What I learnt at the Open and Collaborative policy making course

I recently attended a great course run by Civil Service Learning. The course covered new ways of thinking about policy development and was attended by colleagues from across government. As usual on courses, I learnt as much from the conversations as I did from the course content. In the days since, I’ve been mulling over those conversations and the content. I’ve set out (very roughly) some of my thoughts and the lessons I took from the course. I thought I’d share them, in the hope they’d be useful to some:

  1. Horses for Courses –  It is clear that for many policy areas Twitter campaigns may not be hugely relevant so engagement needs to be context-sensitive. This got me thinking, could the impact assessment process be tweaked to incorporate details of the best stakeholder engagement strategy?
  2.  Baby and the bathwater – Digital tools and techniques can extend our engagement with stakeholders but most of us also do this through offline forums, meetings etc. Perhaps we could highlight the evidence from these other engagement methods better? Where these alternative methods are still appropriate how can we marry their use with digital channels?
  3.  Facts versus views – Wider engagement in the policy formation, will likely present the challenge of appropriately categorising the information from different sources e.g. expert advice, unsubstantiated views and primary users’ experiences.  All have merit but will need differentiated handling. What skills and methods will we need to do this? Should we weight them, and if so, how?
  4. Simplicity and consistency – Consultation processes are, by and large, the same yet every department has a different way of presenting the consultation, structuring questions, providing feedback etc.  Some of this is because contexts are different, but I think most variation is because we don’t swap notes as well as we could. With a bit of work it shouldn’t be that hard to create common best practice and give stakeholders a more consistent experience.
  5. Asking the right questions – The issue of opening up the conversation at a much earlier stage of policy development, is new and challenging. I think we will need to get better at facilitation and perhaps adopt a less process-centric approach. I work in customer research and my job is all about helping decision makers identify which evidence- quantitative and qualitative- they need and how to ask the right questions to get it. I’d really like to learn about how others are managing this.
  6. Twitter (or any other social media platform) is not just a broadcast channel – it is also a listening and engagement tool. Everyone should be listening and engaging, so the Twitter account can’t be controlled solely by departmental communications teams.  Having said that, they will need to play an important role in training up colleagues.
  7. Unleashing the power of the collective – I felt colleagues were very enthusiastic about doing things differently. The message I heard was: give us the tools and we’ll collaborate, seek out best practice and explore better ways of doing things. I heard some really good examples where this is already happening but I’m concerned that the lack of cross-departmental networking spaces is slowing things down. It’s not enough for the Cabinet Office to ask for views and act as the moderator in this space. I’d prefer that the Cabinet Office provided tools to enable civil servants start conversations within profession based networks.

These are some of my thoughts. I’d love to hear yours, so please leave a comment.