Public engagement in policy-making - Public Administration Committee Contents

3  Involving the citizen and experts from outside Government in policy-making

12.  The Civil Service Reform Plan sets out to address the current criticisms of policy-making with proposals to offer the public the opportunity to become more involved in the overall policy process. It states that "open policy-making will become the default. Whitehall does not have a monopoly on policy-making expertise".[23] The plan pledges two separate actions: "open" policy-making and "contestable" policy-making. This is a departure from more traditional approaches to public engagement, namely public consultation, which has usually only occurred after the Government has already determined a course of action.

13.  A "clear model of open policy-making" is explained in the Civil Service Reform Plan as one that exploits technology and social media to engage the public in debates about policy and in the policy-making process itself. In an open policy-making model, it is understood that involvement of the public is sought before proposals have been formulated. As well as referring to "web-based tools, platforms and new media", the plan mentions "crowd sourcing" to help to define particular problems, instead of only consulting on solutions, and using "policy labs" to test policies with a range of people and organisations before implementation.[24]

14.  The second proposed action, "contestable policy-making", is one in which external sources are given the opportunity, through competition, to develop policy. The Civil Service Reform Plan states that this approach has "the additional benefit of bringing in expertise on specific subject matter when it does not exist in the Civil Service". This approach has been described as "outsourcing" of policy-making. To achieve this, the Government has established a central match-fund, known as the Contestable Policy Fund, which is worth up to £1 million per year, allowing departments "to bid for an allocation of £500k funding (and provide £500k match funding themselves) to open up specific pieces of policy development to competition".[25]

Ministers and the Civil Service

15.  This change in approach raises questions about the role for Ministers and their relationship with civil servants as the principle source of policy advice. Roger Hampson, Chief Executive of the London Borough of Redbridge, summarised the challenge in implementing open policy-making for those responsible for policy development:

[...] if you are not careful, overwhelming public opinion will push in some direction that makes no sense and takes people off the cliff. The role of politicians, political actors and bureaucrats is to try to match what people think or what people are influenced to think with reality in very short timescales. That is going to be enormously difficult. The Civil Service needs to be thinking, "How the hell do we deal with that?"[26]

16.  The Civil Service Reform Plan recognised this challenge and stated "We will continue to need excellent policy managers within Departments, including to support Ministers in securing collective agreement and in translating all policy ideas into delivery".[27] The majority of the evidence supported this approach and witnesses stressed that leadership was important. Sciencewise suggested for example that "Government must take final responsibility for making fair and balanced policy decisions that are informed by a range of evidence, including from the public".[28]

17.  The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement stated that "there are significant cultural and professional challenges which will need to be addressed if the Civil Service is to embrace public engagement with the kind of strategic purpose it deserves".[29] Tom Steinberg, Director of MySociety, made similar comments, suggesting that "the primary failing that we have had is lots of experiments that are skin deep[...] behind the scenes the processes remain largely unchanged, which is very common".[30]

18.  Evidence suggested that those civil servants involved in policy development will need to change the overall approach to their role, which Catarina Tully predicted would evolve to become one of "a custodian or guardian of the process, at the heart of decision-making".[31] Stephan Shakespeare of YouGov argued that the future role of civil servants may be in "vouching for the fairness, inclusivity and the representativeness of the process".[32] Sciencewise referred to the support required to make this happen; "not enough thought has been given to including public engagement in training for policy-making and that it should be an integral part of what it means to be a policy-maker".[33]

19.  The culture shift that this new approach requires is not only applicable to civil servants but to Ministers, who will need to understand the need for engagement to become an integral part of day-to-day work. Catarina Tully suggested that "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".[34] She also told us:

If you want to understand what is causing barriers to civil servants doing this, I would propose it is two other things. It is not about capacity or stubbornness. It is about having the time to do this effectively and being rewarded for it; and also having the political space. This area is not addressed in the Civil Service Reform Plan, which is really problematic; it is not in the interests of politicians to open up to the risk of having a lot of this decided by constituencies. Until you address that, it will be very difficult to get civil servants to be open and do open policymaking as much as we want them to.[35]

Implementing new techniques in policy-making

20.  In September 2012 it was announced that the first contract under the new Contestable Policy Fund had been awarded to the Institute for Public Policy Research, who were asked to "carry out a review into how other civil services work, with a particular focus on accountability systems" in order to inform future Civil Service reform.[36] A number of leading think tanks, including Reform and the Institute for Government, declined to bid for the contract, citing ongoing similar work, a need for independence and the timescales proposed in the contract as their reasons.[37]

21.  There are international examples of open policy-making. In the New Zealand Parliament, for example, bills are directed to the relevant Select Committee after first reading, which then calls for the public to make submissions on the bill, hears evidence and recommends amendments to the House. The Committee reprints a copy of the bill alongside a report explaining the reasons for any recommended amendments based on the evidence gathered.[38] In the UK, formative efforts are being made to implement open policy-making, examples of which are summarised below. These, in our view, are good examples of how the Government has captured the wisdom and experience of those subject to, or affected by, regulation which so rarely occurs by means of traditional "consultation".

Open policy-making in Government

The Red Tape Challenge

In 2011, the Government launched the Red Tape Challenge which was designed to "crowd-source" views from business, organisations and the public on which regulations should be improved, kept "as is" or scrapped. A number of different areas of regulation were highlighted, and the public could submit views during a five week window for each, supported by "sector champions", who acted as a link between the sector and Government. These comments influenced the decisions to scrap or overhaul over 1,100 regulations (of the 2,300 examined by November 2012).

