The Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) published a report in June this year called ‘Public Engagement in Policy Making’. This report is the equivalent of a colleague who takes your money, goes to the shop to buy you lunch and only asks you what type of water you want. Sure, you’ve chosen something but you’re still left eating the crabsticks and twiglets they picked out for you.
The paper examined the Government’s proposed open policymaking program. As they have stated: “Whitehall does not have a monopoly on policy making expertise.” The hope being that open policy will allow a greater number and wider range of voices to be heard and then influence the shape of policy.
The thrust of the report was the ‘idea’ is good but something must be done to ensure that it is not just a piecemeal offering. Instead it needs to have a positive impact on participatory democracy so citizens can have a real influence on how they are governed.
Despite this, PASC envisages a number of areas in which open policy making must be curtailed especially when the Government ‘needs’ to implement unpopular policy and spending programmes.
The problem is that if the Government is planning on enacting popular policy and spending plans, merely crowdsourcing opinion on them, then it is only really seeking recognition of the policy’s known popularity. Unpopular policy and spending is unlikely to be opened up to the public so it would seem that PASC is presenting the piecemeal it seeks to avoid.
The report also argues for a “wiki” democracy – implying policy will be opened up for constant debate and change. This is an interesting suggestion. Anyone who knows about the editing and governance structure of Wikipedia will know that it is not democratic. The organisation’s hierarchy allows some editors more say than others over content and contentious pages are even locked against public editing. Trusted sources are, by definition, more trusted.
On Wikipedia this serves a vital function, it theoretically prevents individuals with grudges and biases from undermining the site’s reliability. PASC is doing the same by caveating the public’s ability to inform policy. Trusted sources are, again, trusted sources.
What about lobbyists? Those who have traditionally had an impact on policy making are those who have the time and resources to lobby the Government. Are these to remain ‘trusted sources’?
David Cameron stated that lobbying was going to be the “next big scandal”. Surely part of the desire for open policy making, as part of democratising our governance, would be to limit the relative influence that lobbying groups have.
While debate rages on over the issue of Trident and the nuclear deterrent, the only voices that are regularly audible are those of CND and the military industrial complex. Is the Government really willing to open up this issue for citizen participation? The answer is, of course, no – hence the PASC’s heavy caveating in their report.
Trident does have a real impact on people’s lives, positively through jobs, an impression of security and our position on the world stage, but a negative impact is felt through high cost (around £2.4bn) during a time when Government spending cuts are having a deleterious effect on public services and living standards. Advocates on either side of the argument present this as a black and white issue when it is clearly a genuine debate.
I use Trident merely as an example and by no means is this article taking a position. However it is one of those areas where powerful lobbying groups with polarised positions are the only voices heard. Almost everyone has an opinion and, frankly, policymaking on Trident is extremely unlikely to become ‘open’.
I suppose my point really is this – if open policymaking is only applicable to policy where not much is at stake and people broadly agree, is that really open policy making?