Public Engagement in policy-making

Written evidence submitted by Catarina Tully (PE 13)

Summary

1. Current public engagement in policy-making could be much better. Despite some past valiant attempts at public engagement, including digital, the assessment reflected in the PASC’s Issues and Questions paper and in the Cabinet Office June 2012 Civil Service Reform plan is spot on. There is insufficient challenge in policy-making. Policy-making can be too often lacking in transparency, not engaging the right citizens and consulting too narrowly. Existing policy-making engagement attempts are marginalised and mediocre: conducted mostly too late in the process, they reflect a thin view of public engagement and are disempowering for those who are being "engaged with".

2. More public engagement is absolutely necessary. Changes now and over the next 10 years (including technology and globalisation, but also demography, values and expectations) will continue to change the relationship between the citizen and the state, and open up new opportunities and risks for representative and participatory democracy. Responding effectively to these opportunities and risks will require updating how we see the role of government in society – as a "system-steward" within a wider network, rather than a deliverer at the top of a pyramid. This has implications for the function of the civil service. It would be helpful to have a clearer definition of the civil service’s role as a custodian or guardian of the public value of the policy-making process. This also requires a re-evaluation of the kind of skills, capabilities and leadership needed from both politicians and officials.

3. The discussion about public engagement therefore needs to be put within its wider systemic context. It cannot be discussed independently of the role of government in society or the role of citizenship. One of the key aspects of this discussion that is insufficiently drawn out is that we need a strong strategic state in order to engage the public effectively. In particular, policy-makers need to be clear about the four different forms of engagement and why/when they are used: expert input, representation, deliberation and consultation.

4. I commend the intentions of the June 2012 CSR plan and its commitment to opening up policy-making. This is a valuable signal from senior levels of the UK Government about the importance of this agenda. However, while the use of digital approaches and contestability may be two useful ways of opening up policy-making, they should not be seen as a short-cut. They have downsides as well as upsides. It is absolutely necessary to discuss and understand the purpose of public engagement rather than to focus on the method. There is little sign of this conversation taking place.

5. Better public engagement would look like this: clear about the purpose; designed to fit the question, using the appropriate tools, involving iterative and ongoing collaborative engagement; and appropriate to the context and people. In particular, it is important that policy-makers go to where citizens are already having conversations, rather than establishing new forms of engagement.

6. My main concern is that the recommendations in the CSR plan do not address the two key systemic reasons why civil servants do not engage the public effectively at the moment, despite them knowing (and being taught) that it is an integral part of the policy-making process. The first reason is lack of time. The second reason is the lack of political space provided by the political system. Public engagement requires Whitehall and local government giving up control and being open to risks. There is little appetite for that in the current set-up: Ministers and senior departmental officials are rarely prepared to do so.

7. In conclusion, more profound changes are needed simultaneously to the proposed changes to the civil service: government needs to be more confident and proactive about discussing what its role is and what the parameters for different types of engagement are at different levels (as well as managing the joins between them, e.g. national and local, representation and consultation). Parliament could play a stronger role in promoting public engagement. What is required from government is an emergent strategy involving deep, legitimising public engagement at all levels of government policy-making, from the difficult intergenerational equity issues that need to be discussed among citizens (e.g. sustainable development, investment in human capital, immigration) at the national strategy level, to designing appropriate public services for users at a more community-level.

8. Biography: Cat Tully is a Director of FromOverHere, a consultancy providing strategy and foreign policy advice. Its mission is to support organisations – particularly governments - navigate a complex world. She was formerly Strategy Project Director at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office until August 2010. She has worked on strategy development, research, advice and training across the private, government and civil society sectors, including for HMG Prime Minister's Strategy Unit, Procter & Gamble, Christian Aid, World Bank and the UN. Relevant experience on public engagement & policy-making include: training international civil servants in policy-making and strategic thinking/communications; researching Governance trends 2030, Democracy 2.0 and the role of social media for the US National Intelligence Council; and advising on emergent strategy approaches to governance. She is co-founder of the School of International Futures and trustee of Involve, a public participation thinktank, and the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development.

