Published on June 3, 2013

Citizen engagement as an act of leadership

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

open, wicckedOpen Policy making is one of the Government’s big ideas. The Public Administration Select Committee completed an inquiry into it last year, and has now just released its report. This post gives an initial reaction to this.

This morning the Public Administration Select Committee released its eagerly (well by me anyway) report following its inquiry into public engagement in policy making. The inquiry was prompted by the Government’s plan for Civil Service Reform, published in the middle of last year. This plan takes as its central premise that “Whitehall does not have a monopoly on policy making expertise.” In chapter two it provides a rationale and some examples of ways in which the civil service and ministers could bring in more expertise, as well as the public voice, into the policy making process.

We contributed both written and oral evidence to PASC’s inquiry.

PASC’s report is in many ways fantastic. Its summary highlights the need for leadership if policy making is to be opened up. In a line I think we will probably be quoting a lot it says:

A process of engagement, which can reach beyond the ‘Westminster village’ and the ‘usual suspects’, will itself be an act of leadership

This notion runs totally counter to the way most elected politicians and senior civil servants understand leadership. As I said in my oral evidence to the committee, we are now in an era where macho leadership from the front is no longer appropriate in most cases. We need leaders who can identify critical, strategic issues and hold open a space long enough for relevant voices to be heard before assessing the available evidence and making a decision. The PASC report puts it like this:

we emphasise the importance of leadership in Government; of effective strategic thinking, which involves choosing between different arguments, reconciling conflicting opinions and arbitrating between different groups and interests; and of effective governance of departments and their agencies.

All of this is necessary for ensuring that leaders understand what the key issues are and what it is that citizens might offer, in the way of knowledge, skills, networks, for example, that government can only hear and access through authentic engagement.

Beyond clearly articulating the need for a different kind of engagement, PASC’s report says a number of other important things about the why, when and how of public engagement. It is also strong on the risks that are inherent in opening up policy making to wider expertise and the public. I also like its nuanced perspective on the value that digital engagement can offer the policy process.

I won’t rehearse all this good stuff here, not least because many of them are things we say a lot, though it does no harm at all to have them said again and again.

The PASC report helpfully makes a distinction between open policy making, where the public and experts are drawn into the policy process, and contestable policy making, where ministers buy-in specific policy expertise. It highlights the danger that the latter risks closing down the policy process further. PASC draws on our evidence to make the important recommendation that:

As a minimum, contracts awarded through the contestable policy making fund must require organisations to undertake appropriate public engagement and demonstrate this influenced its conclusions

While I wholeheartedly support most of what the PASC report says, I do think it underestimates the challenge of culture change that is needed to make open-policy making a reality. A couple of its recommendations say some of the right things, on the need for civil service training on policy development and leadership to include public engagement as a matter of routine. It also recommends that ministerial inductions should cover public engagement in open policy making. Both of these are obvious, but small steps in the right direction.

However, I don’t think the recommendations go far enough if they are really going to challenge the current closed culture that pervades most of policy making.

There is no direct recommendation that policy making will have to slow down if opening policy making is really to result in new voices being heard as part of the policy process. There is also no recommendation that ministers, subject to adequate justification, spend more resources to ensure that voices that otherwise would not contribute are supported to do so.

The section on measuring success, while strong on the need to do so, is particularly weak on how to do it. I think this is an area where government could really do with opening up the debate in order to understand how to strengthen its own practice in this area. In the end, unless government can measure the success or otherwise of opening up policy making, it can’t learn from its mistakes and feed that learning back to improve future processes.

What is missing from the report’s recommendations is how Government can negotiate the twin challenges of the media and parliamentary scrutiny while trying to open up policy making. In our adversarial system it is hard to see how a government minister can stand-up and state clearly that she doesn’t know the answer to a particular policy question, and wants to spend time and money asking the public and experts outside Whitehall. While Parliament can’t tell the media how to do its job, some reflection on the role it plays, or could play, in either opening up or closing down space for more voices to be heard within the policy process would be welcome.

Image credit: wiccked

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