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.


Passion is lacking in politics because the political class is too professionalised

In our previous post we made the simple point that many of today’s politicians don’t look like us. Another reason we feel so disconnected from our politicians is that they seem so detached themselves, and because they express little feeling or passion. The current political class is increasingly technocratic because politics is increasingly a profession rather than a calling. They’re in danger of becoming Stepford politicians, opening up a ‘passion gap’ that can be occupied by dogmatists who do demonstrate their passion but for their own dangerous ends.

If you haven’t already, check out Julia Gillard’s recent speech on sexism and misogyny in Australian politics. Gillard used the speech to brand her opponent, Tony Abbott, who is the Leader of the opposition Liberal Party, a sexist and misogynist. What stood out was her anger and passion. Gillard told Abbott that if he wanted to know what a misogynist in modern Australia looks like then he should look in a mirror. She called him out on a range of sexist views he has espoused during his long political career. It was authentic, passionate and unspun.

The video of Gillard’s speech on YouTube has gone viral with two million views, and the speech was a top ten trending item in Australia on Twitter as well as trending internationally. It made headline news in South Africa, India, Canada and here in the UK. Jezebel, the popular American website for women lauded Gillard as “one badass motherfucker” after what it called her “epic speech on sexism”. Gillard’s approval ratings have risen significantly in the first public opinion survey since her speech. Almost 42% of Australians now think her opponent is sexist and the poll also shows that Gillard is 10 points clear of Abbott as preferred Prime Minister.

Contrast this to President Obama’s performance in the first US Presidential debate. He lacked passion, was detached and professorial, whilst his opponent Mitt Romney demonstrated energy and passion. Romney left the debate with a momentum which has carried through into the polls, wiping out Obama’s advantage. Romney has also been accused of being technocratic and wooden – probably the only reason why the election is close at all. The debate also highlighted one of the weaknesses of Obama’s presidency – his failure to maintain the energy and passion that he engendered in his supporters in 2008. Romney highlighted this in his nomination acceptance speech at the Republican convention:

Hope and Change had a powerful appeal. But tonight I’d ask a simple question: If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn’t you feel that way now that he’s President Obama? You know there’s something wrong with the kind of job he’s done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him.”

It’s become a common complaint that today’s politicians lack passion and are too technocratic. Mayor Boris Johnson has been labelled by Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome as the “Heineken Tory” who can reach parts of the electorate that other Conservatives struggle to reach in part because of his energy and passion. The same could have been said about Tony Blair in his early days as leader of the Labour Party – he connected with middle England in a way that no other senior politician on the left was able to. Sarah Palin is yet another politician who cut through to energise her party’s base because of her energy and passion – although in her case the euphoria unravelled quickly because of her lack of experience.

Of course, Prime Minister’s Questions has an element of passion – but it’s largely fake, a yaboo politics that disaffects rather than engages. It’s not so much passion that we want as authenticity – the feeling that politicians actually care about something and will take political risks to advocate for it. This is why Gillard’s speech stood out – she really believed in what she was talking about, and her anger and passion were genuine.

Part of the problem can be traced back to the rise of a professional political class. Politicians increasingly see politics as a career rather than a calling. The way to get ahead in politics now is to start out as a researcher to an MP after university, become a Special Adviser to a Minister or Shadow Minister, and then seek selection to a winnable seat before becoming part of the government shortly after entering Parliament. This aspiring politician might have a small period of time working for a think tank, a charity, in PR or the media, but generally in a role connected to politics. We now have a whole class of politicians whose whole careers have been inside the Westminster bubble – they have not held a job outside of politics. David Cameron, George Osborne, Andrew Lansley, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and Andy Burnham have all trodden this path. The careers of Nick Clegg, Ed Davey, David Willetts and Danny Alexander have all centred on Westminster as well. In fact a third of the cabinet worked for a politician or political party before they became an MP:

  • David Cameron: Special Adviser to both Norman Lamont as Chancellor and Michael Howard as Home Secretary
  • Nick Clegg: EU policy official and adviser to Sir Leon Brittain as EU Commissioner*
  • George Osborne: Special Adviser to Douglas Hogg as Agriculture Minister, worked in No 10 when John Major was Prime Minister and worked in William Hague’s office when he was Leader of the Opposition
  • Vince Cable: Special Adviser to John Smith when he was a Cabinet Minister in 1970s
  • Ed Davey: Adviser to Sir Alan Beith
  • Andrew Lansley: Adviser to Norman Tebbit MP* & Conservative Party (Director of the Conservative Research Department)
  • Michael Moore: Researcher for Archy Kirkwood MP
  • David Willetts: Researcher for Nigel Lawson as Chancellor, worked in the No 10 Policy Unit when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and is the former head of the Centre for Policy Studies.
  • David Laws: Economic Adviser and Director of Policy and Research for the Liberal Democrats
  • Danny Alexander: Press Officer for the Liberal Democrats.

*paid as civil servants

The current approach to using interns in think tanks and charities reinforces this closed shop approach to the professional political class. In many ways, policy is the new ‘international development’ – to get a paid job you need to undertake an unpaid internship. This means that policy is increasingly only open to people whose families can support them financially.

This new professional political class lacks the backstory that politicians like Vice-President Joe Biden, Alan Johnson, Paddy Ashdown or David Davis bring to the job because of their experience outside of politics. Joe Biden is a single parent, Paddy Ashdown served in the Royal Marines, David Davis grew up on a south London council estate, whilst Alan Johnson started his career as a postman. Much play was made at the party conferences about the lives of the main party leaders before they became politicians, but no matter how these speeches were portrayed by the spinners, our current party leaders don’t have the wealth of experience outside of politics that the likes of Johnson, Ashdown etc do. They pale in comparison.