Current state of Public Engagement in Policy-Making

9. Current public engagement in policy-making could be much better. There are some positive signals: the UK is ranked 5th on BCG’s e-Intensity Index; there are some examples of innovation and thought leadership partly by UK Government (e.g. BIS’ Sciencewise Project), though mostly driven by activists/social entrepreneurs/charities/academics in this field; and the UK Government’s championing of the Open Government Partnership and various transparency initiatives. However the fundamental assessment contained in the PASC’s Issues and Questions paper and in the Cabinet Office June 2012 Civil Service Reform plan is correct in identifying key areas where it falls short. There is insufficient challenge in policy-making, policy-making can be too often lacking in transparency, it does not engage a sufficiently broad set of citizens and consults too narrowly. Existing engagement attempts are marginalised and mediocre:

· mostly conducted too late in the process, and for the purpose of testing acceptability of already developed policy proposals;

· reflect a thin view of public engagement: mainly used either as a deficit model (selling a difficult policy idea to people) or tick box/tokenistic exercise. The purpose is on the whole not thought through and the chosen method of engagement is not suitable. Examples include the Post Office consultations and the 2007 energy consultations (later challenged in the high court);

· result in a disempowering and confusing experience for those who are being "engaged with". Common themes in feedback include: that the scope is not clear; the purpose is not communicated to participants nor the conclusions fed-back to them; and various approaches from different parts of government are frustrating and time-consuming. For example, I have come across various local community organisations representing minority ethnic or diaspora groups – which often run on small budgets and volunteers’ time – that are the recipient of multiple, conflicting and duplicative requests for engagement from different government departments. Involve’s study "Pathways through Participation" included 100 interviews with activists who uniformly expressed frustration and cynicism about their experience of engagement with different parts of the UK government. They universally liked the concept but not the delivery.

10. This represents a lot of government revenue being used ineffectively on current engagement processes that erode rather than build public trust. More importantly, however, it is a wasted opportunity of epic proportions.

Why is Public Engagement becoming more important?

11. More public engagement is absolutely necessary. As discussed in the CSR plan, existing recognized benefits are increased legitimacy, accountability and better policy-making. However, engagement is also becoming more important because of four drivers, that will continue to grow in importance over the coming decade:

· Formal political engagement is going down and dissatisfaction up in politics (less than 50% of the population are interested in politics according to Hansard’s 2012 Audit of Political Engagement). Political activity is increasingly not mediated through traditional political actors, like political parties, but expressed through peer-to-peer communities of interest: in person or online.

· Growing recognition of the role of non-state actors in influencing the UK’s prosperity, wellbeing and security given the complicated nature of future problems we face: e.g. cyberthreats, climate change, investment in infrastructure, and insecurity overseas that spills over onto UK streets. These actors – whether diaspora groups, businesses, academic institutions, community groups - need to be involved from the beginning and will demand genuine engagement and influence in return for their involvement. Similarly, there is a growing recognition of the paucity of government levers to respond to public service challenges. The critical importance of the role that users/families/communities themselves play in co-developing effective solutions is increasingly being acknowledged: in accessing ideas, participation, co-productive resources.

· The increasing trend of globalisation and associated uncertainty is another driver. We are becoming increasingly aware of our global interconnectedness in the economic and environmental realm as well as the political. Social cohesion is particularly valuable as a response to uncertainty. It builds the necessary resilience as people work together, negotiate, collaborate, build a community and relationships that are more effective at responding to shocks and opportunities. And public engagement and cohesion around a mandate may be the only way in a democracy to mitigate the incentive of kicking difficult issues (often around intergenerational equity, e.g. pensions, airports, climate change) down the track beyond the next election.

· A fourth major driver is technology. This is of particular relevance to the question of public engagement. It opens up the possibility of mass participation in democracy. However, we have a lot further to go to understand its impact on society and politics and how to integrate it into democratic practice. Web-based forms of engagement create great opportunities: facilitating input into decision-making, enhancing oversight, and making community ownership of public assets possible. However, there are also major risks: it can promote superficial engagement (not helped by the fact that some UK government websites can make engagement sound like an xfactor game); the internnet can act as an echo chamber; and agenda-setting power can become reactive and hysterical – and arguably currently better at ‘stop power’ rather than at positive deliberation and agendas. [1]

12. I would like to underline two key challenges here. First, there are wider systemic political changes going on – that all democratic governments are struggling with. This is not a UK-specific challenge and we can learn from other countries’ innovations. Second, given the wider systemic context, we must seek public engagement that is legitimate and deliberation that is meaningful: this requires a stronger, more confident government as well as more public engagement.

Government as a System-Steward or Platform within wider society

13. Changes now and over next 10 years (including technology and globalisation, but also demography, values and expectations) will change the relationship between the citizen and the state, and open up new opportunities and risks for representative and participatory democracy. Responding effectively to these opportunities and risks will require updating how we see the role of government in society – as a "system-steward" or "platform" within a wider network, rather than a deliverer at the top of a pyramid.

