Opening up the policy process (just a little)

Institute for Government report is titled ‘Opening up Policy Making’ it looks at this largely in the context of a narrow extension to what are seen as ‘expert’ groups, with only limited reference to broader models of engagement. The report argues that “more open policy making is counter-cultural”. Well, yes, we know this but the approach here belies IFGs close ties to government and investment in the near-status quo: they see the problem as being open policy making. I see it more as an outdated and out of touch culture which is not just severely flawed but increasingly out of touch and unsustainable. To be fair there is acknowledgement of the Civil Service Reform Plan that recognises the inevitable and that “Whitehall does not have a monopoly on policy-making expertise”. There is also some potential for confusion here between engagement (which happens between government and those outside) and the legislative or pre-legislative processes, which is inherently focussed on Parliament and might or might not include any effective consultation. The Planning Action Group case study is well documented and interesting, forming the bulk of the report (and therefore inevitably skewing the findings in this limited direction). The obvious lessons are that clear scope and clarity of purpose is vital – I agree entirely with the conclusion that there “needs to be a clear commissioning process”. It seems too that there were tensions with DCLG officials. Again, this emphasises my point that the problem is not simply process but culture. The output of the process was treated as simply another input to policy making, in effect weakening the experiment. More worryingly, this gave the Department an opportunity to downplay, devalue or ignore anything it didn’t like. This is not acceptable. Nor was it sensible to produce a completely separate policy document within the Department. Again this undermined the whole process (never mind it being duplication and a waste of resources). Far more effective outcomes could have been achieved with a collaborative approach where a range of internal and external members co-produced a document together (similar to the DEFRA model described in the report). I accept that this would have presented cultural challenges but in the long run that has to be addressed and my advice here is simple: grow up, get over it and on with it! The brief review of alternative policy formation and review models starts with the Australian and New Zealand approaches of a quasi-independent commission. My only comment on this approach is to note that it is a) run by Treasury and b) staffed “mainly by economists”. I’m not quite seeing how this is a solution to a more varied and open approach to policy as it stands, although there is potential to widen it. (As an aside, take a look at these websites and see which one you find more engaging and accessible… the New Zealand site shows that you can appraoch a serious, dry subject in more creative ways) I like the Finnish Innovation Fund’s approach. It’s far more independent than the Australasian model, appearing in more ways like an independent think-tank than a government agency. It’s clear, time-limited but in-depth focus on key policy issues is certainly a model worth investigating. The coalition government is increasingly outsourcing policy making to think-tanks, many of whom, as we note in WhoFundsYou, are opaque in both funding and agenda. So, to me, an open, transparent and independent policy vehicle seems very attractive. I would go further and incorporate many of the Danish MindLab’s ideas of outreach and opportunities for public and business inclusion to make the model even stronger. It would certainly be a more effective model for public engagement than the light-touch ones seen so far in the UK, including the Red Tape Challenge cited in the report. The IFG Report sees a “strong case to open up policy-making process” because it can

  • bring in more views
  • allow ministers to be able to challenge civil service advice
  • develop policy in a more collaborative and potentially innovative way.
I would add to this, that if the process really is opened up and new methods of engagement are encouraged (read: we become more Scandinavian!) then it will help with re-engagment, bring in wider perspectives from people who today are laregely ignored and feel excluded and (as the evidence suggests) lead to better policy outcomes.  ]]>

Leave a Reply