Public engagement in policy-making - Public Administration Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

The current approach to policy-making

1.  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. (Paragraph 11)

Implementing new techniques in policy-making

2.  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. (Paragraph 24)

3.  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. (Paragraph 25)

4.  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. (Paragraph 26)

5.  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. (Paragraph 27)

6.  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. (Paragraph 28)

Addressing the risks

7.  All policy-making carries risks and the risks in open policy-making need to be accepted and addressed if it is to succeed. A failure to do so would exacerbate problems such as a lack of appetite for participation, disappointment arising from unrealistic expectations and the dominance of vested interests. They require appropriate measures to be put in place to mitigate them. The Government should undertake a risk analysis of open and contestable policy-making proposals in every case. This should set out the steps that will be taken to address the key risks identified. (Paragraph 30)

Inclusion, representation and vested interests

8.  Care must be taken to ensure that open policy-making processes are not dominated by those with vested interests, powerful lobbyists or "the usual suspects" who are aware of policy "opportunities". This is particularly true for contestable policy-making, in which one group or organisation will be tasked with providing recommendations to Government on a particular problem. As a minimum, contracts awarded through the contestable policy-making fund must require organisations to undertake appropriate public engagement and demonstrate this influenced its conclusions. (Paragraph 34)

Managing expectation about public engagement

9.  Where citizens are engaged in policy-making, the Government must manage their expectations about public engagement. Open policy-making should empower citizens and make them feel their time and contribution has been worthwhile. This means being clear about the purpose of engagement and the limits of what the process is intended to achieve, as well as providing feedback on the findings of engagement activity and the reasons for decisions taken as a result. Departments should ensure that a mechanism for feedback to the public is built into all engagement activity, including reasons why choices and decisions have been taken, based on the evidence available. (Paragraph 38)

Public appetite

10.  Citizens will be most likely to engage with Government if they believe they can make a real difference or where the issue affects them. We believe the Government has the difficult task of ensuring adequate public participation in open policy-making. Without this, the process will be of little value. The Government must take steps to build confidence in the open policy-making process and to ensure that participation is sufficient to make the exercise meaningful and worthwhile. (Paragraph 43)

Making the most of digital technology

11.  We share the view that digital technology has a significant role to play in opening up policy-making. It has the potential to allow those citizens who are digitally enabled to interact with the Government in new ways, as well as to allow the Government to expand its reach in a cost effective way. The Government is making progress in its approach to using digital technology, but we believe that digital engagement for the purposes of policy-making could go further and embrace radical and innovative approaches which support the genuine and continuing involvement of citizens in policy. The Peer-to-Patent project, in which experts collaborated on patent applications for the US patent office, is an excellent example of innovation which not only allowed citizens to contribute their knowledge, but also reduced the backlog of applications within the department. The lesson of this success appears to arise from the fact that the objectives and limitations of the process of engagement were clear and understood. We recommend that departments pilot a similar approach in order to test its effectiveness across different areas of policy and with different sections of the public. (Paragraph 50)

12.  In order to use digital technology effectively in open policy-making, digital experts within the Civil Service and outside should work more closely with policy teams to explore opportunities for digital engagement and to provide support in carrying out digital engagement activity. For example, the Department of Energy and Climate Change could trial the use of eBay, Amazon and supermarket websites to open up the Green Deal and allow residents to access this offer through established retail channels. The same approach could be tried using the Right To Buy, and the Help To Buy programmes. (Paragraph 51)

13.  A number of digital infrastructures, such as Twitter, are already well established and well used by citizens. In most circumstances, there may be no need to recreate systems such as these in order to carry out open policy-making activity. Wherever possible, the Government should use existing digital platforms to engage with citizens and to avoid "reinventing the wheel" or running costly parallel systems. (Paragraph 52)

The limitations of digital: other forms of engagement

14.  We support the use of digital technology in open policy-making, but it should not be used to the detriment of other forms of engagement. The proposals within the Civil Service Reform Plan do not appear to give equal weight to other forms of engagement in open policy-making. We are concerned that given the proportion of some groups that do not use the internet, such as the disabled and elderly, the Government risks excluding many people from policy-making process. There are ways of compensating for this imbalance, but it is essential to use other forms of engagement as well. The Government should be able to demonstrate that digital methods used in engagement exercises are suited to the needs of those they are trying to engage. Concrete goals should be set, relative to the importance of digital platforms in peoples' lives. For example, if 50% of Britons have a Facebook account, Whitehall interactivity via Facebook should reflect this. Clear guidance should be set for the wider public sector. (Paragraph 57)

Measuring success

15.  There are different ways in which the success and impact of public engagement in policy-making can be measured, from the perspectives of both those who have taken part in and those who have conducted the engagement exercise. We are concerned that the Government has not given more thought to measuring the impact of open policy-making, and that it will not be able to demonstrate value for money and improved outcomes in this new approach. Being able to do so is essential, particularly in a time of austerity where spending is rigorously examined and activities judged on the difference they make for citizens. While we recognise that it is not an easy task, some form of measurement or assessment needs to take place. The Government should come forward with details of how the success of engagement efforts across departments will be measured. These indicators or measurements, and the progress against them, should be shared between departments and made available in the Cabinet Office annual business plan. (Paragraph 64)

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2013
Prepared 3 June 2013