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?


How can trade bodies make greater use of social media to improve the impact of their policy and research work?

How can trade bodies make greater use of social media to improve the impact of their policy and research work? Chris Sherwood, Co-Founder of Guerilla Policy and Director of Innovation and Development at Scope, argues that public sector trade bodies could make much greater use of social media to improve the impact of their policy and research work.

The lifeblood of trade bodies is to represent the interests of their members effectively to Government. Generating impact from their policy and research work is critical to both maintain confidence of members but also to ensure that their organisations have a credible platform from which to lobby from. Social media can help to achieve this – especially if trade bodies wish to set the agenda not just respond to it.

Like many people in my position, I’m often invited to meetings held by trade bodies, which are intended to try to capture and reflect the views of their member organisations. I tend to take a lot away from them and, like many participants, I appreciate the opportunity to network at these events. I recently took part in a consultation event on one area of government policy, which involved drawing together 40-50 individuals from the leading organisations in the sector to discuss a series of policy recommendations to improve this area of policy. The event was summarized in a report that was submitted to the Government. It was a well-attended event and a good quality report emerged as a result. However, it also prompted me to think: how could social media have helped to achieve a better outcome?

At the moment, we’re thinking about the wider application of Guerilla Policy. Guerilla Policy is an experiment in how research and policy development can be opened up through the use of social media and the internet generally. Could this approach be applied to trade bodies in order to generate greater impact from their policy and research work? On this blog we’ve already discussed the potential benefits that could be gained from social media to the development of policy and research, especially by inviting collaboration from a wider group of people who use and provide public services. These lessons, we believe, also apply to trade bodies.

Social media can help trade bodies in the following ways:

  • Help them to work collaboratively with their members to set the policy agenda in an open and transparent way;
  • Reduce the costs of involvement such as travel and time costs;
  • Enable ongoing dialogue between members and trade bodies, which allows for greater time for reflection and consideration;
  • Provide greater transparency over what happens to the contributions that people make, so that they can see the connection between the ideas they offer up and the final product;
  • Engage more people, in particular frontline practitioners and service users who bring a different perspective on the issues to hand;
  • Strengthen relationships between trade bodies and their membership and in particular to deepen these by engaging more people in member organisations;
  • Hook the media early on in order to build interest, rather than relying on a press release at the end of a project.

Social media offers other possibilities for trade bodies. A dedicated social media community would also enable trade bodies to conduct quick trawls for case studies and evidence to enable them to respond to an increasingly fast media cycle or to collaborate more effectively with partners. Finding the right case study to articulate your ‘policy ask’ can often be critical in generating interest. Social media enables also trade bodies to expand their networks, and since many journalists already use Twitter as a main news source when researching articles, trade bodies need to increase their social media visibility if they are to continue to be heard.

There are obvious barriers to adopting such an approach, not least that this way of working could be quite different to the way that some of the organisational members of trade bodies work. Developing policy in an open and collaborative way might also be daunting – what happens if you arrive at a different conclusion to the one you expected? There are also concerns about accessibility of this kind of technology, since generally-speaking social media is more popular with younger workers.

Yet the benefits are likely to come in terms of the impact of trade bodies’ work. The Spartacus Report is a model to learn from – but also a warning. This report on welfare reform was developed by disabled activists using social media. The impact was significant with it trending no 1 on Twitter before hitting mainstream media including Newsnight. This example shows that in a crowded media agenda, it is important to think creatively in order to cut through on behalf of members and their issues. It also points to a potential risk for trade bodies in that they could face competition from groups who can claim to represent their members, as social media facilitates the formation of new common interest groups.

Social media offers up a range of possibilities for trade bodies to increase the impact of their policy and research work on behalf of their members. It allows them to strengthen their relationships with their members, gives them a better chance to cut through, represent their members and ultimately influence Government policy.


What role could social media play in commissioning?

Chris Sherwood, Co-Founder of Guerilla Policy and Director of Innovation and Development at Scope argues that commissioners should use social media as a way to collaborate with citizens to open up commissioning.

