Published on September 7, 2012

Opportunity for open policy making?

Open government

By Tim Hughes

Tim is Open Government Programme Manager at Involve and coordinator of the UK Open Government Network - a coalition of active citizens and civil society organisations committed to making government work better for people through increased transparency, participation and accountability.

This post is adapted from involve’s newsletter. You can sign up to the newsletter on the homepage. 

Despite all of the excitement of the Olympics and Paralympics this summer you’ve had a feeling that something’s missing. Well here it is: an update on what’s new at Involve. We have three big pieces of news to kick off with:

First: Annie, who has been Team Coordinator and Researcher at Involve for almost two years, is leaving to do a Masters at York University. Annie has made a fantastic contribution to Involve and we’re sad to see her go, but we wish her all of the best.

Second: We’re really pleased to welcome Kaitlyn to Involve, who is taking over as Team Coordinator and Project Officer from Annie. You can contact Kaitlyn on kaitlyn@involve.org.uk.

Third: We’ve moved home, from Finsbury Square up the road to Old Street. You can find the new Involve HQ here now.

In project news, we’ve recently finished a review of Research Councils UK (RCUK) dialogue and consultation exercises to date, which is published, along with a practical guide for research council staff, on our website. In addition, we’re very excited to be getting started on a project with Dialogue by Design for the Arts Council England exploring with citizens the purpose and value of public libraries.

In other news, the past few months have seen a couple of developments in government policy relevant to public participation. Firstly, the Government published a new set of consultation principles, which Edward has responded to here.

Secondly, June saw the Government publish its plan for reforming the Civil Service, imaginatively titled ‘The Civil Service Reform Plan’. I doubt that most people raced to download it, but being a self confessed public administration geek – and having written my masters dissertation on civil service transformation – I’m a bit…different.

The most interesting aspect of the plan for public participation advocates and practitioners is the commitment to Open Policy Making:

‘Open policy making will become the default. Whitehall does not have a monopoly on policy making expertise. We will:

  • Establish a clear model of open policy making.
  • Pilot contestable policy making by establishing a centrally-held match fund which can be used by Ministers to commission external policydevelopment (for example, by academics and thinks tanks).’

It is welcome news that the Government is developing an approach to open policy making. In September last year the Government published its Open Government National Action Plan, prompted by the UK’s membership of the Open Government Partnership (OGP). However, the plan majored heavily on open data – which the UK government is a world leader in – but contained little on open governance (you can find a civil society response to the plan here).

In terms of the detail, this plan still leaves a lot to be desired regarding its recognition of and approach to public participation. For the most part it focuses on engaging experts and stakeholders in policy making. Where public participation is mentioned, the focus tends to be narrow in terms of both purpose and methods. In terms of purpose, perhaps understandably as the plan is for civil service reform, it focuses on the technical benefits of public engagement in terms of better policy making. But it’s important not to lose the democratic elements of engagement, where people’s values shape policies, as well as their knowledge. In terms of methods, the plan focuses heavily on digital engagement (such as crowdsourcing, web based tools, new media) which is important, but there’s a danger of it becoming the only game in town.

Perhaps the area that offers the most interesting opportunities is the centrally-held match fund for contestable policy making:

‘The Cabinet Office will create a centrally-resourced match fund worth up to £1 million per year to enable departments to bid for money to put this new approach into practice.’

Does this present an opportunity to pilot some new approaches to involving citizens in policy making? What do you think?

Image by mag3737

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