Well not 99%, but maybe a decent chunk?
Last week we held a (rather successful* if I say so myself) event with our partners in the Cabinet Office’s Open Policy Making team, as part of our role within the Sciencewise programme. As part of the session, we did an exercise with 40 or so civil servants and people from the policy profession, to look at the barriers to opening up policy making and engaging with the public – and ask what are the reasons why we wouldn’t be able to work in a more collaborative and open way.
My colleague Rachel Pascual led the participants to discuss the issues in small groups and then write the barriers to more open policy making and public dialogue on post-it notes, which she then organised. Five themes emerged:
The full write up is here (thanks to Tom Harrison for deciphering the handwriting).
In my opinion this mapping is an invaluable strategic resource, and essential reading for anyone with an interest in open government, engaging citizens and deepening democracy. What it tells us, I think, is that the majority of open government experts are focusing their efforts on what is – from a policy making point of view – only a small part of the problem.
To sweepingly (and almost certainly unfairly) generalise, it seems to me that the dominant focus of most open government experts is capacity building. From those of many different creeds and approaches, and looking at valuable resources like the Open Government Guide, there is a great emphasis on sharing tools and experience. From guides on digital tools, face-to-face methods and how to combine the two; to archives of case studies, learning groups and mentoring – we place significant emphasis on giving people the tools, skills and knowledge to do engagement well.
But if our (albeit small) group of civil servants and policy makers is any indication, then over two-thirds of the problem is not about capacity. It’s about political buy-in, time, money, the straightjacket of IT restrictions in government, and the risks of opening up to a wider group.
Perhaps these are problems that it’s not our job to overcome. We can’t do everything, and if we can build capacity (which is always going to be an essential, if not sufficient, condition for effective engagement) then we should. It’s a great place to start – and you have to start somewhere. But we shouldn’t be surprised if we find that two-thirds of the barriers to more open government then prove harder to shift.
Two sets of questions are now on my mind. The first is around who does have the power to shift those other barriers, and how can different people with different positions, roles, knowledge and skills support that change? Do we need to change our strategy? Or do we need to change the way we work with others? Has Rachel’s exercise unwittingly helped us draw up the bones of a theory of change for the sector?
The second set of questions is around whether capacity building has become the tool of preference because it often embodies the collectivism that open government advocates are aiming to foster? Blockages of authority can usually only be removed by small groups of elites (often in private); whereas blockages of capacity lend themselves to wide, transparent, community based working. Have we been trying to promote our favourite hammer by turning everything into a nail?
Very interested to hear any thoughts – or explanations of why my diagnosis is wholly unfair.
*100% of evaluation forms rated the event as good or very good, and 100% said they would recommend similar events to a colleague.
Photo credit Kevin Spencer, creative commons licence, 2008, http://www.flickr.com/photos/55043824@N00/2801080050