05 July 2012

The Civil Service Reform Plan commits to making open policy making ’the default‘.  Our new study shows it has its benefits – but should not be regarded as a panacea. To make the most of it, civil servants (and ministers) need to know learn from experience.

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.


Having just spent 2½ years* failing to get the Home Office to publish a report – on the reliability of biometrics, as it happens – I expect there to be a long delay before openness becomes the default in Whitehall policy-making.

With the introduction over the past 30 years of outsourcing, private sector personnel and private sector methodologies, anyone would expect Whitehall prices to be driven down and quality driven up. It hasn’t happened. Competition isn’t working.

Why not?

Something must be missing from the recipe. Some ingredient. But what ingredient?

Openness, is my guess. And Whitehall doesn’t do openness. Secrecy is built in. Retention is automatic. Permanent secretaries are “secretaries”, and not “publishers” or “disclosers”, they avoid accountability by keeping secrets and it takes an exceptional effort for the public to extract information from them.

The delay foreseen in the first paragraph above will be long and battle-strewn. The campaign must nevertheless be fought and victory for default openness will be good not only for the public but even – if only the secretaries could/would grasp the point – for Whitehall.


* http://dematerialisedid.com/bcsl/foi.html

If it's written down in a government policy statement, it is almost certainly not a new idea. Open policy making and the break down of the Whitehall monopoly on policy advice has been a developing fact since before Tony Blair came to power. Jill may remember bringing in external advisers to the Local Finance Review in 1985. Certainly the process is not complete and there are lessons to be learned from bits that went right and those that went wrong.

It seems to me one essential for the further development of open policy making is a set of agreed standards for the policy making process covering standards of evidence, option appraisals, impact assessments, consultation and monitoring as a minimum. Without that we risk policy making being even more subject to hijack by lobby groups and vested interests.

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