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.


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.


Best of the frontline bloggers (week ending 28th September 2012) – ‘Plebgate’ special edition

We love public and voluntary service bloggers. At their best, they capture the day-to-day reality of public services in a way that Westminster-commentators can’t – and they have the real expertise and insights we need to improve social policy. Here’s our selection of the best frontline blogs we’ve read this week. Do send us your suggestions for great posts we’ve missed – and those frontline bloggers we should follow in the future.

Policing

Manchester police plebs are doubleplusgood

From Inspector Gadget

Posted on 22nd September 2012

“This current government’s dealings with us are becoming a charade. It might be that we have to try to do something about this, without giving any ground if possible. The deaths of Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone have shown both sides that this is not a game, as if we needed reminding.”

Inspector Gadget reminds us of the contradictions in the Government’s messages about the police force – praising the work of officers whilst cutting their jobs, pay and pensions.

Sense and senselessness

From PCBloggs

Posted on 23rd September 2012

“How do you write a piece about “what it’s like to be a female police officer”, when what it’s like is almost exactly like being a male police officer?”

Sgt Ellie Bloggs reflects on what life is like for policewomen on the frontline in light of the deaths of PCs Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes. She also speculates on what this means for the debate about arming the police. See also her comment piece in the Telegraph.

Education

Personal and professional conduct

From Teaching Science

Posted on 26th September 2012

“After all, they can hardly object to us holding them to the same standards they ask of us…”

Since teachers are provided with guidance from policymakers about their ‘personal and professional conduct’, why shouldn’t teachers provide the equivalent guidance for policymakers? And what would the guidance say?

Disability

The world is my activism

From Same Difference

Posted on 25th September 2012

“Our strength is our differences and where they overlap. It is unfortunate that at present we live in a society and under a government where the opposite appears to be extolled. We find that our basic rights are under threat, seen as luxury and privilege. The crips have had it too good, now we must conform to old stereotypes of being ‘the vulnerable’, in need of ‘care’ provided by a system that knows what we need better than we do.”

Guest blogger Penny Pepper reflects on how her activism informs her writing, and how changes in people’s thinking don’t always have to come from ‘loud aggressive action’.

Health

The looming crisis in the hospital sector

From Mark Newbold

Posted on 26th September 2012

“So we have a developing crisis in the acute sector. Hospital trusts must achieve 5% and upwards each year in efficiency improvements, without the annual income increases they have had before. They must also, according to received wisdom, reduce bed capacity as care ‘shifts to the community’. And they must do these whilst maintaining at least current levels of operational performance, quality, and safety. It is hard to believe the sector will survive the coming years unchanged. But what options do boards have?”

This week the Care Services Minister Norman Lamb admitted that care services are under “enormous strain”, following new Public Health Minister Anna Soubry’s acknowledgement last week that the Government “screwed up” its NHS reforms. In this post Mark Newbold casts a light on the growing crisis in the acute sector because of the Government’s £20 billion ‘efficiency savings’ and argues that a ‘whole system approach’ is needed to reduce demand.

Professionals, patients and social media

From The Not So Big Society

Posted on 26th September 2012

“Earlier this week I met up for a pint with Victoria Betton, author of the Digital Mental Health blog. This turned into quite an in-depth conversation about social media, and the way it’s used by people who work in or use mental health services. After we met I decided to jot down some of the thoughts and ideas we were bouncing about, and put them up in a blog post.”

Zarathustra believes that a chill has set in over the health blogging world, with professionals increasingly cautious in what they tweet or blog about and wonders whether professional cautiousness might swing the other way.

Mental health

One vision

From: Mental Health Cop

Posted on 25th September 2012

“I’m not sure anyone knows the size of the problem, regarding how many people with mental health problems become involved in the criminal justice process. I’ve stated previously that if we leave the police to their own devices, they will spot around 12-15% of detainees in police custody and suspect a mental health problem which needs at least the Force Medical Examiner’s attention. If the custody sergeant had fired off a list of all people arrested in the preceding 24 hours to the local mental health trust, they would have found that as many as 50% of those people arrested are known, have been known or need to be known by secondary care mental health services.”

Mental Health Cop argues that we need to better ‘co-join’ our criminal justice and mental health systems around a single vision of what they are trying to achieve, especially if we are to preserve public trust in their actions.