In the first blog we considered the need to open up commissioning and this is where social media can help. Social media offers a range of tangible benefits for commissioners, which mirror those that we have documented for the policy and research community (and are the inspiration behind our Guerilla Policy platform). It is cheap and easy to use. It can provide a way for commissioners to engage citizens and providers in the commissioning process. It can play a significant role in building the confidence and trust of citizens and services users in what is actually selected because the commissioning process has been conducted in an open and collaborative way using social media.  Most importantly it can help commissioners to improve the quality and impact of services by opening up commissioning to new people and ideas.

When it comes to social media, commissioning seems like it’s in the dark ages. Even half of MPs now have an active Twitter account – yet a Facebook page or Twitter account would be seen as unusual, even regarded as risky, for a commissioning team. This means that commissioners are missing out on the opportunities that social media offers to collaborate with the people who use and provide public services to commission services that better meet need and use resources effectively.

Social media is an accessible, mass-market technology that is increasingly blurring the distinctions between ‘producers’ and ‘consumes’ of services.  Social media is a platform for collaboration.  It can facilitate the discovery of new or different insights about a social problem.  It can allow ordinary citizens, people who use and provide public services and commissioners to come together to co-design products and services.  More people involved means that more ideas are considered and there is greater transparency over what is actually commissioned resulting in good quality services that deliver better outcomes.

Social media is not a panacea and is at the end of the day a mechanism to support a wider shift in commissioning patterns from a command and control approach to one that is iterative, open, citizen-centred and reflects the lived experience of users.  A good example of this shift is the Make it Work service in Sunderland.  The service design agency Live:Work were commissioned to work in partnership with Sunderland City Council to design a new service to support hard to reach unemployed people secure employment.  Make it Work was designed through a collaborative process involving over 280 practitioners, employers and clients.  It became a two-year and £5m Working Neighbourhood Fund Service which has supported over 800 people, of who 200 have secured work (at a cost of less than £5,000 per person).  Where this example differs from the norm is that the commissioning cycle was broken up with the ‘needs analysis’ and ‘development of options’ phases undertaken by Live:Work, with a provider then selected to actually deliver the service.  The reach of these examples is going to be limited in an era of public sector cuts, but social media offers up a way to collaborate with citizens in the earliest stages of commissioning (building on this example) at far less cost.

Pepsi Refresh provides further inspiration for how social media could play a role in commissioning.  A web platform – http://www.refresheverything.com – was used to crowd source project ideas that could receive funding.  Up to 32 projects could receive funding each month.  The platform gauged the reaction of people to proposed projects to assist in determining those that should receive funding.  There are obvious parallels here with commissioning.

Both of these examples point to a different commissioning process, which is open, collaborative and built on the needs, lived experience and aspirations of those who will ultimately benefit from the services that are commissioned.  Social media provides a way  to help spread these approaches by providing the means to engage citizens and service users at far less cost and in a more focused way.  A local authority could for instance crowd source a needs assessment or use a social networking site to record people’s experiences of a service that is commissioned.  In the next blog, we will go onto further consider how social media could be used in the commissioning cycle.

The use of social media challenges the conventional way of commissioning as discussed in the previous blog and there will inevitably be concerns about the use of social media from commissioners and providers.  Obvious objections include how will this mesh with competition law, how do we up skill commissioners to adopt these methods, could the process be hijacked by a small minority motivated by a particular agenda and how can the commercial sensitivities of providers be protected?  All are genuine concerns and as a Director of Development for a large national disability charity I share some of them; yet these should not be barriers to change.  There are ways to remove these.  Commissioning is a complex, multi-disciplinary process that could be re-imagined as an iterative process, which we will consider further in our next blog.

Now social media should not be seen as a cheap alternative to commissioning of services.  This is not an agenda for cuts.  It will still need to be resourced, but it does hint at a new way of working for commissioners that we will look at in our next blog.  It is also not a panacea to solve all problems with commissioning.

Ultimately, why social media offers benefits to commissioners is that it helps people to feel that their voice is heard in decisions that are made about services that should be commissioned in their area.  Surely that can only be a good thing?


Could social media help to open up commissioning?

Chris Sherwood, Co-Founder of Guerilla Policy and Director of Innovation and Development at Scope argues that commissioners should use social media as a way to collaborate with citizens to open up commissioning.

This is the first in a series of blogs that will look at how commissioners can embrace social media. Opening up commissioning can play a significant role in ensuring local accountability over what is commissioned ultimately leading to better, cheaper services. Social media could help.

