusively by university-educated, upper-middle-class women” – in stark contrast to the paper’s own readership of upper-middle class men. The site has also been called “smug, patronising and vicious” by the Daily Mail, of all papers. This reaction is seemingly motivated by competitive jealously, both because the Mail makes a business out of being vicious but also in umbrage that anyone else would dare speak for (middle class) mothers. This also betrays an old media take on new media, in that it completely misses the point. Mumsnet allows mothers to speak for themselves, in contrast to the Mail’s brand of misogynistic ventriloquism. And Mumsnet is just one site – if it’s not representative, there’s Netmums and many others.

Like any online community, Mumsnet doesn’t have to be – indeed it can’t be – representative of anything else but its members. Even though it doesn’t think of itself as a political organisation, Mumsnet realised that it would be remiss not to use its “authentic voice” to engage in issues its members care about, without determining on behalf of its members what these are. If its members didn’t support a campaign, it wouldn’t fly, the site’s leaders would get it in the neck, and its members would just go elsewhere. As Justine Roberts notes (in a recent New York Times article), “The power is in the democracy of it”.

In truth, Mumsnet is probably more representative of its members than the CBI or the TUC is of its members, but it doesn’t claim to be the “voice for employers” or the “voice of people at work” in the way that those organisations do – merely ‘for parents, by parents’. It might be much more illuminating if these organisations such as the CBI and TUC radically re-thought how they represent their members – away respectively from their committees made up of big businesses and conferences with their arcane voting rules, and towards the direct deliberation that online forums enable – so that their members can represent themselves rather than being represented.

The second criticism is the flip side of the first – that platforms like Mumsnet, because they are so large and hence potentially powerful, are somehow a threat to politics as usual (which is surely not a deal breaker). Some commentators (prematurely but perceptively) labelled the last election the ‘Mumsnet election’ as all three main political party leaders took part in live chats on the site. Again, professional jealousy might partly explain this reaction – ‘how dare ordinary people be allowed to question policymakers, that’s our job!’ But it also indicates a recognition that the location of real politics is shifting, away from the Westminster bubble and empty town hall meetings, and towards alternative spaces including online platforms.

Should we turn away from people wanting to participate – or towards them? Politicians have to go where the people are, and that’s the way it should be. People don’t need to be ‘engaged’ – policymakers need to recognise the ways in which people are already engaged and go with the grain of these, using the same approaches and language that ordinary people use. The recent party conferences were indicative of the increasingly ‘empty stadium‘ of contemporary politics. Just like bank robbers and money, places like Mumsnet will increasingly be where policy takes place because that’s where the people are, and where people are is where the personal experience and expertise is that could be used to inform better policy. That’s the power of we.


Open policy requires open research – the CBI’s report on outsourcing public services doesn’t meet this standard

Last week the CBI published research that claimed that government could save billions by outsourcing more public services to private business. Ironically for a report titled ‘Open Access’, the main problem with the report is not its argument but its lack of transparency. For such an important issue as the future of public services and who delivers them, we aren’t given enough opportunities to judge for ourselves whether the report’s claims stand up to scrutiny. Open policy requires a much greater openness about the data and analysis used to support such conclusions – otherwise it’s just a press release.

The CBI’s Open Access report claims that “opening up public service delivery to independent providers” (that is, outsourcing public services) could achieve savings of £22.6 billion “or more”. For such a big claim, the research has a fairly simple methodology. The researchers (Oxford Economics) looked at 20 different service areas to determine the average cost savings from greater efficiency and productivity from outsourcing (a figure of at least 11 per cent, within a range of 10-20 per cent); applying the same calculations across the estimated £278 billion of public services which the CBI believes could be fully ‘opened up’ produces potential savings from outsourcing of £22.6 billion.

