Published on August 12, 2015

Making ‘open’ the default: our research on how public input can fit into policy making

Citizens & science

By Josephine Suherman-Bailey

Josephine is a Policy Analyst at Involve. She supports Involve's work on the UK Open Government Partnership civil society network and Sciencewise. She is especially interested in opening up decision-making to those who might otherwise struggle to be heard by policy-makers.

Josephine blogged for Sciencewise on her recent research into how policy makers and analysts want to use public dialogue.


Whitehall policy makers are being called on to embrace new tools to open up policy making. The Civil Service Reform Plan says open policy making will become the default and the Cabinet Office is driving this agenda, calling on policy makers to be more collaborative, transparent, to go out and speak to service users and the wider public.

There are a range of public input tools out there. Some call for a more passive input, such as social media analysis, where you get a sense of conversations already happening. Then there are tools which give participants a more active involvement, such as citizen panels and citizens’ juries, where you ask people to think a bit more deeply about a specific policy area.

Programmes like Sciencewise are at the forefront of supporting policy makers to use one of these new tools, public dialogue. Public dialogue is flexible but usually features a number of face-to-face conversations with 20 – 100 members of the public, experts and other stakeholders, using stimulus materials, to discuss a complex policy issue. At Sciencewise we recently did a piece of internal research speaking to policy makers about how public dialogue and other public input tools fit into the policy making process and how Sciencewise can better support the public being brought in.

We found an appetite to involve the public and a recognition of the value it can bring. Some of the things interviewees said they valued included challenging assumptions and encouraging fresh thinking and innovation, allowing policy makers to hear directly from members of the public without having their views filtered through the media. Also hearing from those outside the bubble of ‘usual suspects’ from industry, NGOs and academia.

However, Whitehall is a busy place and departments are being asked to cut up to 40% from their budgets. When there’s such a squeeze on, making a case for spending money on and carving out the space for dialogue can be challenging, even when there is clearly an appetite and a steer from the top. There is also a skills gap. Often policy makers have never used these tools before, they can be unsure of what their options are, what the right tool for their purposes is, how much time it will take and what it will cost. Policy makers asked us to consider how to make it easier for them to do public dialogue, and to support them with those questions about the best tools for the job.

A number of the interviewees had social research backgrounds and they noted the importance of policy makers understanding the methodological constraints of different public input tools, and what they are and aren’t useful for. We always make the point that dialogue is meant to generate new thinking, but it’s not good if you want figures or statistics (although these can sometimes be what ministers are most interested in). Interviewees felt that if you’re trying to build up a strong evidence base, public dialogue and other public input tools are best used as part of a mixed methods approach, often in the early stages of the policy cycle to help define or articulate the problem.

Interviewees also identified the vital role that Sciencewise plays in facilitating conversations on cross-cutting issues such as the great 8+2 technologies. Future technologies were singled out as particularly needing public input because of the ethical questions attached and their wide-ranging impact. For example, policy decisions around big data, autonomous vehicles and drones will have a significant impact on the way we live, and do not sit under just one department. I’ve written before on how dialogue can help with cross-cutting issues and ‘wicked’ problems here. Interviewees saw Sciencewise as a programme which facilitates departments carving out time to make sure they are thinking about these complex, longer term issues as well as the more time-sensitive, day-to-day issues.

The research was illuminating and has certainly helped Sciencewise better understand policy maker needs and what its role could be going forwards. Here’s hoping the appetite to involve the public in policy making continues to grow, and open policy making does indeed move from being an aspiration to the default.

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