The NCVO defines commissioning as “…the process of finding out about public needs, then designing and putting in place services that address those needs.” Commissioning is a complex, multi-disciplinary process involving research and analysis, design, procurement, contract management and evaluation. Commissioning has often been overlooked by policymakers but there is increasing recognition that it is an important policy lever as increasing amounts of public services are outsourced, a direction of travel that the Coalition has committed to speed up.  David Cameron set out in a speech in July 2011 a commitment to open up public services by challenging the ‘presumption’ that the state should deliver services rather than the voluntary or private sector.

Commissioning has traditionally been a function of public bodies like central government departments, local authorities and NHS bodies. However increasing amounts of public services are actually commissioned by the private and voluntary sector; with the Work Programme being the best example of this with private prime contractors responsible for commissioning a range of providers in their supply chain.  Commissioning by the private and voluntary sector offers up opportunities for innovation but there are also equally concerns about how services are commissioned by these bodies.

Commissioning is still largely a ‘closed shop’, operating in a bubble of the ‘professional knows best’ culture with activity taking place behind closed doors. Bureaucratic hurdles such as requirement of bidders to provide three years of accounts or TUPE obligations and perceived legal barriers such as EU competition law stifle the appetite for innovation and collaboration. This results in only limited engagement with relevant stakeholders either at the beginning of the commissioning process or after it has been completed.

This ‘closed shop’ approach to commissioning hampers innovation as the insights and ideas of providers and citizens are neglected or ignored.  Collaboration between providers is constrained because this approach results in competition rather than partnership, with providers reluctant to share any of their ‘added value’ for fear of it reducing their advantage when it comes to the scoring of their tender.  Finally, it reinforces inertia as commissioners are reluctant to de-commission or radically change what is commissioned.

There have been some innovations on the fringes of commissioning, but these are not yet the mainstream. Participatory budgeting is a process that many local authorities have adopted to engage local citizens in deciding how to spend small pots of discretionary funds. It was developed in Porto Alegre in Brazil has since been adopted in the UK. In my own borough of Lambeth residents were asked to decide which community projects should receive investment from a £250,000 investment pot. Residents were not able to suggest projects but could decide which of those offered up should receive funding.

Whilst Turning Point’s Connected Care uses a community research model to support the commissioning process.  Community researchers are involved in the development of a comprehensive needs assessment to inform what is commissioned. These researchers are local citizens who have received training to take part in a structured research process. The model has obvious benefits in that the local community plays an integral role in helping to shape what is commissioned but this approach has been criticized for being too expensive.

Both of these models offer interesting insights about future possibilities for a more collaborative and open approach to commissioning, where citizens play an active role as ‘producers’ as well as ‘consumers’ of services. Their reach could be expanded further through the use of social media. Community researchers could for instance use social media to crowd source quantitative and qualitative data to inform the needs assessment. Yet both of these examples operate at the fringes of public services. Examples of where citizens are engaged in designing services that help the public sector respond to the big challenges of cuts, an ageing society and climate change are harder to come by.

At the moment, we are thinking about the wider application of Guerilla Policy. Guerilla Policy is an experiment in how research and policy development can be opened up through the use of social media. Could this approach be applied to commissioning? So far we have talked a lot about national policy in our work (and it would be interesting to speculate on what the Work Programme would look like if the design had been crowdsourced). However, most commissioning however takes place at the local level, so the ‘guerilla policy’ approach also needs to be applied locally. In this series we will consider what role social media could play and where commissioners could adopt this approach.


Do we need a manifesto for public and practitioner involvement in social policy?

This project – Guerilla Policy – is about developing a movement of people and organisations who use and provide public services, working together to create better social policy. Do we need to write a manifesto?

Our project is based on the critique that much social policy is made by people who have little or no direct experience of the public services and issues that policy relates to – and that this direct experience matters. We’ve put forward ten reasons why we think social policy would be better if it was developed by and with the people who use and provide public and voluntary services – that they have the necessary expertise, experience and insight that good policy development requires. Guerilla is a movement that we hope will serve to bring these people and organisations together in order to create better social policy.

