Here today, gone tomorrow?

Regular readers of this blog probably need little convincing about the importance of open policymaking and better consultation. This blog is itself a great example of learning-by-doing. And the resources being developed – in particular the frameworks for ideal policy team behaviours and the fledgling matrix should provide a practical toolkit for teams wanting to do open policymaking well.

This post is a reflection on one of the big challenges that strikes me when I think about how open policymaking works in practice. It’s one that I have experienced first-hand, both as someone leading policymaking in government and as someone engaging in policy from the outside.

We found love (in a hopeless place)

Open policymaking is a relationship business. Ade’s discussion of policy team behaviours puts many of them into the bucket marked “engagement” and goes on to discuss the importance of communities (both online and face-to-face) in making this happen. Strong communities promote sharing, foster trust, and provide a safe environment for critical challenge. Achieving this takes time and investment – all of these things are earned over repeated interactions and bound up in getting to know each other.

And here’s the thing: for many of us, time is short.

Overall turnover in the Civil Service is lower than in the private sector. But in the core policymaking functions in Whitehall things can be very different. At HM Treasury, for example, more than half the people working there in 2011 joined in 2008 or later. The Civil Service Fast Stream styles rapid rotation as a selling point – it is designed to help people “amass a wide range of experience in a very short time”. Many (though by no means all) high fliers replicate this approach at more senior grades.

Turnover has many important benefits for organisations, including bringing expertise into departments and sending it out into the wider world. But it is not without costs, and open policymaking may well be one of the areas that loses as well as gains.

This may be particularly true when civil servants rotate much faster than people in the wider policy community. Working in government I remember stakeholders telling me (sometimes wearily) that I was the third or fourth person they had dealt with on a particular policy in as many years. I put a high priority on building good, open, stable relationships with people – and finding the ones who had watched policy chop and change over the years helped me avoid reinventing the wheel. But I also knew that I would be in another job altogether in two years’ time.

As someone who now works with government from the outside, I have seen my fair share of faces change and relationships reset. The impact of this can vary, but I’m not sure that certain policy areas are inherently more resilient than others. Rather it’s down to the plurality of relationships an organisation has with the community and the time people invest (or don’t) in handing over properly when they move on.

None of this is surprising. It’s human nature to enjoy rapid learning and get bored once we have mastered something. But given the foundational importance of relationships and communities in open policymaking, we have to reflect on what this means for making it work in practice.

Black holes and revelations

The Civil Service Reform Plan recognises these challenges, and suggests that departments should “take steps to identify the key posts that would benefit from a greater stability of tenure and retain a more stable cohort while balancing the needs and priorities of the department.” Better tools and platforms for collaboration and knowledge management may also help to make communities more resilient to the departure of individual members.

Or maybe it doesn’t matter. Perhaps better policymaking also means getting things done faster, so turnover is less disruptive. Or perhaps the whole point of open policymaking is that civil servants are no longer the centre of gravity of the policy universe: policy leads may still go supernova from time to time, but at least they won’t leave a black hole behind.

What do you think?