Care and Support White Paper and Draft Bill

In the summer of 2012 the Department of Health created two "dedicated engagement spaces to invite public comments on the draft Bill and explain the White Paper policies". People were able to comment publicly on individual clauses or answer questions by topic, or respond to other people's comments and generate discussion. A dedicated Twitter feed was also created, @caresupportbill, which summarised each clause in a tweet and influenced debate in social media (including triggering discussion in independent podcasts). The department aimed to "close the circle" by explaining how people's comments were influencing changes to the Bill.[39]

22.  The "Inside Government" area of GOV.UK currently gives individuals access to departmental information, policy, publications and consultations. The Government Digital Service website states:

This "get involved" layer will start small, with a simple explanation of what consultations and e-petitions are, and a way to see all the formal consultation papers from all the organisations who have moved to GOV.UK in a single list [...] we expect to be highlighting not only formal consultations but all the other ways citizens can participate with government, including opportunities for less formal digital engagement and the kinds of civic participation profiled by Number 10.[40]

We heard from Mike Bracken, Executive Director of the Government Digital Service, that the development of the GOV.UK website itself had been subject to significant open engagement and involvement. The first iteration of the website was developed with a small number of people, then tested with thousands, and improved on the basis of their feedback.[41]

23.  Overall the evidence we received was broadly supportive of the move to increase the scope of public engagement in policy-making. Stephan Shakespeare, CEO of YouGov said to us that:

I think the words and the intention of Government are clearly in the right direction here. The acknowledgement about open policy-making is to be welcomed; you know that the people behind this believe and care about it.[42]

24.  The proposals for both "open" and "contestable" policy-making demonstrate that Government recognises the value of public opinion in helping to identify problems and develop solutions. Open policy-making builds on the more traditional models of engagement and aims to put in place new ways of working with the citizen, who will become a valued partner in the policy-making process. We have, in previous Reports, supported and recommended greater public engagement and dialogue and we are pleased to see the Government is interested in this approach to policy development.

25.  To govern is to choose. Open policy-making should take debate outside Whitehall and into the community as a whole, but ultimate responsibility and accountability for leadership must remain with Ministers and senior civil servants. It will always be for Ministers to determine the overall strategy and key objectives of Government, such as for the limits of public spending or for the need to spend on less popular programmes, and civil servants will still be required to support Ministers in the tasks and thinking associated with that. This is important not only for ministerial accountability but supports the principle of representative democracy. We agree with the assertion in the Civil Service Reform Plan that Ministers should have the final say on whether to accept policy advice generated in this new way. There can be no substitute for Ministers' responsibility for Government policy and its outcomes.

26.  While it will always be for Ministers to determine the overall strategy and key objectives of Government, we believe that there is great potential for open and contested policy-making to deliver genuine public engagement. If the Government wants to maximise the benefits of this new approach to policy, it will mean far more than simply being an encyclopaedia of information, policy and guidance. We believe it will mean adopting an open source, or "wiki", approach to policy; that is one in which public opinion, ideas and contributions are sought and welcome at any and all stages of the policy cycle, continually to inform the strategy and policy of Government. In time, the Government should be able to demonstrate that it has adopted this approach if it is to be seen as moving away from old processes and embracing a new relationship with the citizen. Once again, we emphasise the importance of leadership in Government; of effective strategic thinking, which involves choosing between different arguments, reconciling conflicting opinions and arbitrating between different groups and interests; and of effective governance of departments and their agencies. A process of engagement, which can reach beyond the "Westminster village" and the "usual suspects", will itself be an act of leadership, but there can be no abdication of that leadership.

27.  If open policy-making is to succeed civil servants will need to integrate ongoing public engagement into "the day job". The Civil Service does not have a monopoly on policy-making but civil servants are well placed to act as the guardians of the policy process, ensuring representation, analysing, moderating and support must be given to help civil servants with the transition to this new way of working. Training on public engagement should be routinely included in wider policy development training and leadership programmes. This should include, for example, information on the benefits of engagement, tools and techniques, as well as analysis of evidence.

28.  Open policy-making requires Ministers to commit the time for public engagement and dialogue with groups and experts outside Whitehall. This is different from responding to media pressures and lobbying, which rarely enables Ministers to reach beyond the "Westminster village". Ministers will need to drive forward the necessary understanding within their departments to help this to happen. To support them in this, public engagement in open policy-making should be addressed in the induction programme for Ministers.

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

24   As above Back

25   Cabinet Office, Civil Service Reform Plan, June 2012, page 15 Back

26   Q 81 Back

27   Cabinet Office, Civil Service Reform Plan, June 2012, page 16  Back

28   Ev 49 Back

29   Ev 49 Back

30   Q 2 Back

31   Q 83 Back

32   Q 56 Back

33   Ev 49 Back

34   Ev 85 Back

35   Q 82 Back

36   Cabinet Office press notice, Government's first use of the Contestable Policy Fund, 18 September 2012,  Back

37   Institute for Government, Improving accountability - an urgent search without easy solutions, 17 September 2012; The Guardian, Thinktanks fear lack of independence in Cabinet Office tender, 3 September 2012 Back

38   New Zealand Parliament, Parliament Brief: Select committees, How Parliament works fact sheets, Back

39   Cabinet Office, Government Digital Strategy, 6 November 2012 Back

40   Government Digital Service, What you won't see (yet) on Inside Government, 14 November 2012 Back

41   Q 91 Back

42   Q 2 Back

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Prepared 3 June 2013