14. At the heart of the discussion about public engagement is therefore the question about how we can better implement democratic principles. We are faced with an opportunity to refresh and broaden representative democracy through the Westminster model and integrate new forms of participatory democracy. The trends discussed above – in particular the impact of disaggregated political activity via the web – are not revolutionary for democracy per se. They are, however, revolutionary for democracies in their capacity to reflect, aggregate and translate citizens’ choices into domestic and foreign decisions.

15. It is helpful to clarify further our understanding of the value of representation and participation within public engagement. We can do so by looking at four different types of public engagement and understand where they add legitimacy and value to decision-making processes around the public good. Representation (via elected officials and politicians) is a foundational aspect of our democratic system. Expertise is necessary to understand the complex systems in which we live. Deliberation is important for understanding and developing citizens’ responses to complex problems, many of which remain to be solved (e.g. around governing emergent technology). Consultation also has valuable legitimizing and accountability functions. Public engagement spans these four categories: but what are their respective roles and purpose and how do we link them together?

Good Practice in Public Engagement

16. In practice, better public engagement would get three things right:

· A clear purpose: that is legitimate and transparent and clear. A recent UCL study on participation in decision-making in climate change infrastructure showed that there is a vast mismatch between people’s expectation when they engage and the scope that the law and central government gives them.

· Appropriate design: Being clear what the mode of engagement is and using the appropriate tools and method, whether digital or not. In every mode (whether representation, expert, consultation or deliberation) effective engagement will be iterative, open to risk, collaborative and future-focused. There are many valuable digital and non-digital tools and methodologies (e.g. public dialogue, distributed dialogue, formal consultations, purposive sampling, a good selection, including case-studies can be found in ParticipationCompass).

· Context and People: getting the right breadth of people involved in a way that is relevant to the way they are able to engage.

17. There are good recommendations in the CSR plan. These need to go further. First, more training in policy-making process for civil servants is necessary. It does need to be emphasised as an integral skill of the policy-maker - including guidance, case-studies and examples of what to do when there is tension with other objectives (e.g. quick results, budget cuts). Second, cross-departmental coordination is absolutely important – as is ensuring that HMT budgeting processes support this, and that there are strong incentives to maintain knowledge and relationships. Third, more investment is needed – both in training and attempting innovative approaches in digital and open-sourcing, but also in building expert committees and deep ongoing deliberative engagement where necessary.

18. Most important, however, is the need – for civil servants and politicians – to look at engagement from the citizen’s perspective. This has quite profound implications: it means going to where citizens have political conversations rather than establishing parallel systems. It also means holding the duty of care to citizens at the centre of engagement – providing sufficient time; open communication and acknowledging contributions; publishing ideas; sustaining genuine ongoing relationships; and committing to agreed processes and outcomes.

Civil Service Reform Plan

19. I commend the intentions of the June 2012 CSR plan and its commitment to opening up policy-making. This is a valuable signal from senior levels of the UK Government about the importance of this agenda. Moreover, the language of seeing the relationship between citizens and government as a "partnership" is very helpful.

20. From systemic perspective, however, the CSR plan doesn’t really get to the heart of the issue. It focuses down too quickly on proposed activities and solutions for the civil service. It therefore misses two critical steps at the diagnosis stage by not developing a vision of the role of government in society. This needs to be elaborated in order to understand the wider political context in which the civil service will be operating and the purpose it therefore serves. There is a startling lack of analysis of trends and drivers of change or possible scenarios for the coming decade. I do not understand how recommendations for the shape and capability of a civil service – there to act as a bureaucracy to support Her Majesty’s Government – can be expounded without being put in the context of the wider political function it serves.

21. I argue that this requires an assessment of the likely changes in the political system over the next 10 years (as discussed in Paragraph 11), that are of a much wider scope than civil service reform. These discussions need to include:

· The relative roles within the political system - between representative democracy (i.e. Government, Parliament and Local Government) and independent fora for participatory democracy - in developing concepts of the common good.

· Why engagement happens, what kind of engagement is needed when, and what part of the political system convenes the engagement.

· The role of the citizen – and expectations of engagement: the CSR plan only mention "citizen" three times, the first time late on page eight. The word "user" is used ten times.

· The interface between engagement processes at different levels: national strategy, local plans, thematic strategies – i.e. what is up for scope.