If you’re a frontline blogger, do send us your latest blogs on policy issues or posts from the past that you’re particularly proud of, and they could be included in next week’s round-up. Get in touch with us at: info@guerillapolicy.org or via Twitter @guerillapolicy 


Best of the frontline bloggers (week ending 21st September 2012)

We love public and voluntary service bloggers. At their best, they capture the day-to-day reality of public services in a way that Westminster-commentators can’t  and they have the real expertise and insights we need to improve social policy. Here’s our selection of the best frontline blogs we’ve read this week. Do send us your suggestions for great posts we’ve missed – and those frontline bloggers we should follow in the future.

Health

A rare shaft of light

From The Jobbing Doctor

Posted on 15th September 2012

“Anna Soubry, the new junior minister at the Department [of Health], is reported to say that the Government screwed up by not engaging with the professions. She is right, although they never really intended to win hearts and minds: we are not idiots and could always see what was planned. This comment is a shaft of light in the murk of the plotting to break up the NHS.”

The Jobbing Doctor, a GP working in a large industrialised conurbation outside London, argues that the Government health reforms are not about empowering the professions but a detailed and planned assault on the service – supported by all the main political parties and a ‘tiny list of supporters’ to provide cover.

Education

A new summing-up

From Scenes from the Battleground

Posted on 16th September 2012

“The central contention of this blog is that our state school system is simply not good enough. It does not provide a decent quality of education for the vast majority, and most would avoid it if they could afford to. Too many people with power over education are content to provide a service that they would not think good enough for their own children.”

A dumbed-down curriculum and teaching methods, the ‘behaviour crisis’, and bureaucratic and incompetent management: the problems facing the education system as described by an ‘utterly dissatisfied’ secondary school teacher – and what the future holds.

Social care

Consulting on the CQC

From The Not So Big Society

Posted on 20th September 2012

“For a regulator to have public confidence, the public have to know what they do, what they are responsible for and what they are not responsible for. …Inspectors could have a greater visibility online and using broader social media to communicate with the public – not just through PR people. I want to know what inspectors do every day. I’d love to see a regular blog from an inspector (without needing to mention any specific services but just with broad themes – generally frontline blogs are more interesting than management blogs!)”

Ermintrude, a ‘social worker by trade but so much more’, reviews the new draft strategy for the health and adult social care services regulator the Care Quality Commission – and argues for a much more people-based approach.

Disability

Care is care. Let’s stand together for political and social change

From The Caregivers’ Living Room

Posted on 19th September 2012

“The thing is …we are all sitting around here talking about big ideas like nurturing leadership in our disabled youth population and whether we should lobby for more disability arts initiatives. What I think we should talk about is whether in ten years time, there will be anyone around to wipe our bums. I believe we are heading toward a time when giving care will be devalued and we will all end up being warehoused in institutions with lousy care and no one will notice.”

Donna Thomson, former actor, director and teacher, now parent to a disabled son and with a ‘second career’ as a disability activist, reflects on the challenge she once heard in a meeting of activists – and the need to think like a movement in order to achieve political and social change for the good of families and the future.

A perfect storm

From Welsh Wallace

Posted on 17th September 2012

“…according to the new test for the benefits I wasn’t disabled. I could pick up a pencil off the floor (regardless I had to feel around for it for a good five minutes first). I can walk (regardless I can only stand for about 5 minutes before my spine gives out) but enough in their words to walk from a taxi to an office. …So because I passed these “tests” I was refused on those grounds for disability benefit. Being blind was not an issue because I could still walk so with that logic walking a few steps enabled me to see where I was going, to read letters, to cross the roads without danger just as any sighted person could. It was a miracle! I was cured!”

A powerful post on what it’s like to ‘walk in the shoes’ of a blind man – and to undergo the disability test when you’re having a very bad week.

Welfare

Universal Credit – how is this simplification?

From DPAC (Disabled People Against Cuts)

Posted on 16th September 2012

“Overpayments under the new system will not be subject to the same rights of dispute which currently exist, so many claimants simply won’t be able to properly contest an unfair decision. When government is asked about the problems all of this creates they stick to script and tell us all how ‘work pays’. The emphasis on work is backed up by an assurance that simplifying the benefits system makes it more possible to transition from welfare to work; the new highway for making the transition is Universal Credit which we are all told is ‘on track’.”

Universal Credit is meant to merge all working age benefits into a ‘single streamlined payment.’ Not according to this detailed analysis it doesn’t, originally from the MyLegal forum.

Previous reads

Here are a few more great posts from the past few weeks.

Welfare

Problem?

From This is My Blog

Posted on 12th June 2012

“The big line being pushed by our beloved government this week is about “problem families” and the need to “crack down” on them. …So what makes a “problem family”? How do we define the country’s “worst scumbags”?

