The Government is paying the political price for the lack of open policymaking in its reforms to the NHS

The NHS is facing significant financial pressure as a result of austerity with smaller increases in spending, which are not keeping pace with demand. This has meant that the NHS has to find £20 billion in efficiency savings by 2015. At the same time the health service is facing one of its biggest upheavals ever, which will result in a greater involvement of private companies in the health services. The reforms to the NHS have been introduced in the face of stiff opposition and in many ways represent the opposite to open policymaking – and the Government is now paying the political price.

The opposition to the Health and Social Care Bill was substantial and included the majority of the main health bodies, many of whom were not invited to attend the infamous Downing Street health summit to discuss the bill earlier in the year. Notable non-attendees included:

  • British Medical Association
  • Royal College of GPs
  • Royal College of Midwives
  • Royal College of Nursing
  • Chartered Society of Physiotherapists
  • Royal College of Pathologists
  • Royal College of Radiologists
  • Royal College of Psychiatrists
  • Unite
  • Unison.

Opposition to the bill was widespread in the workforce of the health service. One survey found overwhelming opposition from hospital doctors, with 9 out of 10 professionals opposed to the bill. Strong opposition to the reforms was also apparent amongst the grassroots of the coalition parties. ConservativeHome came out in opposition to the reforms, arguing that it could cost the Conservatives the next election and would distract from important reforms to welfare and education, whilst Liberal Democrat party members opposed the reforms by 2 to 1.

Much of the opposition about the reforms has centred on how complex and fragmented the new health system will be. Clare Gerada, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, has argued that the move to a market-driven health care system will result in a culture of ‘my disease is more important than your disease’, with GPs at the centre of this trying to balance these competing voices. She has flagged her concerns about the lack of experience of GPs in managing relationships with the charities and lobbyists they will face when commissioning in future.

Andy Burnham, the Shadow Health Secretary, agrees on the point of fragmentation of health care, arguing that “my answer is simple: markets deliver fragmentation; the future demands integration.” He has called for a single system for health and social care which addresses the physical, mental and social needs of the nation. He has argued that central government should decide what health services should be delivered and local government how.

Despite the overwhelming opposition, ministers have been happy to write off the protests as ‘business as usual’ when it comes to NHS reform. Simon Burns, the then Health Minister, stated that the opposition from these ‘vested interests’ was to be expected and scare stories about ‘creeping privatization’ are par for the course. Andrew Lansley, the former Health Secretary and architect of the reforms, argued that the Royal College of Nursing only opposed the reforms because of pension changes, accusing them of being ‘a vested interest indulging in trade union -like behaviour’. The appointment of Jeremy Hunt as the new Health Secretary does not inspire hope about a change of policy course, given that he is seen as a proponent of greater involvement of the private sector in a market-driven health service.

The reforms have now received Royal Assent and the Government seems committed to accelerating the involvement of the private sector in the NHS. Research by the Labour Party using freedom of information requests to NHS primary care trusts found that contracts for almost 400 NHS services worth a quarter of billion pounds were signed in early October, representing the biggest act of privatization ever seen in the NHS. The research found that in a quarter of cases, the primary care trust had not been open about its intention to outsource, resulting in a considerable amount of privatisation by stealth.

The biggest privatisations so far have been in community services – those healthcare services offered outside of hospitals including musculoskeletal services for back pain, adult hearing services in the community, wheelchair services for children and primary care psychological therapies for adults. Children’s health care in Devon is now delivered by Virgin Care, as are GP services in Northampton and sexual health services in Teeside. This week’s Channel 4 Dispatches programme entitled ‘Getting Rich on the NHS’ uncovered poor quality services delivered by Virgin Care and concerns from local residents that their local services have been privatised often with little or no involvement from the community in this decision.

Paul Corrigan, the former Labour health adviser, argued in September that outsourcing of services should go further. He proposed that the private sector should be allowed a greater role in the NHS to ‘save’ failing hospitals. This argument is ironic given that this week it became apparent that the flagship outsourcing of Hinchingbrooke Hospital in Cambridgeshire to the Circle Partnership is not delivering on the initial expectations. The hospital, in private hands, has racked up losses of £4.1 million in the first six months of the contract – £2 million more than was expected. Given that the private sector was involved to save the hospital from financial ruin, the experience so far does not bode well.

