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Can government really make policy by Twitter?

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan June 4, 2013
Digital government needs to shake off the sham consultations exercises with citizens and use wikis and Twitter to create genuine engagement with the electorate.

Digital government needs to shake off the sham consultations exercises with citizens and use wikis and Twitter to create genuine engagement with the electorate.

That's the conclusion of a new UK government report from the influential House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) which recommends a "wiki" approach to policy-making, whereby public opinion, ideas and contributions can be, and are, sought at any stage of the policy-making process.

The PASC report - Public Engagement in Policy Making - criticises what it sees as flaws and shortcomings in the current model of policy making across government, including:

  • 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.
  • Policy is often developed with insufficient input from those who will have to implement it.

What's critically missing is genuine engagement with the public, replaced all too often by meaningless consultation exercises whereby public opinion is only sought "after the government has already determined a course of action".

Stephan Shakespeare, Chief Executive Officer of YouGov, suggested to the Committee:

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.

Best practice

Digital technologies can be powerful enablers for that engagement, argues the PASC in its report, citing two prime examples, one from the UK and one from the US, to substantiate its case.

The UK example came from the London Borough of Redbridge's YouChoose initiative which used a web-based tool to present to Redbridge residents a simplified version of the Council’s budget areas and a series of graphical “sliders”. Users could adjust the budget with the sliders, but had to always achieve a balanced budget.

The information produced was analysed and presented to elected Councillors, who retained the responsibility for making final decisions.

In written evidence to the PASC, the Council stated that the consultation results and the final budget decisions about savings were broadly similar but, had they not been then:

politicians would have had to change their policy or explain why an unpopular decision was the right one.

In the US, the US Patent Office ran a pilot scheme called Peer to Patent that enabled interested members of the public to expand the resources of the Patent Office in finding examples of “prior art” i.e. public information that might be used to decide a patent's claims of originality.

The PASC notes:

To tackle the backlog of certain types of patent, those applying for patents were incentivised to take part by the possibility of faster consideration of their own application, but they had to bear the risk that it might be seen by competitors.

Small groups of users worked on each patent application, and members of the group could indicate or vote on each other’s contributions according to whether they found them useful and constructive.

This enabled the Patent Examiner, who retained responsibility for making the final decision, to sift the highest quality contributions from the rest, and to keep the amount of information supplied manageable. It also enabled the group to police itself and, for example, identify any attempts by the applicant’s competitors posing as reviewers to undermine the application.

Splitting the jobs of researching, commenting and comparing prior art also kept the workload for any one individual manageable, and reduced the risk of one person or group acting together to “capture” the process.

Commodity items

Professor Beth Noveck

Professor Beth Noveck, former US Deputy Chief Technology officer and author of Wiki- Government, told the PASC that:

The cost of using things like Facebook and Twitter, and building that into the daily work of press operations and whatnot, is relatively low. They are excellent ways of broadcasting out and reaching people in the same way we use television, radio, newspaper or other traditional media. For other kinds of collective action, or organising other kinds of processes, we do need some purpose-built tools.

But while the enabling digital and social technologies are readily available, the skills necessary to exploit and deploy them effectively are not.

Mike Bracken, executive director at the UK's Government Digital Service (GDS), explained:

Some [government] departments and some big agencies have outsourced so much of their capacity over the last decade that they have no one to define their own technology architecture and also their digital skills.

GDS is attempting to address this, as Bracken explained:

In the Ministry of Justice, right now we are helping the digital leader create a digital centre at the heart of that Department.

There is also the danger of digital exclusion among certain groups in society, defeating the purpose of engaging with many critical demographics. This is being tackled in the UK by the efforts of Martha Lane-Fox, Baroness of Soho, but the digital divide remains perilously wide.

Professor Kathy Sykes warned the PASC:

If digital platforms are the only way people can participate, some people will be left out. At times, some of those very people, whether the elderly, or disabled, will be some of the most important, valuable voices to hear.

Caution needed

This leads the PASC to recommend that while it supports the use of digital technology in open policy-making in general, this should not be at the detriment of other forms of engagement.

It goes on to criticise proposals within the UK government's Civil Service Reform Plan on the basis that they:

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.

The PASC also recommends closer links between public and private sectors:

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.

And whatever happens, there should be no attempt to not use existing commodity offerings. The committee observes:

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.

It all makes relatively straightforward sense, although the use of Twitter as a policy-making instrument will have the leader writers at the UK tabloids foaming at the mouth.


Mike Bracken of the UK Government Digital Service

There are however practical difficulties that need to be addressed as GDS' Bracken pointed out in his evidence:

The challenge is that the elongated process of policy-making, which currently then hands over to an elongated process of delivery, does not really work too well for digital products and services, which are often developed and created daily, based on user feedback.

Many of the services that we all use in our personal lives outside of government are created in this way, such as buying books, aeroplane tickets and all the rest of it. They are based on a process we call iterative feedback: you launch a product and service; you watch how people are using it; and you learn from that and feed that back in.

That is a good example of the challenge we face, because that is a cultural challenge to the time-cycle of our policy development, which then meets the long-term delivery problems. By the time we have come out of the delivery cycle, the user demands have often changed fundamentally from the point at which we started.

All told, an interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying report in so far as it raises many good points, but counters them with as many cautionary notes.

At the end of the day, the entire culture of policy-making needs to change and that could well require a generational shift to bring it about. As GDS' Bracken observed:

One thing that we should recognise is that this generation of people, these younger people who have these digital skills, generally have, in my experience—and I have worked with them for 20 years—a high degree of social interest and a high degree of willingness to serve the public good. They are, to my mind, a good example of the next generation of civil servants, because they generally want to make public services better.


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