What is the place of ‘Digital’ in Open Policy Making?

Digital tools are often mentioned as key to opening up policy making.  After all, they provide policy makers with powerful new ways of connecting with the people they serve.  But, as Simon Burall, Director of Involve, made clear to the Public Administration Select Committee, putting information on the internet won’t necessarily lead to greater engagement of the public with the policy making process. To achieve this, policy professionals need to understand their various stakeholders and the insights that they bring to policy making in order to identify the most appropriate way of involving them.

The German University town of Heidelberg offers a great example of how the Internet can be harnessed to open up policy making. An article published by Nicole Huber in The Guardian mid-August explains that the town opted for digital tools to meet its open policy making objective because it couldn’t engage with its target audience through traditional, face-to-face means:

… [I]n recent years many young Germans have become disinterested in electing a representative, preferring to have a direct role in local projects. At the same time, they seem less inclined to attend public meetings, read the newspaper or listen to public broadcasts. They increasingly rely on social media to stay informed and voice their opinions, but they still expect politicians to hear what they’re saying.

In response to this change, the city of Heidelberg expanded its online services, added Facebook and Twitter accounts for the city, and then introduced “Heidelberg Direkt”, a popular question and answer platform for citizens and city officials.

… One way that this approach has been helpful is in making decisions. For example, one issue we were met with was which kind of lamp posts to put up in a main down-town street. We posted three options on Facebook and within a few hours 6,000 people had told us their views. That’s a lot for a town with only 150,000 people. If we had asked for feedback as a city, probably only half would have taken an interest in this….

But the article also highlights some of the challenges and risks with online engagement:

… We must deal with the reality that information shared by users is not subject to the fact-checking of a newspaper of record or public broadcaster. There is so much disinformation which means establishing even basic facts can be hard.

Opinions expressed on social media also show that most vocal campaigns are short lived. Yet, those that persist are volatile and a campaign of disinformation can derail public support for a project….

When do you think we should use traditional engagement means over digital means to promote the Open Policy agenda? And what are the advantages and disadvantages of engaging online, in your experience?

Anais Reding, working on digital engagement for the Open Policy Making team at the Cabinet Office

Join the Open Policy Making team on Twitter (@OpenPolicyUK) and LinkedIn (Open Policy Making UK), check out their website (my.civilservice.gov.uk/policy) and get in touch with them (openpolicymaking@cabinet-office.gsi.gov.uk).

This text was first posted on the OPM LinkedIn group on September 18.