The new default: what can we learn from efforts to open up policy making
The closed Whitehall policy process has exceeded its best before date if the Civil Service Reform Plan is to be taken seriously. The drafters agreed that Whitehall does not have a monopoly of policy wisdom and that the process will benefit from becoming more porous. The plan suggests various ways policy making can be made more collaboratively – crowdsourcing which we discussed in January; the creation of policy labs, creation of cross-departmental teams and involving delivery experts early in the policy process.
Emily Miles explored the potential for more collaborative policy and delivery in her Inside Out publication last year. Our new study, Opening Out Policy Making, looks in depth at the way the government used a “practitioner advisory group” of a planning expert, a housebuilder, an environmentalist and a local authority leader to produce a draft version of the national planning policy framework. It also examines other models governments have used such as reviews like Turner and Vickers, crowdsourcing and the establishment of the Animal Health and Welfare Board for England by Defra – which brings in outsiders to work with departmental officials to advise ministers inside the department. We also look at the models for policy labs – Sitra in Finland and MindLab in Denmark as well as the Australian Productivity Commission – an arm’s-length body which the Government can call on to do policy reviews.
Our verdict is that these models all have the potential to add value, if used well but that none are without their potential drawbacks and that there is no one model which will fit all policy questions. Our study of the PAG suggests that opening up policy making requires civil servants and ministers to develop the same sorts of commissioning skills that they need when they open up public services. In particular, we argue the PAG process would have benefited from:
• Greater clarity on its remit and more transparency about the selection process
• Clearer plans for handling its outputs and in particular its status in relation to the final “official version”
• More opportunity for other interested parties to benefit from the ’inside‘ advice the PAG was getting.
While the PAG process was good at getting four outsiders to make the sort of trade-offs government usually has to make, the rationale and evidence base for the choices they made was not clear, as no supporting argumentation was produced alongside the draft.
Our verdict is that this was a worthwhile attempt to do something different – but one that the government needs to learn from. Just as it is important to learn from policy experiments, as the government tries different methods of opening up and collaboration it needs to build its understanding of what works when and how.