22. Restricting what is a profound debate about the impact of technology and other drivers of change on modern democracy to three ingredients (civil service reform, digital engagement and contestable policy-making) is problematic and abrogates responsibility for much wider discussions.

Digital engagement

23. From the point of view of government, social/digital media is revolutionary in enabling engagement at scale, two-way communication, and crowd-sourcing of ideas. But it is not without challenges for government, in particular two sets of challenges:

· Forms of online engagement are as variable as their offline forms in the potential for conflicting views and the possibility of capture by special interests. Digital engagement can be as badly designed as offline forms and result in superficial engagement – but the scale caused by low barriers to entry can result in much speedier and greater magnitude of effect. However, quantity does not mean quality.

· Whether digital engagement facilitates collective decision-making and deliberation on difficult issues. This depends on its impact on the process of deliberation: public engagement on difficult issues tends not to be a bilateral process. Some forms of interaction – namely personalising some public services – can be easily done online since it is between a "user" and "provider". Policy-making is something more complex – about the business of working in a community (wherever the boundaries are drawn – family, region, city, country) to address common challenges. Public value is not an aggregation of the value to individuals – there are externalities and distributional and normative discussions to be had. Deeper collective engagement and deliberation is sometimes required – and face to face conversations remain a very important mode for this type of public engagement. For example, Involve’s Sciencewise project has engaged 16 000 citizens on over two dozen complex scientific governance issues, including DNA, stemcell, nanotechnology. This shows that citizens can very well understand the implications of even the most complex of issues and develop sophisticated understanding through ongoing deliberations including in person methods.

Open-Policy Making

24. The open-policy making presumption is an exciting development and one with vast potential. The plan should be commended for:

· Emphasising the importance of these issues and embracing tools like crowd-sourcing (FOIA is the kind of policy you do want to crowd-source).

· Identifying the need for framing policy-making as a collaborative endeavour between government and citizens.

· Some helpful innovations: cross-departmental teams focused around problems rather than departmental structures.

25. But it is important to ensure that the proposals in the CSR plan address why it doesn’t happen at the moment. I am not convinced that the plan’s diagnosis of the problem or the proposals address the root cause. Good civil servants know that public engagement is important and they do it where they can. In most policy and strategy training courses (including the ones I teach) public engagement is embedded as good practice – this has been the case for a long time. The difficult issue is the following: not engaging with the public is a logical response to the systemic incentives facing civil servants. Apart from the capability issues (which I believe are themselves a symptom rather than a cause), the key barriers are:

· Time: civil servants rarely have enough time in the policy development process to engage the public effectively.

· Political space: there is a lack of political space provided by the political system. Public engagement requires Whitehall and local government giving up control and being open to risks. There is little appetite for that in the current set-up: Ministers and senior officials are rarely prepared to devolve or give decision-making power to other actors, engage with unpopular voices, respond to ideas that are not Whitehall mainstream options, or try uncomfortable or unknown policy approaches.

26. Out-sourcing policy is a recommendation in the CSR plan. With the caveat that I don’t know how such an interpretation of policy contestability will work in practice (and there is a lack of detail in the plan) – I don’t see how contestability addresses the two systemic issues identified above. The danger is that we remain with existing problems and add some new ones on top. The civil service has a lot of assets that other actors in society don’t have: legitimacy, convening power, authority, and most of all neutrality. The independence & professionalism of the UK Civil Service is world renowned. [2] I am particularly concerned that contestability could result in worse policymaking in two ways. First, policy development will become even further detached from delivery. Second, Government will not be able to legislate for engagement or quality control it. And given the few incentives for embarking such a messy, complicated, expensive and difficult process, corners will be rapidly cut.

27. In summary, I am entirely supportive of innovations to involve more public engagement in the policy-making process. It is fundamental that the Government insists on wider engagement of experts, consultation and deliberation with citizens and other actors in society. It is important that funds to source new ideas are provided. But input should be provided from non-civil servants in their role as policy collaborators, not process owners.

28. My recommendation is that the role of the civil service in policy-making should be clarified, refined and narrowed to being the custodian or guardian of a fair policy-making process. This role will set out the parameters for engagement and transparently clarify responses. It will manage the interface with other actors and networks of people that come up with ideas and inputs. It will identify how to facilitate and commission effective engagement. Although it is tempting for a Government facing a slow-to-respond civil service to create change through an out-sourcing shock, this approach will not be effective since it does not provide for systemic change.

