Event Review: Open Policy Making & Public Dialogue @ BIS 5/6/14

amy involve
Amy Pollard, Deputy Director of Involve, welcomes civil servants to the session exploring Open Policy Making & Public Dialogue.

Last week Involve, Sciencewise, and the Open Policy Making Team brought together policy makers from across government departments to learn more about the benefits of Open Policy Making and Public Dialogue. The event aimed to explore the barriers civil servants come up against when trying to carry out genuine engagement. The event attendees were also encouraged to think of ways to overcome these barriers.

Paul Maltby, Director of Open Data and Government Innovation at the Cabinet Office, outlined the benefits of Open Policy and Public Dialogue. He noted that policy makers now have the opportunity to be “curious, networked and open minded” in how they construct policy. He stressed that Open Policy Making involves “being ready to engage with a wider set of audiences which means being engaged with the public as well as experts.” He suggested that civil servants “should use range of techniques such as user led design and well being analysis” and other methods in order to create better informed policy. Furthermore, Maltby highlighted the importance of policy makers learning to work in an agile and iterative manner. Rather than rushing  the creation of large pieces of policy in a closed manner by making decisions within government, civil servants should experiment and create policy in such as way that allows amendments to be made via constant testing with citizens. This allows any potential problems to be rectified early on and transforms apparent failure into learning and ensures better thought out policy and services. He compared the rise of openness within government to the growth of digital. It clear that digital is now an ever present factor within government partly because of the work the Government Digital Service has done to normalise digital in Whitehall and encourage the development of digital technology that will help connect government to citizens. Maltby noted that “digital is not going to crawl back into its box, neither will open policy making.” This is because, like digital, open policy making has the ability to be a transformational force which once harnessed can grow and improve efficiency through out government.   It was clear from Maltby’s comments that Open Policy Making should not be a box ticking exercise, rather it should be seen as the norm. He urged civil servants who wished to experiment with the OPM process to carry out “genuine” public dialogue and use “authentic citizen interaction” to improve services and create better policy.

Roland Jackson, Executive Chair of Sciencewise, informed attendees that while the world rapidly is changing and becoming more connected “government still sometimes falls into the habit of telling and not listening” to citizens. He noted that Open Policy Making and Public Dialogue could assist government to listen more and “encourage a deliberative and reasoned public voice.” He also highlighted various other benefits including: potential movement on controversial policy issues; cost saving; and increased responsiveness of policy to public need. He also suggested that these innovative ways of constructing policy could also lead to behaviour change within government and throughout citizenry. However, Jackson stressed that Open Policy Making cannot not be carried out within the traditional time-pressured environment of the civil service and therefore policy makers must take their time when experimenting with open techniques. He also noted that these new practices can provide valuable qualitative data that can “compliment quantitative polling” but warned that scale and representation must be considered when using qualitative data gathering. He also confirmed Paul Maltby’s earlier point on genuine interaction in policy making and encouraged civil servants to maintain relationships with citizens when practicing Open Policy Making.

The list of categorised barriers to Open Policy Making suggested by civil servants who attended the event.
The list of categorised barriers to Open Policy Making suggested by civil servants who attended the event.

Attendees were then presented with actual case studies already taking place.  Cath Beaver from the Environment AgencyPatrick Middleton from BBSCR, and Olivia O’Sullivan, of DFID all outlined various examples of where Open Policy techniques have been used in their day to day policy making work. To highlight one example, O’Sullivan presented DFID’s use of  the Ideo platform as part of the Amplify Project, which aimed to crowdsource and fund solutions to pressing global development issues, such as making urban areas safer and empowering for women and girls. She noted she by working on the project she learned that “good ideas come from everywhere” and that Open Policy Making gave DFID “access to new audiences and increased opportunities for research and collaboration.”

In terms of barriers to Open Policy Making civil servants suggested they faced 5 key restrictions: 1. The traditional narrow authorisation environment of the civil service means policy makers are anxious to receive permission before trying new methods;  2. Attendees noted that there was a need to increase awareness Open Policy Making in order to increase their confidence in trying new methods; 3. There was a feeling that more resources & time were needed in order to make Open Policy Making work; 4. Despite the apparent rise of digital, attendees noted that IT restrictions to certain websites and social media narrowed their ability to carry out the broad consultation and research required when practising Open Policy Making; 5. There was a concern about external perception – how will Open Policy Making be received by the media & the public?

With regards to possible solutions, suggestions included: a cultural shift towards increased freedom and time for policy makers to experiment; a need for honesty in order to highlight who, or what, is hindering the use of Open Policy Making and Public Dialogue; and there was a request for the Open Policy Making team and its national partners to go into departments to increase a awareness and confidence, rather than just hosting general that civil servants must attend independently.

Perhaps the Open Policy Making team, and Demsoc & Involve in their roles as national partners, should practice one of the key aspects of Open Policy Making: go to where people are. If the benefits that were highlighted at the event can be told from within government departments then perhaps the other solutions of increased freedom, time and honesty will follow along with further examples of Open Policy Making  leading to better policy and services.

The event continued to release Open Policy Making from its box; if civil servants can be brave, experiment and focus on lessons learned, rather than fearing failure, it will become increasingly difficult to return Open Policy Making and Public Dialogue to the box of theory as these new participative methods will become the new normal.