Public engagement in policy-making - Public Administration Committee Contents

2  Why involve the citizen in policy-making?

5.  This Government has set out to reform the relationship between the state and the citizen through ideas such as the Big Society, which the Coalition Agreement stated "offers the potential to completely recast the relationship between people and the state: citizens empowered; individual opportunity extended; communities coming together to make lives better";[5] and through opening up public services and handing individuals and communities increased power where appropriate.[6] The changing nature of the relationship with the citizen was highlighted to us by Professor Beth Noveck, former US Deputy Chief Technology officer and author of Wiki-Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful:

the future of Government looks like a hybrid between strong government institutions [...] and networks of people—groups and individuals—participating in helping to make those institutions work better.[7]

6.   The National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) suggested that citizen engagement in the policy-making process "helps institutions to keep abreast of public concerns and expectations and supports real-world problem solving" as well as demonstrating accountability and leading to socially-grounded decision making.[8] Sciencewise, a national centre for public dialogue in policy-making involving science and technology issues, similarly said that the likelihood of future unforeseen conflict could be reduced through engagement, and that final decisions were easier to implement because they were based on the best possible knowledge from a range of sources.[9] Involve, an organisation that supports organisations in engaging citizens, suggested that:

When done well, public engagement can have a number of advantages for policy-making, including strengthening the democratic legitimacy of policy, by ensuring that citizens are able to take and influence the decisions that affect their lives; increasing the accountability of government, by ensuring that citizens are aware and can respond to the decisions that government takes; and improving the quality of policy, by ensuring as broad a range of knowledge, views and values as possible are present in the process and ensuring that policy goes with the grain of public values.[10]

The current approach to policy-making

7.  The Government's Civil Service Reform Plan states that "at its best policy-making in the Civil Service can be highly innovative and effective, but the quality of policy advice is not always consistent or designed with implementation in mind", and goes on to identify a number of criticisms with the Government's current approach to policy-making:

  • Policy is drawn up on the basis of a range of inputs that is too narrow;
  • Policy is not subject to sufficient external challenge before it is announced;
  • The policy development process, and the evidence and data underlying it, is insufficiently transparent;
  • Policy insufficiently reflects the reality experienced by citizens; and
  • Policy is often developed with insufficient input from those who will have to implement it.[11]

8.  These criticisms were common in the evidence we received. Professor Kathy Sykes of Bristol University, for example, said that "many people see policy-making as happening behind closed doors and as something they can't influence".[12] Catarina Tully, a Strategic Consultant and Director of consultancy FromOverHere, wrote that "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".[13]

9.  Involve suggested in their evidence why this might be the case:

Government policy-making processes typically treat public engagement as a nuisance at worst and an optional extra or nice-to-have at best. This does not mean that there has not been significant activity, quite the opposite in fact, but that it has not been sufficiently valued or integrated in policy-making processes[...]Current models of policy making are based on and reinforce a culture and structure within government that was designed for a bygone era in which the role and expectations of government were different.[14]

Involve went on to suggest that the public is only engaged when "assessing the acceptability of a policy idea during formation (e.g. through focus groups) or after a policy has been developed (e.g. through formal consultations)".[15] Public engagement is, of course, far broader than simple consultation or the testing of ideas. The breadth of the term, including the difference between engagement and consultation, was something explained to us by a number of our witnesses.

Defining public engagement: Comments from witnesses

Simon Burall, Director of Involve

I think it means[...]citizens interacting with and receiving information from government all the way through to citizens having a collaborative approach with government and actually developing services with them. Consultation sits somewhere in the middle. Consultation for me has a very specific meaning: it means that government has developed policy to a point where it knows what it wants to do, and what it wants to do is engage on the details.[16]

Catarina Tully, Director of consultancy 'FromOverHere'

There are different types of public engagement, and it is very helpful to distinguish between the categories. You have expertise, deliberation on complex issues like GM, representation, then consultation, which is around legitimacy. We do these different forms of engagement at different times in the process and for different reasons. [17]

Stephan Shakespeare, Chief Executive Officer of YouGov

Engagement is people being involved, and consultation suggests some kind of formal process. [...]For me, the important thing for us to do is to distinguish between a consultation that is done because you feel it ought to be done, and a consultation that you do because you want it. They are very different things, but they are both valuable. You have a right to be heard perhaps, and therefore you create processes by which people can be counted and make their views felt. But if you actually want people's opinions because you think that they have different experiences that will contribute to making better policy, then you have to think about the process very differently.[18]

Mike Bracken, Executive Director, Government Digital Service

Consultation has a degree of formality to it, whereas engagement is an ongoing conversation.[19]

10.  A common view in the evidence we received was that the public were cynical about public engagements undertaken by the Government, and that some believed engagement, particularly consultation, was used as "a fig-leaf of legitimacy for bad policy".[20] The Centre for Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics (Cesagen) at Cardiff University said that "public engagement continues to be blighted by a perception that it is a reactive or post-hoc exercise, where public participation is at a stage of decision-making where its impact is purposely limited and negligible".[21] Sciencewise drew a similar conclusion:

[...] public engagement in national decision-making has sometimes tended to be a reactive process, often commissioned by Government as a result of public dissatisfaction or the failure of a national policy. Engagement commissioned in this way usually occurs late in the policy cycle and is primarily seen as a way of rebuilding trust in a discredited decision-making process.[22]

11.  Through ideas such as "the Big Society" and "Open Public Services", the Government is aiming to redefine the relationship between the citizen and the state, enabling and encouraging individuals to take a more active role in society. The process of policy-making is one where the public can play an active and meaningful role, and it is right that the citizen and people with knowledge and expertise from outside Government should have the opportunity to influence the decisions of Government.

5   HM Government, The Coalition: Our Programme for Government, May 2010, page 8 Back

6   About Open Public Services, Back

7   Q 75 Back

8   Ev 53 Back

9   Ev 49 Back

10   Ev 59 Back

11   Cabinet Office, The Civil Service Reform Plan, June 2012, page 14 Back

12   Ev 63 Back

13   Ev 79 Back

14   Ev 59 Back

15   Ev 59 Back

16   Q 101 Back

17   Q 79 Back

18   Q 16 Back

19   Q 101 Back

20   Ev 59 Back

21   Ev 44  Back

22   Ev 49 Back

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Prepared 3 June 2013