It might sound somewhat portentous, but movements often start with and coalesce around manifestos. Most obviously, we think of political and social movements when we hear ‘manifesto’, but there could also be useful analogies in the manifestos developed by the proponents of open and free software. Here are some examples that in various ways could serve as inspirations for our own manifesto – we’d welcome your own suggestions for other examples, and indeed your views on whether we need a manifesto at all.

  • The GNU Manifesto was written by Richard Stallman in 1985 at the beginning of the GNU free software project, and it became a key document in the free software movement. (‘Free software‘ is where the users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software). The Manifesto put forward the reasons and aims of the project, why free software was so important and how it would benefit users, rebutted the objections to free software, and set out how programmers could support the project.
  • The Cathedral and the Bazaar is the book of essays first published online in 1997 by ‘hacker philosopher’ Eric S. Raymond on the impact of open source software on technology and indeed the wider world.  The title comes from Raymond’s analogy for two fundamentally different ways of developing free software: the ‘cathedral’ model in which source code is available with each software release but the code developed between releases is restricted to an exclusive group of software developers; and the ‘bazaar model in which the code is developed over the internet in full view of the public. Raymond argues that the latter approach is better – the more widely available the source code is for public testing, scrutiny and experimentation, the more rapidly all software bugs will be discovered. Raymond’s evangelism helped to persuade Netscape to release their browser as open source software and promoted Linus Torvalds and the Linux project.
  • Out of Netscape came the Mozilla project. ‘Mozilla’ is the everyday name for the free and open source software project founded in 1998 to create a next-generation range of software for the internet, most famously the Firefox browser and Thunderbird email application. The organization was formally registered as a non-profit organization in 2003 as the Mozilla Foundation. Mozilla’s Manifesto sets out the organisation’s principles which it believes are critical for the internet to continue to benefit the public good as well generate commercial activity – the project uses a community-based approach to create world-class open source software and to develop new types of collaborative activities.

Even if you’re not interested in software or in technology generally, these manifestos are worth reading for the revolution in thinking and practice that they represent, and which continues to affect our lives everyday. And of course they also echo and have inspired much of our thinking in this project on how we can collaborate in order to improve social policy.

So, do we need a manifesto? We’ll be discussing this – and exchanging ideas about what this manifesto could include – on our new site. If you haven’t already, register by clicking on the link on the top right, create your profile, and go into the group ‘Developing a Guerilla Manifesto’. We’ll see you there.


Guerilla Policy: Start the conversation, join the conversation

Today we’ve launched a new discussion forum on Guerilla Policy. It’s actually a lot more exciting than that, so give us a bit of time to explain what we’ve done.

Our new forum is based on StatusNet, the world’s leading open source social software. StatusNet is a microblogging application, similar to Twitter. As its developer says, StatusNet “enables [people] to collaborate, share insights, solve problems and build relationships in real time.” Here’s what you can do using our site:

  • start conversations on issues that matter to you;
  • ask questions to the rest of the community;
  • invite others to participate in projects and develop collaborations;
  • join existing conversations and share your thoughts;
  • set-up a profile for you or your organisation;
  • search for topics, people and organisations;
  • send direct messages to people and organisations.

You can also set-up private areas if you’re not ready to share a project with the whole community.

Why this particular software? We’ve said before that we think the future of policy research and development is in collaboration rather than competition. It’s a discussion, not a war of attrition, because no single person or organisation has the monopoly on truth. Social software creates an open environment for collaboration, and this is what we’re trying out with our new site.

(You might be thinking that if the software is like Twitter, then why not just use Twitter? Firstly, the software we’re using is open source, which means that we can use it for free and tweak it to suit the needs of our community. Secondly, it means that the conversations we have here are owned by the people and organisations that participate and contribute to them – try asking Twitter or Facebook to relinquish ownership of your data and see what their reaction is. Thirdly, we think that the future of social networks is in communities focused on particular issues or purposes, whereas Facebook, Twitter etc are just too general – but let’s see).

We’ve put this together very quickly (we’re called ‘guerilla’ after all) – and if it doesn’t work then we’ll try something else. This project is also a conversation, after all – we’ll be led by what the people who join our movement say they want and need in order to create better social policy.

So try out the site and let us know what you think. Start a conversation, join a conversation – go to Guerilla Policy.


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.