This closed approach to policymaking and reform is having a real and significant political impact on the Government. A recent survey by IpsosMORI on which party has the best policies on healthcare found that the Conservative’s ratings are at pre-Cameron levels. Only 16% of voters believe that the Conservatives have the best policies on healthcare and they seem to have lost the battle in convincing the public that the NHS is safe in Tory hands. A further recent poll by IpsosMORI points to a re-toxification of the Conservative brand, with a sharp increase in people who don’t like the Tories since they came into government, which the reforms to the NHS are clearly a part of. The Government is paying the political price for the lack of open policymaking in its reforms to the NHS.


Michael Gove’s approach to education reform is the opposite of open policymaking

Education Secretary Michael Gove has unveiled “rigorous selection” tests for trainee teachers in a move he claims will improve the status of the profession and raise standards in the classroom. It’s a pity his own approach to policymaking doesn’t live up to the same standards he’s asking of teachers.

Announcing the policy, Michael Gove said: “The evidence from around the world is clear – rigorous selection of trainee teachers is key to raising the quality and standing of the teaching profession.” Despite an apparent inconsistency with previous announcements – in July Gove declared that, like their private counterparts and free schools, academies in England could employ people who are not working towards qualified teacher status (QTS) – at least this policy was based on evidence and developed by a review group of headteachers and education experts. For many of his other reforms, Michael Gove seems to make policy in secret, ignore what teachers and other experts think, and go against the best available evidence.

For example:

Michael Gove’s colleagues have committed the Government to open policy making as well as open government. The Civil Service Reform White Paper published in June 2012 contained a commitment announced that: “Open policy making will become the default. Whitehall does not have a monopoly on policy making expertise. We will establish a clear model of open policy making.” Our project with The Democratic Society is currently examining how open policy making can be made a reality.

The Government has also promoted the evidence agenda, and is considering the case for new institutions that would perform an advisory role similar to the role that NICE plays for the NHS and the Early Intervention Foundation does for early years, to help ensure commissioners in central or local government do not waste time and money on programmes that are unlikely to be effective.

No-one seems to have told Michael Gove about either of these initiatives. No wonder teachers are starting to make their own education policy.


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 policymaking: Should there be a ‘duty to involve’ for national policy?

As Edward Andersson from Involve noted in his recent blog reviewing the new consultation principles issued by government: “Today consultation has, for many citizens, become a byword for formalistic, tick box exercises, done to mask a decision which is already a ‘done deal’.” Edward rightly suggested that the new principles, while important, fall short of providing the solution to this widely shared view of consultation. Could one solution be a national ‘duty to involve’, similar to the requirement that some local public services are already subject to? In which case, national policymakers should look to their local counterparts for what works.

This post is part of the project on open policymaking and better consultation, hosted by the Democratic Society in association with the Cabinet Office. As Anthony Zacharzewski, head of DemSoc, has summarised it: “Open policymaking is the natural corollary of open data and transparency, requiring openness and allowing public participation at every stage of decision-making and implementation. It supports citizen action and positive involvement of the public in shaping laws and services.” This active engagement is obviously very different in scope and ambition to traditional consultation, but this doesn’t mean we’re starting from scratch. If, as the Government has said, in the future “all policies will be made openly”, we could learn from where there have already been attempts to achieve a different, more deliberative approach to decision-making – in local government and local public services.

Many of these local duties to involve citizens have been introduced through national policy. For example, Section 138 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 imposed a duty on all councils and ‘best value’ authorities to involve ‘local representatives’ when carrying out functions by providing information, consulting or ‘involving in another way’. Councils must engage with a balanced selection of the individuals, groups, businesses or organisations the council considers likely to be affected by, or have an interest in, the council’s functions (including children and young people as appropriate). For the National Health Service, legislation which came into force in 2003 placed a duty on certain organisations to involve and consult, but managers were not always clear when they had to involve people or how it was best to do this. The 2007 act aimed to make this clearer; the duty requires NHS organisations to involve users of services in the planning and provision of services, the development and consideration of proposals for changes in the way services are provided, and decisions affecting the operation of services. Section 242 of the earlier consolidated NHS Act 2006 was also supported by useful guidance on achieving ‘Real Involvement‘ from service users and communities.