29. Instead, three parallel approaches are necessary to drive change. The first two are already partly identified in the Civil Service Reform plan, as described in para 17, but need to go much further. First, training civil servants in policy-making. (Incidentally, policy-making training has been heavily compromised over 2012 by the introduction of Civil Service Learning with the number of civil servants trained plummeting. As a driver of potential change, it currently leaves a lot to be desired.) Second, shaping the incentive structures of the civil service around problems and the community of actors around these problems - not around departments: i.e. requiring changes to spending review processes and budgets, performance evaluation, team structures, etc. Third, it also requires a re-evaluation of the leadership role needed from senior Government leaders as well as senior officials (as well as the value of trust between them). Moving to a governance approach where the public is engaged more systematically requires a sense of common purpose, commitment and understanding of the time it takes, the potential risks and the need for engagement to be genuine and respond to citizens’ concerns.

More profound changes needed

30. The complexity and uncertainty facing countries in the Western democratic political system is resulting in unconfident & reactive governments. Across many countries, governments’ perceived lack of traction and ability to direct change in society is resulting in tensions and mistrust between elected politicians and civil servants. As discussed in the earlier section Government as a System-Steward or Platform within wider society (paras 13-15), one fruitful response is to view government’s role in society and its relationship with citizens as a system-steward – a platform to enable citizens shape the content in a much deeper way than at present. This involves refreshing current representative and participatory democratic processes. The goal is to seek public engagement that is legitimate, and deliberation that is meaningful: this requires a stronger, more confident government as well as more public engagement. A few observations can be made:

· "Open" policy-making and clear strategic leadership from Government are mutually reinforcing: the one needs the other. A strong strategic state is necessary in order to engage the public effectively. Government needs to be more confident and proactive about discussing what its role is and how the governance system works (as well the respective roles of citizens and other actors as discussed in paragraph 21).

· This is reflected in the need to manage the parameters of public engagement at different levels: international; regional; national strategy; policy areas; local/cities. Each form of public engagement is ‘nested’ within a wider engagement process, but also a wider legislative and resource context. Effective engagement requires clarity on what’s up for grabs and the purpose. A core challenge is in managing the joins between these levels – and this requires strong strategic direction from government on a strategic level.

· In the face of strong central government direction-setting, legitimacy becomes all the more important. It will come from transparency and from deep engagement with citizens. This legitimacy will also come partly from a clearly delineated, authentic role of the civil service as custodian of the process.

· Parliament could play a stronger role in promoting public engagement – Hansard’s 2010 study on policy-making recommended Parliament have a stronger role in assessing whether the right consultation has occurred on legislation. Parliament is often seen as something Ministers are accountable to. Instead – as in other countries like Finland, Denmark, Israel, Holland (all using different approaches) - Parliament could play a role in promoting public engagement, discussing difficult long-term issues issues.

· There are difficult political issues that need to be discussed at a national level: immigration, governance of new technologies, GM food, intergenerational equity, sustainable democracy. The UK’s national interest is at stake in many of these issues. Public dialogue on these issues is critically important: the country needs a National Strategic Narrative. Washington has identified this need: A narrative is a story. A national strategic narrative must be a story that all [Americans] can understand and identify with in their own lives… We need a story with a beginning, middle, and projected happy ending that will transcend our political divisions, orient us as a nation, and give us both a common direction and the confidence and commitment to get to our destination… This Strategic Narrative is intended to frame our National policy decisions regarding investment, security, economic development, the environment, and engagement well into this century. [3] Parliament could have a bigger role to play in promoting this discussion.

31. Final thought – we are playing for high stakes over the coming decades. There are strong drivers towards managing scarcity/uncertainty/complexity through greater central government control. However, there will be a governance premium to democracies that manage to embrace new forms of public engagement within their political systems to create better policy outcomes. The UK is on this difficult journey.

December 2012


[1] Summary of arguments made in my paper for the US National Intelligence Council “Democracy 2.0 and the 2030 Global Future”

[2] It may be appropriate here to pause and recogni s e the UK Civil Service as an important and valuable asset that needs to be nurtured , as well as encouraged to significantly reform and adapt. My experience in teaching civil servants from many different countries is that there is a great respect for the UK civil service which acts as an important soft power tool. UK policy and political discussions need to recognise what is excellent and why - as well as what needs to change.

[3] A National Strategic Narrative. Mr Y, Wilson Centre 2010

Prepared 3rd January 2013