‘Policy-makers must be both humble and confident’ to make successful policy. This was the message from Sir Chris Wormald KCB, Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health and Social Care and Head of the Civil Service Policy Profession, at a keynote speech I attended at the Institute for Government at the end of April in which he set out his vision for the future of policy-making.
Sir Chris reflected on what policy-makers in the Civil Service do well and why it has many reasons for pride in its achievements. He also indicated how it can continue to improve policy making going forward. The speech included a great deal of useful insight from his vast experience, although it seemed there was a significant lack of attention paid to the importance of public engagement when making good policy.
He emphasised the need for policy-makers ‘to be both humble and confident’; humble enough to know that they will not immediately know the answer to policy questions, whilst being confident enough to bring the right voices into the room, and the right forms of evidence to find the answer. He explained this to mean bringing together experts in the subject matter, behavioural insights and digital policy-making. However, it felt like there was one conspicuous omission from this group: the public.
This was a surprising omission because in recent years there have been many exciting examples of policy-makers successfully trialling new methods to tap into the resources of public insight to make better policy. This is something which we are proud to have helped lead the way on:
The Sciencewise programme funded by UKRI is supported by Involve and has in recent years run various public dialogues which have significantly informed policy development. Contributing crucial insight into public perspectives on controversial policy areas such as mitochondrial replacement therapy and public use of drones, this programme continues to demonstrate the value of public dialogue in the policy process.
Last year the Health and Social Care and Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committees commissioned us to run a Citizens’ Assembly on the future funding of adult social care in England. This produced policy recommendations which offered a path to solving a previously intractable problem. These recommendations received strong cross-party support and clearly demonstrated the value of public engagement.
We have also been working with Scottish Government’s Agriculture and Rural Economy Directorate to engage a cross-section of the Scottish public on their attitudes, values and priorities on farming, agricultural environments and support for rural communities.
Momentum is building at various levels of government for using new methods of public engagement to put people at the heart of decisions that affect their lives. However, hearing Sir Chris say so little about the increasing role it is having in policy-making shows there is still work to be done to embed public engagement as an essential policy-making tool.
Reflecting on how we might achieve this, I think the best approach would be to echo Sir Chris’s own point back to him: that policy-makers must be both humble and confident. This means being humble enough to recognise the value that the public can bring to policy-making, and confident enough to bring together insights from experts and the public to make better policy. Meaningful public engagement is an essential policy-making tool, and I am excited to see the outcomes of all the work we are already doing with government, and look forward to more in the future.