What matters here is the content – the policies that politicians advocate for and their real world consequences. Rich Yeselson argues that it isn’t the ‘truth’ of people’s personalities that matters but rather the factors involved in the reality of politics, such as the size of the majority in the legislature that influences policy. However, politicians’ backstories also matter. As Nadine Dorries, the backbench Conservative MP, has argued in relation to Osborne and Cameron:

“I think that not only are Cameron and Osborne two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk, but they are two arrogant posh boys who show no remorse, no contrition, and no passion to want to understand the lives of others – and that is their real crime.”

Politicians can’t be passionate if their real passion is the inside game of politics rather than standing for something that matters to the rest of us. The real danger is that this passion gap creates the space for dangerous dogmatists who do demonstrate their passion – the far right politicians such as Pim Fortyun and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands or the wholly self-interested politicians such as Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. If we want to avoid being subject to someone else’s passion, we will have to find our own – our political class is not providing it.


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?


The West Coast fiasco points to the real problem with open public services

The West Coast mainline franchising fiasco shows that the current approach to outsourcing public services has serious flaws that need to be addressed – the much too complicated and secretive nature of outsourcing is the problem, rather than the people handling the process.

Last week Patrick McLoughlin, the new Transport Secretary, cancelled the West Coast Mainline franchise deal. The Department for Transport has been on a damage limitation exercise ever since, with McLoughlin blaming the fiasco on officials at the DfT “because of deeply regrettable and completely unacceptable mistakes made by my department in the way it managed the process”. Philip Rutnam, the Permanent Secretary at DfT, has also joined in telling staff that they must accept that the reversal was the fault of officials. Meanwhile, Kate Mingay, one of the three officials suspended by DfT (an ex-Goldman Sachs employee parachuted into the civil service because of her private sector expertise) has hit out at the way her role in the procurement has been portrayed by the Department.

Blaming officials is an easy way to distract from the substantive story: whether the current approach to franchising used by the DfT is fundamentally flawed. The Department argues that mistakes were made from the way the level of risk in the bids was evaluated due to human error – in particular the way in which inflation and passenger numbers were taken into account, and how much money bidders were then asked to guarantee as a result. But the assumptions about inflation and passenger numbers are dependent on the state of the UK and global economy and the ability of the future franchisee to bring in new customers. Colin Cram, writing for the Public Leaders Network, argues that: “…this enters the realms of guesswork and slight changes in assumptions can lead to different outcomes for contracts that may be for only three or four years, let alone 13.” If the Government’s own Office for Budget Responsibility continues to get its predictions on economic growth significantly wrong, how can we expect the assumptions made in the rail franchising process to be watertight?

This is not the first time that assumptions about economic growth and customer numbers has gone wrong, for example the previous experiences with the East Coast mainline or in the commissioning of welfare to work services. The Work Programme was designed for a far more positive economic climate than we now find ourselves in. DWP’s estimates of the number of customers in receipt of Employment Support Allowance have proven to be wholly unrealistic, with serious consequences for the business models of prime contractors and charities.

The risks associated with complex procurement processes such as the rail franchise are compounded by the secretive nature by which they are often conducted, behind a veil of ‘commercial in confidence’. As we’ve argued before, this ‘closed shop’ approach leads to poor decisions and a profound lack of public engagement – until something goes horribly wrong. The complexity involved also means a significant diversion of resources into the process of franchising rather than actual delivery of services. Franchising might work however if the process was more transparent and the assumptions about passenger numbers (and any other projections) were open to rigorous scrutiny by others outside of the process – so why isn’t it?

The West Coast fiasco has much wider implications that the policy establishment probably doesn’t want the public to consider. Cheryl Gillan, the former Conservative Welsh Secretary, has argued that a root and branch re-examination of the High Speed 2 rail project is needed if the public is to have trust in such a significant investment of public resources. Instead, plans for competition and outsourcing are being accelerated in prisons, probation services and health. In this context, the secretive, complex and bureaucratic nature of outsourcing needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. If the public is going to be on board, then a public debate is needed on the merits and risks of delivering services in this way – which surely is what the Government’s open policy should be all about.

Fundamentally, the political establishment doesn’t engage the public in a debate about the merits of rail franchising because the public doesn’t support the idea. This ‘outsourcing by stealth’ approach wins neither hearts nor minds. Various surveys continue to show a strong majority of public opinion in favour of re-nationalising the railways – one recent survey found that 70% of respondents supported such a move. Impossible? New Zealand provides an example of such a policy put into action. Its rail and ferry network was privatised in the 1990s and asset-stripped and run down by an Australian outfit. It re-nationalised both in 2009. Michael Cullen, the then Finance Minister said privatization had “been a painful lesson for New Zealand”. Kiwi Rail in public hands has been able to invest in its long-term future whilst also generating significant financial and economic benefits for taxpayers in New Zealand.

Here, despite the strong public preference for a nationalised rail network, none of the three main political parties are committed to such a policy. At last week’s Labour Party conference, Ed Miliband and Maria Eagle made positive noises in this direction but no firm commitments. So we are left with an unpopular, risk-laden, fragmented rail network – and the policy establishment searching around for scapegoats when they should be looking somewhat closer to home.


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.