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.


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.


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.


Ten reasons why we need a new approach to developing social policy – 2. Policy would stand a better chance of achieving its objectives

This is the second 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’ll publish the whole series over the next two weeks, and we welcome your comments.

In the policy world we sometimes appear to forget that ‘policy’ doesn’t stop at writing a pamphlet or publishing a bill. Whether policy ‘lives’ and fulfills the objectives set for it depends in part how easy it is to implement and operationalise, and whether a community of stakeholders who want it to succeed has been recruited to champion it. The best way for both of these to happen is to open-up policy research and development to a much broader range of participants.

On making policy easier to implement, the expertise and experience of those who work at the frontline in public and voluntary services – as well as those who use and rely on them – is largely neglected in current policy research and development. This expertise could help to design policy that stands a better chance of being implemented effectively. This doesn’t just apply to those at the frontline of course, but to anyone at any level of ‘the system’ who is responsible for taking policy from pamphlet to pavement.

Part of the reason for this neglect is that, for all the talk of performance improvement and ‘deliverology‘ over the past couple of decades (or ‘Mickey Mouse command and control’ if you’re John Seddon), there’s often still a gulf between those who develop policy and those who are responsible for making it real. Few people in the policy world (by which I mean senior civil servants, special advisers, think tankers and the politicians drawn increasingly from this narrow ‘political class’) have much practical experience beyond ‘thinking’, and they especially tend to lack any ‘doing’ experience in the sense of managing the delivery of programmes and services at scale.

The day-to-day demands of delivery might not be as glamorous as writing and publishing policy papers (on the policy wonk measure of desirability at least), but it’s equally if not more important to policy success. Despite this, delivery remains largely a mystery to most people in policy – something that ‘someone else does’. A civil servant who contacted us described the problem in the following way: while there is at least some public visibility when it comes to policy development (with consultations and so on), there is little transparency and political ownership of the implementation phase. The result, they suggest, is that when promised outcomes or savings are not achieved, it is the policy rather than the implementation that gets the blame. This sets off another hunt for ‘new ideas’ – what David Walker calls a restless ‘neophilia‘ – rather than the collective learning which might focus on how implementation, delivery and administration could be improved.

The most obvious way to capture this kind of learning would be to open-up policy research and development to more ‘doers’ – those nearer to and at the frontline. After all, implementation is necessarily a shared endeavour; it’s not about a single organisation winning the contest of ideas (or ‘think tank of the year’). Collective development of policy could also help to reduce the amount of policy that currently gets ‘lost in translation’ between the centre and local implementation.

This is why the Government missed an opportunity by not releasing at a much earlier stage a version of its NHS risk register (I recognise that they don’t see it this way). It’s likely that the quality of the risk analysis would have been greatly improved if it was conducted publicly and openly, by inviting medical professionals, managers, patients and other interested parties to use their experience and expertise to identify potential implementation problems and propose solutions – and remember, this is to help implement a policy (GP-led commissioning) that most practitioners agree with.

This brings us, briefly, to the second reason to open-up policy research and development – building a community of stakeholders to support successful policy implementation. If policy was developed more collaboratively, it would in all likelihood have many more champions amongst the frontline practitioners and the public (including service users) that had played a role in shaping it. This might be thought of as ‘naive’ by McKinseyites, but it’s been identified as one of the factors in policy success by an Institute for Government report published earlier this year, and illustrated by examples such as the ban on smoking in public places, the Climate Change Act, Scottish devolution and the introduction of the national minimum wage. Ironically, open and collaborative development might even be a hidden success factor in policies that the ‘deliverologists’ point to as proof for their ‘blueprint’ approach – see for example this review of Michael Barber’s book on education reform. Participation and collaboration is also how we want to develop this project – so let us know your thoughts.


Ten reasons why we need a new approach to developing social policy – 1. Policy would be better

This is the first 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’ll publish the whole series over the next two weeks, and we welcome your comments.

Social policy would be better researched, more credible, more reliable, and more grounded in real life if it was routinely developed by and with the people who use and provide public and voluntary services.

Six million people work in the public sector, 765,000 people work in the voluntary sector, we all use public and voluntary services, and we could all help to create better social policy – yet we are a largely neglected resource when it comes to policy research and development. It’s tragic that part of the dominant ideology underpinning central government’s approach to developing social policy over the past 35 years or so has been to discount the views and perspectives of service providers and users as ‘interested parties’, when this is precisely what makes them so valuable for policy development.