The NHS’s operating framework further emphasised that this engagement should be ongoing, not just during periods of change. Primary Care Trusts and NHS providers should “…create greater opportunities for their communities to make their voices heard, raising awareness of those opportunities and empowering patients and the public to use them and LINks [Local Involvement Networks]; [and] take greater responsibility for communicating with their local populations and stakeholders to ensure better understanding of, and confidence in, local NHS services.” More recently, the NHS constitution underlines that public and user involvement should be part of the fabric of the NHS: “You have the right to be involved, directly or through representatives, in the planning of healthcare services, the development and consideration of proposals for changes in the way those services are provided, and in decisions to be made affecting the operation of those services.”

The reality of local engagement might only rarely meet these ambitions, and many local policymakers, managers and clinicians might question the extent to which the public can play a constructive part in decisions on reconfiguring clinical services. Views on the success of local LINks vary widely, and they are due to be replaced by Local Healthwatch organisations in April 2013 as part of the ‘new NHS’. But this gap between aspiration and reality may be more a matter of developing and using the right methods for engagement – and being seen by local communities to be making genuine efforts at this engagement – rather than a fundamental problem with the aspiration itself (these are after all public services, paid for by the public, and they should surely be accountable as such).

Organisations such as Involve (a partner in this discussion) have a wealth of experience about what works locally (Edward referenced some very useful resources in his blog) – surely some of these principles and practices could not only be better shared locally, but applied to national policy as well? As we’ve noted before, one of the reasons that the Government’s NHS reforms ran into such difficulty was the view held by stakeholders that the policy was developed in a fundamentally closed way rather than constructively and collaboratively. The Government says that empowering individual patients and increasing the local accountability of health services is at the core of its reforms; shouldn’t we apply the same principles of empowerment and accountability to the development of health policy as well as the operation of health services – and to any policy for that matter?

The Government’s Civil Service Reform Plan, where its committment to open policy was announced, makes no reference to existing local methods of engagement and how these could inform open policymaking at a national level. Nonetheless, national policymakers should look to the methods that have been used by local policymakers and planners to engage their communities and service users in decision-making – both the successes and the failures – and consider how the most effective approaches could be adopted and adapted for national policy. Open policy is an ambitious agenda. Making it real will require effective methods for engagement, but also ways of requiring that policymakers develop policy openly. As well as learning from local methods of engagement, do we need an equivalent national ‘duty to involve’ stakeholders in policy development?


Political parties need to go ‘guerilla’ if they are to survive

The main political parties are in decline. Their membership is shrinking and the share of the vote garnered by Labour and the Conservatives is at its lowest level ever. If political parties don’t reinvent themselves they will be comprised mainly of members who are increasingly removed from the day-to-day views and experiences of most ordinary people. Political parties need to embrace the principles of ‘guerilla policy’ movements such as 38 Degrees to reinvent themselves as popular vehicles for policy or they will perish.

We’re in the middle of party conference season, and while the political establishment gathers excitedly in Brighton, Manchester and Birmingham, the public are unlikely to following the speeches and ‘debates’ with the same fervor. This lack of interest in the party conferences is not connected to voter apathy; in fact a recent Ipsos MORI poll found that 58% of respondents said that they were interested in politics. Fraser Nelson summed it up well last week in The Spectator where he argued that political parties are dying because the general public is underwhelmed by what they have to offer. The conference season is now the domain of party hacks, lobbyists and general hangers on rather than ordinary party members or citizens.

This week The Economist noted that between them the three main UK parties have fewer members than the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The declining interest in the main political parties is also illustrated by their web presence. The Labour Party’s site is the most popular out of the three main parties, ranking 5,057th in the UK according to Alexa.com (which tracks traffic over a three month period), followed by the Conservative Party (15,040th) and Liberal Democrats (19,346th). Party activists, especially on the right have broken out and embraced social media including by establishing blog sites – ConservativeHome, ranked 3,084th, is far more popular than the Party’s own site, and also outperforms both Labour List (13,869th) and Lib Dem Voice (42,124th).

