Michael Harris at Guerilla Policy has a good piece on the outsourcing of policy advice, promised in the Civil Service Reform White Paper. He writes (in “Why outsourcing policy is only open to insiders“):

We like open policy. We think that 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 support its recent announcement of a “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.” In earlier posts we’ve suggested ways in which Government can make open policy a reality.

However, we’re less sure about that part of the plan to “Pilot contestable policy making by establishing a centrally-held match fund which can be used by Ministers to commission external policy development (for example, by academics and think tanks).” If this marks a significant change in how policy is developed (which we have to presume it does), then like outsourcing in public services it raises important issues of transparency, accountability and trust. Just as outsourcing has in some instances undermined the publicness of public services (for example, their accountability to the public), so it could threaten the publicness of public policy by undermining the extent to which it is made in the public interest.

I don’t fully share Michael’s concerns – I think that contestable policy is a dud rather than a threat – at least in part because I don’t share the presumption that contestable policy making works differently from the current system in practice.

The fundamental is that Ministers still decide the final policy, but now rather than receiving policy advice from civil servants they will receive it from a think tank commissioned to undertake the work. The live example of this is a piece of research work on how senior civil servants’ reporting arrangements work, which was the first piece of contested policy. It feels like a piece of externally commissioned research, and with a budget of £50k, it’s unlikely to shake the dominance of the civil service machine.

I don’t want to be complacent. Many fear that a pressure group like the British Bankers’ Association or the National Trust will get to write policy recommendations that Ministers will then be able to push through over civil service objections.

But, and I am perhaps being unduly cynical, don’t they do that already? Certainly the BBA and the National Trust have policy teams staffed with urbane experts who lunch with policy officials and get into the detail of every bit of legislation that affects their interests. They often propose legislative changes that favour their cause – in Budget representations for instance.

Describe it like that and it sounds horribly corrupt, but I think it’s a positive contribution to public debate as long as it’s done in the open and elected Ministers are taking the final decisions.

Open Policy Making can help, in fact, by bringing more voices into the discussion and creating an equality of arms. I have a lot more faith in an open process – even a contestable process – than I do in the old word-in-the-ear ways of doing business, and that why it’s important to increase the opportunity for smaller groups and individuals to push their messages more effectively.

So, back to contestable policy making, if a think tank is being paid to do a bit of research, or even paid to write a policy proposal, I think that the strongest argument against it is that it’s a deadweight cost – we’re paying them to do what they would do anyway. It’s a different matter if whole policy teams are being closed down and there’s no competing voices being heard, but that risk again is mitigated by openness and accountability for decision making.

(declaration: Michael and Guerilla Policy are working with us on our Open Policy Making project)

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