Instead we have social policy researched and developed by a relatively small coterie of people and organisations. Too often the result is policy that is poorly evidenced, badly designed and difficult if not impossible to implement. This is the ‘blueprint approach‘ to policy which makes for slick policy unit and consultancy slide decks but doesn’t reflect what actually happens when policy meets practice. As a result of policy failure (or under-achievement), we lurch from one hoped-for ‘magic bullet‘ to the next but seem to accumulate little wisdom along the way.

Take the history of populist ‘anti-social behaviour’ initiatives often aimed at young people – from ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders) and ABCs (Acceptable Behaviour Contracts), CRASBOs (criminal ABSOs), dispersal orders, fixed penalty notices, parenting classes et al., to the new Criminal Behaviour Orders and Crime Prevention Injunctions, family intervention programmes, and fines and benefit reductions for parents as punishment for their children’s truancy from school or bad behaviour (one of those bad policy ideas that just won’t die). The practitioners and the people targeted by these policies could have told policymakers why many of these interventions wouldn’t work as intended (and why their replacements are also likely to struggle without better research, design, development and implementation) – but of course they weren’t asked (or weren’t listened to).

With an ageing population, increasing obesity, rising unemployment, deepening poverty – but “no money” – there’s never been a more important time to develop better social policy, but we’re not going to do it like this. Instead of seeming to believe that not listening to frontline workers is somehow a badge of political principle, we need to start listening to and involving the people at the frontline, both service providers and the public. This isn’t about basing policy on a collection of ‘anecdotes’ (although if it was, this wouldn’t be much different from what has informed many existing policies, including some of the initiatives noted above). Rather, it’s about drawing on the practical insight and inspiration, expertise and experience, data as well as personal stories, of the people who work within and encounter services everyday. Nor is it about replacing academic research and evidence. Rather, frontline expertise and experience represents a distinctive and valuable type of evidence which doesn’t inform policy research and development at the moment but has to if we want better and more cost-effective public services.

In effect, we need to reverse the order in which policy is often made – by starting with knowledge and insight gleaned from the frontline of services, then transmitting this back up through the system and into policymaking. This would be a less partisan, more authentic, and more inclusive approach to policy research and development. It would make for better policy.

This project is about developing a platform to help this happen. We know that service providers, from local government to voluntary sector organisations, often have the policy skills but can lack the means to engage frontline expertise, experience and insight. Meanwhile, frontline practitioners and users have the expertise, experience and insight but largely lack the ability to inform policy. Our hope is to provide a meeting place for these parties to work together to improve social policy for the better.


Here’s our idea – let us know what you think

We’ve been working on this project for a few months now and here’s where we’ve got to. Below is something like a marketing description, but it also indicates the functionality we’re looking at for our proof-of-concept website. It’s still work-in-progress, but let us know what you think. (It won’t be called ‘New think tank’ of course, that’s just a stand-in name – suggestions for that are welcome as well).

[New think tank] connects people and organisations to improve social policy.

[New think tank] is a social network for the people and organisations who use and provide public and voluntary services. With the [New think tank] community, you can conduct policy and research work that’s credible, affordable, and timely.

Credible.

The [New think tank] community is made up of people who use and provide public services. They’ll help you understand what’s happening at the frontline, and to develop practical and popular proposals. This will help to give your organisation credible answers and a stronger profile.

Affordable.

Because it’s online, [New think tank] is a very cost-effective way to conduct policy and research work. Through [New think tank] you can share intelligence, recruit and work with partners, and even find funding for projects.

Timely.

[New think tank] enables you to conduct policy and research work quickly and easily. You can instantly test out ideas for a new research project and invite people to participate in it, invite suggestions for a policy statement or consultation response, or source relevant case studies for a report or news story.

With [New think tank], you can develop and deliver a project from start to finish – you can even commission a new project in minutes. Here’s how:

Create a profile – for you or your organisation, then connect and communicate with others. Share news and publicise events. You can import your profile from other social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, and even login using your profiles from these networks.

Test out ideas – post questions, start discussions and propose projects. The most popular ideas and projects get featured most prominently. You can also follow and comment using other social networks.

Conduct projects – start a project and invite others to participate. Create an open or invite-only forum and assemble a virtual project team. Post questions and surveys, or draft and edit reports collaboratively.

Find partners – recruit other organisations to partner with, or find funding for a project. Host forums to manage projects, store and share useful documents, and easily track project activity wherever you and your partners are.

Share findings – publish and promote your projects. Use the site as a hub to share your findings and recommendations. Automatically send updates to and from other social networks, and use the community to disseminate your work more widely.