However it is the ‘upstarts’ like 38 Degrees, the Taxpayers Alliance and Mumsnet that are shaking up the world of political campaigning and mobilising. Over a million people have joined 38 Degrees, the Taxpayers Alliance has more members than the Liberal Democrats, whilst Mumsnet is ranked as the 441st most popular website in the UK. These numbers point to a worrying trend for the main political parties – these guerilla operations, which operate well outside of the Westminster village, are passing them by. All of them have led successful campaigns that have directly shaped policy, from the prevention of the sale of the forests, to opening up public spending by councils.

The main political parties are only beginning to attempt to play catch up. At this week’s Labour conference Angela Eagle, the Chair of the National Policy Forum announced the creation of an online policy hub called Your Britain to shake up the way Labour develops policy and their next manifesto. She described it as: “…an electronic ‘town square’ for the Labour movement and the communities beyond. People can get involved by commenting on current policy proposals, propose new ideas and join in with an online discussion.” Eagle also talked up the role ‘crowdsourcing’ could play in finding new ideas. Your Britain is not yet live and it is hard to find out any more information about it other than what was contained in her speech. It is therefore far too early to judge whether this represents a shift in how Labour develops policy or just forms the basis of a good press release.

The Miliband brothers have enthusiastically embraced the idea of community organising as a way to connect local communities to politics and policy (borrowing heavily from Barack Obama’s grassroots campaigning machine). David, as part of his campaign for Labour leader, committed to recruiting and training 1,000 community organisers through his Movement for Change vehicle. Whilst Ed has drafted in Arnie Graf from the US to develop Labour’s community organising capacity. Stella Creasy has demonstrated the potential for community organising to galvanise a community around a particular policy through her high profile campaign against loan sharks in Walthamstow.

On the right, open primaries to select Westminster candidates (another innovation borrowed from the US) have been used to re-connect communities and politics. Sarah Wollaston, MP for Totnes, is the most famous of these candidates, although she has caused trouble for the party business managers because her independent approach has meant that she is not always prepared to follow the party line. In Plymouth the local Conservative Party Association ignored the results of an open primary because they did not like the candidate that local people chose (former Council Leader Cllr Patrick Nicholson). Despite the initial enthusiasm, the party machine has resisted wider adoption citing concerns about cost and watering down of the influence of party members.

Despite these innovations, politicians are still failing to convince voters that political parties in their current form are vehicles for effecting policy change. This is because the political innovations described above are ‘add ons’ rather than a fundamental rethink of how political parties are organised. The Pirate Party, which we have talked about before, shows a very different way of organising a political party by embracing fully the principles of openness, transparency, honesty and accountability. The party’s website is also ranked 254th in the UK. What is needed is a re-invention of the party political model, not tinkering at the edges. Our own effort, Guerilla Policy, is just at the beginning of considering a fundamentally different way of organising a think tank, for instance the potential of social media to develop policy in an open, honest and transparent way (we’ll be announcing another new project soon).

Compared to some other countries, the main political parties in the UK have been relatively stable for the past sixty years, but the decline in party loyalty, their share of the vote and membership means that they cannot assume this will continue in the future. The Labour victory in 2005 was on the lowest share of the vote ever by a governing party at 35.2%. Other western democracies such as Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Canada have all seen significant upheavals in their political parties. The Amazing Mrs Pritchard was a BBC drama shown in 2006 which presented how this could happen in the UK. Given the rise of social media and the decline in party loyalty among the public, such a scenario seems much less unlikely now.


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.


Consultation can’t fix our broken politics – we need new ways to engage the public in policymaking

Is consultation broken – or is it our political system? Consultation seems to have become the lightening rod for general discontents about politics and policymaking. Let’s improve consultation  but let’s also rethink how we do policy and politics at the same time.