Mary, a 30-year-old knitter living with her husband, a robot vacuum cleaner – and ME – finds the Government’s definition of ‘problem families’ uncomfortably close to (her childhood) home.

Policing

The high price of cutting costs

From Minimum Cover

Posted on 5th July 2012

“…there is sometimes a huge chasm between the headline saving and the bottom line cost. Some officers, including me, have resorted to sorting these types of issue at their own cost on more than one occasion. It’s just what we do to keep things running smoothly.”

M.C.’s blog – a “mixture of personal experience, factual accounts, [and] a modicum of fiction here and there to ease the literary process and protect the innocent” – reflects on how ‘cost-savings’ have turned replacing a 29 pence light bulb into a kerfuffle costing £100.

Standing outside the fire

From Cate Moore’s Blog

Posted on 12th June 2012

“I am telling you to play clever. And safe. You do not need to shy away from your ideals and the things that you care passionately about. Indeed you are letting the public down if you do. Speak truth, speak it fairly and speak it pleasantly.”

A retired policewoman encourages other officers to use social media to comment on government policy – but to do it carefully.

If you’re a frontline blogger, do send us your latest blogs on policy issues or posts from the past that you’re particularly proud of, and they could be included in next week’s round-up. Get in touch with us at: info@guerillapolicy.org or via Twitter @guerillapolicy


Open policy is a challenge to government consultations – and an opportunity

More than 40 years ago the American sociologist Sherry Arnstein developed the ‘ladder of participation’ to represent the degree of involvement by citizens in decision-making. Arnstein’s levels range from ‘non-participation’ at the bottom of the ladder – at worse, the manipulation of citizens – to ‘citizen power’ and true citizen control at the top. One of the challenges for government today is that many people increasingly agree with Arnstein’s view of consultation as basically a form of tokenism. More positively, Arnstein’s ladder points to the possibility of different forms of engagement that could contribute to a better, more trusting relationship between citizens and government.

The widespread skepticism about consultation reflects a broader context of course – the steady decline in the number of people who say they are engaged and interested in politics and who trust politicians. To its credit, the current Government has recognised the extent of the problem and is trying to do something about it. Its Civil Service Reform White Paper published in June 2012 announced the Government’s commitment to ‘open policy making’, 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 own project, Guerilla Policy, is about developing a radically different approach to policy and research. We want to develop a way for public service practitioners and services users to conduct research and policy analysis. 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.

Unsurprisingly then, we agree with the Government that open policy is an idea whose time has come. Policy development has been too closed, to a too narrow set of participants, for too long. We agree with the Government that Whitehall hasn’t got a monopoly on policy expertise, and we’ve made some initial suggestions about the ways in which Government can make open policy a reality, including by making open policy itself an open and transparent agenda and by opening it up to new participants.

One of the challenges facing open policy is the widespread lack of confidence in consultation, and whether the conventional approach to consultation can be improved or needs to be ditched altogether. Two relatively recent examples point to how significant doubts about the authenticity of consultation processes can very quickly translate into very strong reactions against the policies being consulted on.

First example: more than 538,000 people took to social media to protest against the consultation which proposed to sell off England’s forests (this included a major campaign by the online community 38 Degrees). In the face of an avalanche of protest, Caroline Spelman, then Environment Secretary was forced to suspend the consultation and apologized in a statement to the House of Commons for the way it had been handled: “I am sorry. We got his one wrong. We have listened to people’s concerns.”

Second example: earlier this year the Spartacus ‘Responsible Reform’ report was researched, written and promoted by a band of disabled activists who felt that a consultation on welfare reform was being manipulated by the Department for Work and Pensions. The report, based on a rigorous analysis of responses to the Government’s own consultation on reform of Disability Living Allowance, revealed the overwhelming opposition to the Government’s proposed reforms. The report took the social media world by storm, including trending number one on Twitter.

It’s not hard to see why this is happening; research by the Consultation Institute suggests that in only 40 per cent of consultations is it possible to make a clear link from the outcomes back to the responses received. In response, we are witnessing the emergence of new forms of ‘unsanctioned’ citizen consultation and mobilization. There’s always been protest of course, but these citizen-led campaigns, supported by social media and the internet, are increasingly fast-moving, flexible and distributed. We call this ‘guerilla policy’ – citizens stepping into the gap when they think the political establishment is failing to recognize, let alone act on, their views.