Trade unions have criticised the report for a ‘lack of evidence’ (for example, Unison) and for not taking into account any of the transactional costs associated with outsourcing including procurement, tendering and contract management, let alone when private providers fail to deliver. The Local Government Association called the report’s calculations “ludicrous” for effectively double-counting savings from services which have already been outsourced. Other commentators have identified specific flaws in the research (for example, for fundamentally misunderstanding who already provides what in the housing sector).

Beyond this, it’s also important to note that efficiency is not the same as effectiveness, which is to say, cheaper does not always represent real value for money. This is especially the case when it comes to public services where there are often broader considerations to be made regarding ‘public value‘ – encompassing not only benefit to the individual service users but also to communities and society as a whole.

For example, it’s unfortunate that the CBI’s report promotes the Work Programme as a model of good practice, both because of the identified risk of fraud in the programme, but also because of the significant concerns about the programme’s impact on charities. As the NCVO has argued: “The Work Programme continues to pose major issues for charities particularly around managing cash flow and taking on risk and very large contracts prevent smaller and more specialist organisations from playing their full part. More seriously it’s clear that the payment structures used continue to threaten the viability of contracts.” However ‘efficiently’ it achieves its objectives, if a programme undermines the diversity of provision including from smaller charities, can it really be regarded as generating better ‘value’ for society?

Further, while the report recognises the widely shared public concerns about outsourcing public services, it also effectively makes these problems that government needs to solve – as if government is to blame for them: “The Government must take important steps to ensure the public retains confidence in the opening up of public services by becoming a more effective market manager and ensuring that the best, most effective providers from all sectors have the opportunity to manage our public services. Providers too must work with the government to address the public’s concerns about value for money, accountability and service failure.” Certainly government has the ultimate responsibility to ensure that public money is spent responsibly, for example that providers are properly audited. But if they are to be given millions or billions of pounds of public money, private providers also need to do more to prove their worth and reliability, such that they can be trusted to provide public services (something not helped by last week’s further revelations about the G4S Olympics debacle). Of course, one way to avoid such problems would be not to outsource more public services – but this is a view that the CBI regards as “dogmatic”.

However, the main problem with the CBI’s report is that we can’t properly determine the accuracy or veracity of the research for ourselves. It seems particularly questionable to assume that the same level of savings can be achieved uniformly across different areas of public services, and yet to quote from the research: “If an average 11% of productivity improvements is achievable across just £24.5bn out of the £666bn annual public sector expenditure on services in the UK, then similar levels of savings must be possible: not just in the un-open proportion of the markets researched but in the unopened proportion of the estimated £278bn of public services spending which could practicably be more opened up to independent provision.” [emphasis added]

Unfortunately, it’s not possible for us to investigate this much further. The problem is the methodology – or rather its lack of openness. As acknowledged in the report: “There is as yet little published information on the scope and performance of services delivered by independent providers.” The average saving figure used in the report is based on “existing research, and information from public bodies and providers” – including crucially from a survey of CBI members. The CBI has produced a nicely presented summary of the analysis by Oxford Economics; the actual analysis (which is a bit more difficult to find) is pretty opaque, especially when it comes to this survey of CBI members. One phrase that keeps popping up in the original Oxford Economics analysis is: “The degree of potential cost savings that could be achieved through outsourcing these services is estimated from responses to the CBI member survey.” In other words, the most critical figure in the research, the basis of the argument made in the report, comes from what the CBI’s own members claim – a claim we are unable to judge for ourselves because we are provided with no further information about it (for example, how many of the CBI’s members responded, what size were these providers, what specific types of services they provide, etc). For an argument in favour of open public services, this represents a remarkably closed approach to evidence.

As the CBI’s report notes, we are in the middle of the biggest wave of government outsourcing since the 1980s, with more than £4 billion in tenders being negotiated in 2012 alone in services ranging from prisons and police to defence and health. Given this, we need much more robust and reliable research about the benefits and the problems that outsourcing more public services would produce – before we outsource these services (perhaps irreversibly). The research commissioned by the CBI may or may not be a useful contribution to this analysis; the problem is that because of the report’s own lack of transparency, it’s very difficult for us to know.