In the Open Policy project with the Democratic Society in association with the Cabinet Office, we’re exploring what ‘open policymaking’ means in practice, and how we make it effective and democratic. But we’re starting the project in consultation – what works, what doesn’t, and how it can be improved.

A widely held view of consultation is that it is a sop – an exercise that governments are legally required to undertake but which rarely changes policies that have already been decided. This might be both broadly true and largely unfair. Consultation is only one mechanism, one particular stage in the policy process; it was never intended as the sole mechanism for engaging ‘the public’, let alone to ensure that policies have a democratic mandate that other parts of the political process have failed to invest in them.

In our previous post for this project we suggested how open policy represents a challenge to consultation. For us, taken to its logical conclusion (to its greatest openness), ‘open policy’ means we need to develop a radically different approach to policy and research. In terms of social policy, this means developing approaches that enable public service practitioners and services users to conduct and engage in research and policy analysis directly. These groups are at the frontline of public services and social issues, and as a result they have practical expertise and experience that could be used to improve social policy, especially to make policy more credible and pragmatic.

Where does this leave today’s approach to consultation? Consultations are often about what government intends to do. It hardly makes sense to complain when government does what it said it intended to (indeed, we commonly criticize government for the opposite). In the case of particularly contentious policies or those that haven’t been sufficiently publicly debated, consultation will never be able to resolve the perceived lack of a public mandate.

As a thought experiment, just imagine a consultation process that was much more ‘open’ – one whereby policy did change dramatically compared to what was originally proposed. The problem immediately becomes apparent: government could in theory find itself in an endless ‘consultation loop’, with each new stage of consultation radically changing the policy in question, to the extent that a new round of consultation would be required to accompany it. Government would never get anything done, and quite rightly this would generate accusations of endless ‘dithering’ and ‘u-turns’ – of being in office but not in power.

In recognition of the devalued nature of consultations and possibly the ‘one-size-fits-all’ manner in which too many consultations are approached, the Government has announced it is moving to a more “proportionate and targeted approach” (this announcement produced what is perhaps the least thrilling headline ever on the BBC News website). The new guidelines recognise the need to “avoid creating unrealistic expectations” by making it clear where policy has been finalised and will not be subject to change as a result of the consultation. This makes sense – much of the criticism directed at consultations stems from unrealistic or inaccurate expectations among respondents. The guidance recommends instead that the objectives of any consultation should be clear, and depend to a great extent on the type of issue and the stage in the policy-making process.

However, the new guidance also risks replicating the current confusion about consultation by advising that: “Engagement should begin early in policy development when the policy is still under consideration and views can genuinely be taken into account.” From a democratic point of view this is unarguable – but the problem is that consultation can’t hope to meet these aspirations. ‘Public consultations’ in most cases aren’t – they don’t reach the public or garner many responses from them. They also aren’t really a form of deliberation; they’re not about policy formulation, rather they are more commonly about policy adjustment. Why be cynical about what should be obvious? Government sometimes makes the mistake of trying to appear as if it is engaged in open policy formulation when it isn’t, but we don’t have to collude in this and then blame government when this turns out not to be the case.

We need new forms of participation for early policy development, and for research, evidence-gathering and analysis. This isn’t and can never be the job of consultation. Unless we create a much clearer distinction between consulting on policies that government intends to enact, and developing new policy agendas where government isn’t sure what should be done, we will see much more of what we call ‘guerilla policy’ – grassroots policy research and development that people and organisations do for themselves without being given ‘permission’ by the policy establishment. There have always been campaigns and protests of course; what’s different now is that people can mobilise, coordinate and share information so much more quickly – including to overturn official policy (or at least severely undermine its credibility). We happen to think that we need more guerilla policy – but we recognise that government might not.

What’s important about this project is that it encompasses how we can improve consultations today, but also how we can develop radical new forms of engagement in  policy tomorrow. The extent of the crisis in democratic legitimacy suggests we need to do both. Sorting out which is which will be crucial to our work. So in the spirit of the exercise, let us know your view – are there aspects of consultation we should retain, or does ‘open policy’ require us to start again with a blank sheet of paper? Comment on this site or on the Open Policy forum for open policymaking and better consultation.