Such campaigns are difficult for policymakers to anticipate, and hard for them to respond to. Fundamentally, these campaigns aren’t just calling for different policies in the areas they care about; they’re also calling for a different way of making policy. In this respect, guerilla policy also offers government the possibility of a more positive approach, one that enables citizens to shape and inform policy in a more meaningful way. Social media-supported campaigns have the power to overwhelm consultation processes if the public loses confidence in the integrity of these processes. But social media also potentially offers a cheap and easy way to engage many more citizens to improve policy.

For us, what’s especially missing in consultation (to quote from the Government’s own proposals) is how to “enable policy to reflect the real-world experiences of citizens and harness public engagement with the policy making process.” We’re not suggesting that government delegates its ultimate responsibility for policymaking – for full ‘citizen control’ in Arnstein’s terminology. But the challenge for government – and for the open policy project we’re conducting with DemSoc – is that unless we find new ways to improve how to develop policy such that it reflects the experience and insight of citizens, then citizens will increasingly do this for themselves, working against government rather than with it.

This blog is the first post for our new project, in partnership with The Democratic Society. You can get involved by visiting the discussion space for the project, hosted by DemSoc in association with the Cabinet Office – and of course you can also share your views on this site.


Making open policy a reality (part 2)

A couple of weeks ago the Government announced its plans for ‘open policy’. In this post and the previous post we suggest how it can make open policy a reality.

As part of its recently published civil service reform plan, the Government has committed itself to ‘open policymaking’. It has announced a new “presumption in favour of open policy making, with policy developed on the basis of the widest possible engagement with external experts and those who will have the task of delivering the policy”. This post and the previous post set out how Government can make open policy a reality – staring with a few things that Government should avoid doing.

6. Don’t focus only on generating new policy – improve existing policy

One of the problems with the ‘policy industry’ of think tanks, charities, campaigns and commentators is the restless hunt for and promotion of ‘new ideas’ (what David Walker calls ‘neophilia‘). This competition distracts from a more considered approach to improving policy and public services which focuses on how policies and approaches can be steadily improved and refined, better implemented, delivered and administered – in other words, sufficient time to research, think, reflect, plan and review. Openness should enrich existing policy, not serve only to add more ‘noise’.

7. Don’t focus on new technology – use what we’ve already got (used to)

This project, Guerilla Policy, is about how policymaking can be (and needs to be) re-thought for the age of mass participation, social networking and media, and open online collaboration – in particular, how these offer the possibility of getting more frontline voices into policymaking. But just as neophilism often results in costly, unnecessary and untested new policy, so technologism tends to assume that new ways of working always require new technologies. They don’t. Wherever possible, Government should use existing technology and platforms. Don’t fall for the tech hucksters, keep it simple (even if it’s not perfect), and focus on the content instead.

8. Don’t listen to the loudest – openness is about hearing quieter voices

Government has said that the open policy agenda is about widening access to policy to individuals and organisations not normally involved. Fairly or unfairly, a certain type of personality comes to mind when you think about the policy industry. But if open policy really is going to reach out, it needs to include the people and organisations who aren’t always so confident in their own perspicacity but have relevant evidence and insights to contribute. Open policy should carve out spaces for the people we don’t usually hear from – especially those marginalised and vulnerable users and communities who rely on public and voluntary services.

9. Support lots of experiments – and do it openly

Like anything new, parts of the open policy agenda won’t work, and the critics and cynics will do what they do best (sneering). But the best way to discover what works is to invest in a diversity of projects so that we find out and learn. The scale of projects is then important. What will kill open policy is ‘too big to fail’ pilot initiatives. What will allow it to grow and thrive are lots of little experiments – and a commitment to keep testing and keep learning.

10. Stimulate a new ‘market’ – then step back

Government should be congratulated for its public commitment to the open policy agenda, but this doesn’t mean it has deliver it all on its own. In part, this agenda reflects what entrepreneurs and organisations outside of government have already demonstrated is possible – from Change.org and 38 Degrees, Mumsnet to the Spartacus Report. There is already an emerging ‘market’ in open policy, one which Government can play a useful role in helping to legitimize, but not one it has to direct itself. If some or most of the platforms and places where open policy gets done are independent from Government, this will also be an advantage – for the integrity, transparency and credibility of open policy, and also for the specific policies it produces.

To some, the open policy agenda might be a gimmick. But we’re confident that in the (hopefully not-too-distant) future we’ll look back and wonder why the way we currently create policy was ever considered ‘normal’, and why we ever thought it was credible that policy was developed largely behind closed doors, by a relatively narrow group of people, many of whom lack direct practical experience of the issues they were creating policy for. These two posts have been about how we can bring forward this future and make open policy a reality sooner – let us know what you think and what we’ve missed.


Making open policy a reality (part 1)

A couple of weeks ago the Government announced its plans for ‘open policy’. In this post and the following post we suggest how it can make open policy a reality.

As part of its recently published civil service reform plan, the Government has committed itself to promote ‘open policymaking’. This includes:

  • commissioning policy development from outside organisations such as think tanks;
  • crowdsourcing questions to shape the definition of the problem (not just consulting on solutions);
  • using ‘Policy Labs’ to draw in expertise from a range of people and organisations and test new policies before they are implemented;
  • making more data available freely so experts can test and challenge approaches effectively; and
  • using web-based tools, platforms, and new media to widen access to policy debates to individuals and organisations not normally involved.

Most significantly, the plan announced a new “presumption in favour of open policy making, with policy developed on the basis of the widest possible engagement with external experts and those who will have the task of delivering the policy”.

This project, Guerilla Policy, is about how policymaking can be (and needs to be) re-thought for the age of mass participation, social networking and media, and open online collaboration – in particular, how these offer the possibility of getting more frontline voices into policymaking. So we obviously support the open policy agenda, and we think that government, so often characterized as being resistant to new ideas (especially where these ideas are likely to challenge the power of government) should be congratulated for thinking about how to open-up policy and for its bold public commitments to put this into practice.

Despite the widespread cynicism about politics and politicians today, then, we should take the Government at its word and seize this opportunity. This post and the next post are about what Government needs to do to make open policy a reality – and the role the rest of us can play.

1. Make open policy itself open and transparent

Government has set out its ambitions for open policy. Putting this agenda into practice should start with open policy itself, which is to say how the agenda is developed, how opportunities for funding and support are designed, down to how individual projects are selected and commissioned. An open policy agenda designed and determined behind closed doors would not only be ironic – it would be a missed opportunity to develop and extend the current proposals. Government could start with an open forum to discuss and co-design the open policy agenda.

2. Demonstrate how this is different from consultation

It would be tragic if open policy becomes the new consultation, that’s to say distrusted, devalued, and discredited. As stated in the reform paper, an important part of open policy is that those outside government can define problems, not just express their view on proposed solutions. Government needs to signal how open policy marks a fresh start. This doesn’t mean abdicating responsibility for setting policy objectives, just avoiding preempting the answers. One way for Government to do this would be to establish two or three ‘open policy challenges’ – competitions for potential policy solutions for difficult issues – and to see what happens.

3. Crowdsource the evidence on what works for crowdsourcing

‘Policy’ is obviously not one process but a set of related activities. As the US researchers on government innovation William D. Eggers and Rob Hamill recently pointed out, there are at least five roles that crowdsourcing could play in government – competitions, crowd collaboration, voting, labour (‘micro-tasking’), and funding. Government needs to breakdown the various stages of policy – from agenda-setting and development, to implementation and evaluation – and identify what approaches to openness might be most appropriate at each stage. It doesn’t have to start from scratch – it should ask the community of those interested in and supportive of open policy to help gather the research and case studies of what’s already been done, what’s worked and what hasn’t. In the spirit of crowdsourcing, we can help.

4. Make sure that open policy is open to new participants

There’s little point to open policy if it merely becomes a new way to generate policy from the same old suspects. New voices could deliver new (better) ideas, insights and evidence. Government has said it wants open policy to widen access to those people and organisations not normally involved. Two ‘rules’ might help to ensure this. Firstly, make it a requirement of individual projects and proposals under open policy that they engage seriously with typically marginalised people and organisations – especially those who provide or experience services at the frontline. Secondly, support and enable these people and organisations to engage in policy directly themselves – for example, if you want to generate new ideas about how to improve a public service, commission some service users and practitioners to work with you.

5. Deliver an early result

The biggest barrier to open policy – and especially our collective belief in it – will be Government’s preparedness to act on the outcomes. Without a notable ‘win’ – say, a crowdsourced policy passed into law within a couple of years – the armchair cynics will reassure themselves that they were ‘right all along’. The flip side of Government setting out such a bold agenda is that every time it falls significantly short it’ll be called on it. The Spartacus report – one of the inspirations for this project – was born of an angry reaction to a botched and seemingly disingenuous government consultation. Government can do better, and it should.

This is a really important agenda that could be potentially be very radical. The challenge is in how the agenda is developed from now on, and in the spirit of the proposals we believe that this is best done open and collaboratively. In the next post, we put forward five more ways that Government can make open policy a reality. In the meantime, what do you think about the open policy agenda? Do you agree with Government’s ambitions for this agenda – and how would you propose putting it into practice?